1990 was the year Tony Scott broke. Or, at the very least, it was the year that best defined the subsequent shape of Scott’s spectacular body of big-budget genre work: a discursive collection comprised of both high-octane thrills and horrific pulp violence. To wit, 1990 is the year that presented the vulgar auteur exemplar’s oeuvre in miniature.
Of course, Scott was already an in-demand ace, having cut his teeth behind the camera courtesy of the massive commercial factory his big brother Ridley co-founded during the late 1960s (RSA: Ridley Scott Associates). Producing and directing spots for bougie clients ranging from Chanel to Saab, Tony got rich while honing his own distinctive style in 30-second bursts. Yet he wanted more, having witnessed his sibling’s rise to silver-screen fame via stylish sci-fi classics Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982).
Enter Jerry Bruckheimer. Bored by the classical style that dominated Hollywood blockbusters, Bruckheimer yearned to change the popcorn-cinema game, partnering with visionaries such as Michael Mann (Thief, 1981), Paul Schrader (Cat People, 1982), and Adrian Lyne (Flashdance, 1984) to begin crafting a new wave of idiosyncratic adult entertainments. Beverly Hills Cop (1984) practically blew the doors off the industry for Bruckheimer, who gained a new level of notoriety after he lured standup/SNL superhero Eddie Murphy into the action-movie arena.
Despite blaming the picture’s “artiness” for keeping those same studio doors closed to him for years, Scott’s David Bowie vampire picture, The Hunger (1983), is as beautifully haunting as any feature debut in film history. Equal parts Bauhaus and billowing curtains, it ushers the Universal monster into the MTV age, announcing Tony as a prime-time talent to watch. It would take three more years, but Bruckheimer would finally recruit the RSA refugee to helm the cultural phenomenon that was Top Gun (1986).
Top Gun is an American action masterpiece, boiling down the reckless exploits of Maverick (Tom Cruise, elevating himself to emblematic status) as he navigates the danger zone that is U.S. Naval flight school. The cliched way to backhandedly knock that movie is to label it “the greatest military recruitment tool ever committed to the big screen.” But that’s like docking a Double Quarter Pounder for being “a cheese-slathered fast-food delight.” Scott had re-tooled pop cinema in his own image, and there was no looking back for either the artist or the form.
In an act of anointment, Bruckheimer gave Beverly Hills Cop II (1987) to Scott, and the director not only flexed his visual muscles, layering a hazy stratum of anti-realism over the pedestrian construction of Martin Brest’s original, but went as far as to slap the name of his star’s production company over Murphy’s Speedo-clad cock. It’s practically a literal dick-measuring contest, as Axel Foley’s second LA shootout is gigantic, establishing the “bigger is better” formula that would come to define action sequels for decades.
Smash Cut To 1990. It would be the first and only year in Scott’s career where he delivered two films. The more popular of the pair was Days of Thunder (1990): another Bruckheimer-backed summer blast the elevator pitch for which was probably “Top Gun, but with cars.”
Yet the defining feature that year actually came (and failed) first. Released in February, almost five months before Days, Revenge is the inaugural bit of brutal cinema in a long line of grimy yarns that would make up the meat of Tony Scott’s non-blockbuster output. A passion project of John Huston’s that the legendary director could never get off the ground, on paper the simple logline of a grounded Naval pilot (Kevin Costner) beginning a torrid affair with a Mexican kingpin’s wife (Madeline Stowe), only to find himself on the receiving end of the Patron’s (Anthony Quinn) rage, seems like nothing special. But in the languid rhythms of candlelit sex and gnarly violence, Scott discovers primitive poetry. It’s the closest he has ever come to aping Sam Peckinpah, which probably explains why Quentin Tarantino has notoriously hailed Revenge as Scott’s “masterpiece.”
Speaking of Tarantino, in the underseen indie relationship comedy Sleep With Me (1994), the motor-mouthed writer/director/actor delivers a (now notorious) monologue about how Top Gun is little more than a parable about closeted homosexual desire. Why bring this up now? Well, because Revenge plays like a stealth sequel to Maverick’s original exploits, only this time the pilot quits playing with boys, drives down to Alfredo Garcia country, and has his ass handed to him for acting like an “ugly American.”
The bond between Tiburon “Tibey” Mendez (Quinn) and retired Air Force ace Michael “Jay” Cochran (Costner) is one built almost entirely around masculine one-upmanship. A cruder way to put it: It’s another one of Scott’s cinematic dick-measuring contests. Still, it doesn’t matter how many ‘Nam missions Jay flew or that Cochran once saved Tibey’s life on a hunting trip or that he can handily help the Patron beat a pair of haughty diplomats in doubles tennis. Because the one thing Tibey has that the pilot doesn’t is power. Jay is a stranger in a strange land, his gringo pride constantly clashing with Mexico’s old-school sense of macho entitlement. And were it not for Tibey coddling the man like a reckless son, his associates would no doubt have the soldier killed for glib insults slung across the table at a Gothically lit gathering.
Every powerful man requires a status symbol on his arm, and Miryea (Stowe) is Tibey’s hourglass-figured trophy, looking forlorn even behind Ray-Ban shades*. That’s because Tibey’s beautiful young thing can feel her biological clock ticking, but the aging patriarch isn’t about to ruin the girl’s gorgeous body with a baby. Besides, Tibey already fathered a dozen children before meeting Miryea, so his legacy is sealed. It’s a mindset of casual misogyny that Jay shares to a degree, as when she and the flyboy begin to dance around one another — crafting erotic lemonade before taking long strolls on the beach with the gringo’s golden retriever — Cochran barely has time to lend an ear to the woman’s lament.
Tony Scott insisted that Revenge isn’t a love story, instead referring to it as “a fuck story.” Jay and Miryea find solace between one another’s legs, reclaiming their vitality as human beings while the Patron dances at a party down below. Scott lets his camera linger on the lovers’ intertwined bodies, embracing a softcore pornographer’s sensibilities as these paramours plot their own great escape amid explosive orgasms. Afterwards, the soldier immediately realizes his mistake: “I never wanted to love you,” he tells Miryea. Unfortunately, what they don’t know is that Tibey’s right hand (Italian exploitation legend Tomas Milian) isn’t about to let his employer be disgraced by this white, interloping asshole.
The unbridled nature of this affair bleeds into the violence that befalls Jay and Miryea, as Tibey and his thugs catch up with them at Cochran’s cabin. What ensues is a punishment that would make the Wild Bunch wince, as they beat the pilot to a bloody pulp, leave his broken body in the desert, cut Miryea’s face with a switchblade, and sell her to a whorehouse. Nevertheless, Scott is able to discover a beauty in barbarity as his regular cinematographer, Jeffrey Kimball, artfully abstracts the wanton cruelty.
An American flag burns with the rest of the wooden shack, smoke billowing toward the heavens. A cat-house bedroom becomes a baroque gypsy menagerie. A desert hut? The shamanic healing station where ancient rites revive a seemingly expired soul. It’s no wonder the cameraman would end up working with John Woo during his American run (including the woefully undervalued Windtalkers, ‘02), as both directors recognize the innate splendor of screen violence.
A migrant worker (Joaquín Martínez) nurses Jay back to health before he hits the road with an ailing cowboy (James Gammon). A shady, leather-clad local (Miguel Ferrer) and his hard-ass mountain-man cousin (John Leguizamo) track Miryea down, warning all along that Cochran may not recognize the woman he finds there. Meanwhile, the destroyed mistress gazes as the horizon, finding comfort only in the dog tags she grips as a trans prostitute pumps smack into her veins.
Where most stories of comeuppance frame the actual acts of retribution as cathartic, Scott’s Revenge is never anything less than mournfully horrific. Unlike Tarantino’s Kill Bill (’02) or Inglourious Basterds (’09), there’s nothing “fun” or satisfying about Cochran’s path of seemingly inevitable destruction, which can only leave his former best friend dead in the dirt. And, to be frank, what does it even matter if he rescues Miryea from being ravaged over and over again in that den of sin? Jay’s “heroism” merely alleviates his own guilt over having helped create this heinous predicament. There’s a chilling nihilism to Scott’s film that’s only slightly alleviated by its moralistic bent. Not to be too on the nose, but these two made their bed and now they have to sleep in it while it burns.
For those wanting to experience Revenge, the theatrical cut (relegated to standard-def DVD and a lower resolution stream) is the only way to go. The 2007 Director’s Cut loses 20 minutes and, along with those excisions, the film’s soul, hurrying through Jay and Miryea’s tryst before colliding headfirst into nasty violence. The theatrical cut lingers uncomfortably in a way that allows you to experience both the passion the lovers feel for each other, as well as the pain it causes Tibey (who’s much more of a rounded human being in the longer edit).
QT credits Revenge as being the reason he became comfortable with Tony slipping behind the camera for his first Hollywood screenplay sale, True Romance (1993)**. Scott’s sudden flashes of ruthless violence and self-affected sense of “cool” make him a perfect fit for the wild story of Clarence Worley and his new wife, Alabama.
Without Revenge, it’s arguable that Scott would have never gotten a taste for his particular brand of cinematic bloodlust, and that not only True Romance, but a slew of grimy big budget transmissions, wouldn’t exist. Robert De Niro’s deranged knife salesman probably wouldn’t have stalked Wesley Snipes’ star San Francisco ballplayer in The Fan (1996). Denzel Washington – who became Scott’s greatest collaborator during the 1990s – more than likely wouldn’t have been cutting off drug dealers’ fingers or shoving bombs up corrupt cops’ asses in fellow Mexican nightmare, Man on Fire (2004). And the crank-cam acid trip of Domino (2005) most certainly wouldn’t have happened, warping our brains as we road-trip in an RV to meet a ghost-like Tom Waits in the desert.
Hell, you could probably even make a case for Revenge’s influence seeping into the DNA of Scott’s Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) remake, as John Travolta gives yet another outlandish performance, screaming about prison rape as he takes a whole city hostage. Yes, Revenge was one of the director’s lowest financial performers, but something clearly clicked in Scott’s brain afterwards, and cinema was all the better for it.
When Tony Scott took his own life, jumping from Los Angeles’ Vincent Thomas Bridge in 2012, cinephiles the world over mourned the loss of one of the true pulp visionaries of his time. Not many filmmakers can claim that they helped change the face of moviemaking entirely, so the fact that Scott did so while walking two distinct paths within his own filmography places him in a category all his own. The very next year, Ridley released The Counselor (’13), a bleak Cormac McCarthy-penned exploration of the hopeless moral decay that exists within Mexico’s drug cartels. Production on that picture began just a month before his brother’s tragic end, and the movie was subsequently dedicated to Tony. Still, even if the Top Gun virtuoso hadn’t snuffed the flame on his mortal torch, The Counselor would still feel spiritually linked with Revenge, diving into the insect politics that govern the diseased minds and bodies of these clandestine operators. In a sense, the Scott brothers came full circle, with Ridley tipping his cap to his sibling protégé. It’s just a shame they both weren’t around to witness such a gloriously depraved show of respect.
*Tony may be the only filmmaker who rivals Michael Mann in terms of skillfully filming beautiful actors stoically staring into the middle distance while donning designer sunglasses.
**Though, to be frank, QT’s story has morphed into the usual bit of self-mythologizing over the years, going from being “comfortable” to actively “pushing” to get Scott in the director’s chair. Only problem with the latter version of the story: How many first-time screenwriters can you think of have had any sway on who directs their break-in bit of writing?