Tony Scott, with megaphone, directing a scene from the remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 at a decommissioned subway station in Brooklyn in 2009
Tony Scott, who died on Sunday at 68, apparently from suicide, was one of the most influential film directors of the past 25 years, if also one of the most consistently and egregiously under loved by critics.
One of the pop futurists of the contemporary blockbuster, he helped turn Tom Cruise into a megastar with the 1986 smash "Top Gun" and was instrumental in transforming Denzel Washington, over the course of five movies they made together - beginning with the locked-jaw masculinities of Crimson Tide (1995) and ending with the working-class heroics of Unstoppable (2010) - into a global brand. Mr. Scott made a lot of people rich and even more people happy with his enjoyably visceral work.
Mr. Scott effectively began his film career in the early 1960s by acting in a student effort, Boy and Bicycle, directed by his older brother Ridley Scott.
Their lives continued to overlap: Ridley attended the Royal College of Art, and Tony followed him there; after Ridley graduated and created his production company, Ridley Scott Associates, he hired his brother as an associate. Ridley tended to win better reviews; Tony regularly dominated the box office.
They built on the success of their commercials (Nike, etc.) and music videos (Madonna, et al.); established Scott Free Productions; bought the British film studio Shepperton; and directed and produced an array of entertainments.
Throughout, Tony Scott continued to make commercials, like the wonderfully funny extended-play "Beat the Devil," involving a driver (Clive Owen), the Devil (Gary Oldman) and an old musician looking to renew a contract (James Brown himself).
Advertising was the creative playground where the Scott brothers - and other British filmmakers, like the directors Alan Parker and Adrian Lyne, and the producer David Puttnam - honed their skills before going to Hollywood.
The movies of this particular British invasion cut across genres and subjects, and ranged from the vulgar to the visionary. What they shared was an emphasis on striking visuals that translated ideas (like sex) into sleek, eye-grabbing images that could also work for the marketing. It was a talent that served the industry's reliance on high-concept strategies - slick visuals, marketing hooks and simple narratives - or what the film theorist Justin Wyatt nicely calls "the look, the hook and the book."
One such film was Tony Scott's debut feature, The Hunger (1983), a contemporary vampire tale with David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve as a pair of the beautiful undead. (Susan Sarandon joins them amid the billowing curtains.)
The movie was predictably slammed, with the critic John Simon mocking its "totally effete interior decorator sensibility," which of course was exactly part of its appeal.
The same year that "The Hunger" hit, the producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, inspired by some magazine imagery of a so-called Top Gun flight school at a Southern California naval station, had a billion-dollar idea. "It was a picture of a helmet with the visor down, and a plane reflected in the visor," Mr. Bruckheimer said of the crystallizing image, which needed a crack advertising man like Tony Scott to sell it.
And sell it Mr. Scott did with fast editing, faster jets, a bottle-blond astrophysicist (Kelly McGillis) and a linchpin rivalry about two absurdly named pilots, Maverick (Mr. Cruise) and Iceman (Val Kilmer). Years later Quentin Tarantino, in a hilarious on-screen bit in the 1994 indie film Sleep With Me, would argue, as a rabid film freak channeling his inner Pauline Kael, that Top Gun was "about a man's struggle with his own homosexuality," an analysis-endorsement that boosted Mr. Scott's cinema cred.
Right around the same time, Mr. Scott directed one of his best films, from Mr. Tarantino's script for True Romance (1993), an often funny, frenzied thriller. Mr. Tarantino counted himself as one of its fans, despite reservations: "He uses a lot of smoke," he said of Mr. Scott, "and I don't want any smoke in my films."
A maximalist, Mr. Scott used a lot of everything in his movies: smoke, cuts, camera moves, color.
This kind of stylistic, self-conscious excess could be glorious, as in his under appreciated film Domino (2005), about a gorgeous bounty hunter (Keira Knightley), in which the superfluity of the visuals matches that of Richard Kelly's screenplay.
A common knock against a director like Mr. Scott is that his movies are all style and no content, as if the two were really separable. Yet the excesses of Mr. Scott's style invariably served those of his over-the-top stories, like that of the enflamed title avenger (Mr. Washington) in Man on Fire (2004), who - amid the saturated palette, liquid slow motion and a hailstorm of bullets - vows that "anyone who gets in my way, I'm gonna kill him."
I met Mr. Scott in 1998 while working on an article about Mr. Bruckheimer. Once again, that producer tapped Mr. Scott as director, this time for one of the best films of their careers, Enemy of the State, about a lawyer (Will Smith), who stumbles onto a bloody political conspiracy.
I sat in on a meeting with Mr. Scott and several other principals, including one of the uncredited screenwriters, Henry Bean. I don't remember much from the meeting other than Mr. Scott's flowery vest, shorts and palpable physical presence - he reminded me of a spinning top - which instilled the meeting with an intense, nervous vibrance. He seemed surprisingly shy, but maybe that's because there was a critic in the room.
© 2012, The New York Times News Service