Deja Vu (Scott, 2006)

The only Tony Scott film I can think of that successfully melds his shotgun bang aesthetics with potent, carefully observed human themes (guilt, remorse, revenge, longing, loneliness… the beat goes on). Watching the opening credit sequence, in which a ferry load of soldiers and their families are decimated by a titanic bomb blast, I couldn’t help but see Scott as a humanist, not as a showman. It’s strange to write this about such a director normally obsessed with surface visuals, but all the proof you need is in Denzel’s facial expressions, his brilliant mix of shock, sadness, and professional resolve. This might be one of the strangest and most beguiling Hollywood films ever, an example of hop-skip-and-a jump cinema that actually has something to say about the contradictions of fate.

The Manchurian Candidate (Demme, 2004)

Jonathan Demme’s scathing remake of The Manchurian Candidate is one of those rare films that gets better with age, growing more politically poignant with each exposed cover-up, corrupt politician, and devastating corporate malfeasance. Upon it’s 2004 release, the film seemed too paranoid, maybe even loony for digging so relentlessly into the wide-ranging corruption choking democracy in the post-9/11 Bush-age. Now, Demme’s dynamic and often brilliant thriller feels like one of the most relevant films of the last decade, a diabolical examination of a cracking national ideology that’s not paranoid enough.

From the waving American flag pushing the opening credits into oblivion, Demme positions devoted but conflicted Army Officer Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) on the fringes of disjointed perception and horrifying reality. Marco’s quest to find the truth is more about alleviating his own interior monologue than unveiling an international act of treason, but the evolution of his momentum inevitably begins to represent a growing national outrage. Ideological symbols and political platforms construct a distrustful landscape brimming with faux nationalism, shunning the American everyman in favor of global power. The razor-sharp pacing, the nuanced mirror performances by Washington and Liev Schreiber, and Demme’s schizophrenically reflective mise-en-scene organically feed into Tak Fujimoto’s river of sharp hues, creating a cinematic stained-glass window awash in menacing red, white, and blues.

The Manchurian Candidate confronts the very essence of what it means to be a conflicted American in the modern age, the varying degrees of devotion to country and self and the greedy capitalistic center controlling us all. But Demme’s film isn’t anti-capitalism or anti-government, just pro-justice. The Manchurian Candidate is one of the few genuinely entertaining and sophisticated Hollywood films that is also a political manifesto on corporate greed and manipulation, a dual level for those willing to measure morality on film. But beneath the technical genius lies a brimming anger for the smug indifference of those willing and able to live in a selfish fantasy of their own design, a veritable Candyland hallowed by the real “evildoers”. For this telling dichotomy, Demme’s textural powder keg is nothing short of revelatory.

The Book of Eli (Hughes Brothers, 2010)

As a not-so-subtle religious parable, The Book of Eli treads on dreadfully serious ground, putting the salvation of post-apcalyptic Earth in the hands of a wondering Western samurai. Denzel Washington plays the titular ronin Eli with honest poise and conviction, traversing this laughably violent world as if he’s the second coming (and he might very well be).

The arid landscapes are clogged with contorted metal wreckage, dead bodies, and ravaging gangs of thieves/rapists, framed by the constant lethal glow of the sun. Director brothers Allen and Albert Hughes bring their love for roving camera movement to The Book of Eli, an aesthetic that works best during the dynamic action sequences.

But the story itself is fraught with inanity, especially a subplot between Eli and a Solara (Mila Kunis), a young woman who bonds with the warrior and inexplicably turns into a badass by simple symbiosis. This small plot point ends up submerging the entire ending, rendering the whole “passing the torch” scenario completely moot. Still, there’s enough energy and skill with The Book of Eli to label it as a mixed bag, a sometimes engaging action film hindered by thematic posturing.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (Scott, 2009)

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The excruciating and infuriating Domino appears to be the apex of Tony Scott’s cinema of inanity, a striking critique against the director’s mind-numbing visual style and love for fast-pasted, fractured editing. Deja Vu finds Scott in a sort of toned-down visual purgatory, a place of maddening compression yet intriguing potential, where the hypnotic colors of New Orleans and the time-structured plot offer some semblance of purpose within the cinematic space. Sure, Scott still jams the frame with snazzy visual tricks and audio cues, but at least he’s attempting to construct a coherent narrative arc in the process. There’s tension rooted in the drama and it merges with Scott’s frantic image, at times providing an engaging window into the director’s vision of a modern disjointed world.

If Deja Vu offered some hope Scott was trying to use his style to compliment story and character, his remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 dispenses that momentum quickly, leading the viewer into an anticlimactic cat and mouse game streamlined by his aforementioned auteurist tendencies. During the frenzied opening credit sequence, Scott swirls around NYC combining fast motion, slow motion, and endless variations in between as if his camera is being flushed down the preverbal toilet. This satellite inspired omniscient eye does nothing to advance the film in any way, except to nail home the fact that this is a Tony Scott film. As the tatted high-jacker (John Travolta) and  MTA dispatcher (Denzel Washington) battle out their way with words, Scott occasionally warps back into this visual framework, juggling the interiors of the train, tunnel, and even the command center of the MTA as if they were cavernous labyrinths of cinematic possibility. But as usual, it’s all for show, no substance, no mentality, no point. These characters exist primarily for Scott to manipulate the frame in the same tired way he’s be doing for going on a decade, and finding any entertainment, let alone subtext in this mashed world of hyper-kinetic movement is getting harder and harder.

The Great Debaters (Washington, 2007)

Give director Denzel Washington credit for tackling some heavy imagery, especially since the film’s young adult protagonists witness these horrific acts of brutality suddenly and without warning. Lasting visual trauma’s become an interesting narrative core for an otherwise standard and safe offering, one that neither threatens the status quo of Hollywood biopics nor completely falls prey to their linear views of history.

The Siege (Zwick, 1998)

Art imitating a nightmare reality, unknowingly representing a true future. Set in a pre-9/11 NYC, The Siege follows F.B.I. agent Anthony Hubbard (Denzel Washington) and his counter-terrorism unit as they attempt to uncover a number of deadly sleeper cells in New York City. Zwick’s film also involves the C.I.A. (spook Annette Benning) and the military (General Bruce Willis), blatantly revealing how each arm of the government can unmask and undermine the other in this modern War on Terror. The Siege has a traditional and unrewarding screenplay but reveals moments of eerie transcendence, fluctuating between 9/11 style sequences of mass panic and quiet, reflective ones of government officials feeling impotent to the threat. Edward Zwick defines mainstream directing, letting his actors discover their unchanging character roles and live exactly as they should within this environment. However, The Siege dares (probably because no one could have imagined anything so bad in real life) to have epic terror sequences spelling out the gruesome human toll such attacks can have, and now have had on New York City. As Denzel approaches a bus with countless passengers taken hostage, we can see the determination and the confidence in his eyes, believing he can get those people to safety. When the bus disintegrates into a ball of fire, he knows and we know the real deal has hit the streets of America. It’s a haunting image of fiction which has become an all too familiar reality.