Let's try to take the measure of Sir Ridley Scott, who might now be described as Britain's most senior filmmaker, an elder statesman who might be forgiven for putting his feet up and puffing on that favourite cigar in his Provencal retreat. Seventy years old, he's showing no signs of slowing down.
In fact quite the opposite – he made ten films between 1977 (his debut, The Duellists) and 1997 (GI Jane), and he's about to embark on his ninth of the new millennium – Nottingham, with Russell Crowe playing both Robin Hood and the Sheriff (he drew the line at Maid Marian). Over the same period, his contemporary Alan Parker has made… The Life of David Gale.
There may be various reasons for this increased pace. Perhaps Sir Rid hit 60 and realised he only had so many years left. Or maybe it just reflects how much easier things get on the back of a worldwide, multiple-Oscar-winning smash like Gladiator (2000). If that success put the wind behind his back, Scott has exploited it to the max, forging a powerful, mutually beneficial bond with Crowe, and forcing through several ambitious, commercially "dicey" pictures like Black Hawk Down and Kingdom of Heaven.
Like those movies, this week's thriller Body of Lies reflects the great clash of Western and Arabic civilizations – it's his fourth film to shoot predominantly in Morocco (another, Tripoli, has been on his to-do list for some years now). There's nothing in the first half of his career to suggest an interest in politics. In the 80s he was seen – and mostly disparaged – as a visual stylist whose obsession with surface came at the price of story and character. His limitations when it came to working with actors were widely discussed – not least by the actors themselves – though he always had good enough instincts to cast strongly, as a glance at Alien shows.
Now that Alien, Blade Runner and Thelma and Louise are all considered modern classics, it's hard to see where the negativity came from – but when it first came out there were plenty of people who thought Alien was just a glorified slasher movie; Blade Runner was a flop… Thelma and Louise was the first Scott movie to get (mostly) good reviews across the board.
Why has the status of these films changed? You could say it's because the films themselves have changed – Blade Runner, in particular, has undergone considerable modification in director's cut editions of various vintages. But it was already well on the way to reevaluation before the first reedit arrived in the early 1990s. I think in 1982 when it first came out, most audiences didn’t really buy into Scott's vision of the future: mega corporations presiding over multi-ethnic squalor, technology erasing the boundaries between man and machine. It’s become harder to dismiss with every passing year.
Perhaps more importantly, Scott's signature style – that painstakingly detailed, highly art-directed, frequently backlit sheen – has become the dominant fashion, not only in Hollywood movies but also in marketing, magazines, and across popular culture in music videos and TV series like CSI.
Scott didn't invent this look on his own of course – he had help from other graduates of the British advertising industry, like brother Tony Scott, Alan Parker and Adrian Lyne. When it was taken up by producers like Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (who produced Tony Scott’s Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop) it spread like wildfire. If Ridley Scott looked superficial and glossy in comparison to the leading American filmmakers that came before – Scorsese, Friedkin, Coppola – he’s weighty and ambitious compared to most of the guys who followed in his footsteps: Michael Bay and Brett Ratner.
Intriguingly, Scott seems to be moving away from that high gloss style in his more recent films. American Gangster was a dirtier, dowdier film than he had done before, modeled, I imagine, after the films made in the period it was set (the early 70s). Body of Lies shows the influence of the Jason Bourne movies and Syriana.
Do the new films measure up to his best? Perhaps it's too early to tell. Hannibal was horrible, a redundant and tasteless sequel to Silence of the Lambs, though most of its problems were inherent in the book.
I have mixed feelings about Black Hawk Down, which is a stunning, visceral recreation of combat hell, but which is grossly inadequate in its attempts to imagine what the other side of the story might be like.
I didn’t hate A Good Year; it seemed quite palatable, even if “good” was pushing it. Sad to say Body of Lies is disappointing, though never less than professional. But American Gangster is better than it was given credit for – it’s just that it felt like we’d been here before. And maybe – just maybe – it was a mistake to beef up the Russell Crowe role, when Denzel Washington’s Frank Lucas was meaty enough to carry it single-handed.
That leaves Matchstick Men – fun but small – and Kingdom of Heaven. His crusades epic was received with indifference when it came out in cinemas, but Scott has admitted that he cut the theatrical version too drastically. The Director's Cut on DVD seems to me more complex and richer than Gladiator – but then again, I realise I'm in a minority when I say Gladiator left me cold. If Scott sees himself as the heir to David Lean – the director he credits with inspiring his passion for movies as a boy – then the full-length Kingdom of Heaven is the one that gets closest to the mark, it has spectacle, drama, terrific performances and political resonance. Maybe ten or 20 years down the line everyone will say so.
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