Ridley Scott’s is one of the most successful commercial Hollywood directors, currently working. From his early genre-defining sci-fi films – Alien and Blade Runner – through the feminist road movie – Thelma And Louise – to his latest successes – Gladiator and The Martian – Scott has proven himself time and again a supremely versatile and visual director, with an uncanny knack of hitting the zeitgeist before the zeitgeist knew what was coming. And yet for all the hits there have been some misses, although Scott has never had a genuine bomb – some of his lesser known.
THE DUELLISTS (1977) – Based on a Joseph Conrad short story, Scott’s feature debut was released in 1977 and won the best debut award at Cannes. Set during the Napoleonic wars, Scott takes the action scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. And makes it the whole film. Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel are two of the unlikeliest French soldiers ever – sporting a series of ridiculous moustaches and the names Gabriel Feraud and Armand d’Hubert, respectively – who get caught up in an obsessive series of duels, based on a trivial insult. The whole thing stands as a metaphor for the lunacy of warfare generally, but it more of an excuse for Scott to capture some sumptuous French landscape and atmospheric period interiors. The international success of his sophomore effort Alien somewhat eclipsed the reputation of The Duellists, but with the film Scott began a series of period movies which would culminate in the reinvention of the sword and sandal epic in Gladiator.
Watch it on CHILI: The Duellists
SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME (1987) – This stylish Gershwin-inspired noir harks back to an old Hollywood staple: the working-class cop protecting the high society lady witness. Never mind that it has a plotline that could have been a subplot from Hill Street Blues, Ridley Scott enjoys the opportunity to film a contemporary thriller in New York. Tom Berenger – trying (unsuccessfully) to turn his scene-stealing turn in Oliver Stone’s Platoon into leading-man status – stars opposite Mimi Rogers who’d just married Tom Cruise and would go on to have a successful second career in the world of professional poker. Re-watching it, the film feels like a one of those thrillers with an erotic edge that was to plague the next decade – think Body Of Evidence, Basic Instinct, etc. There’s a sense Scott was trying out a tried and tested formula almost as a generic exercise on a small scale, perhaps in a reaction to the disappointing box office performance of Blade Runner and Legend. It didn’t work.
Watch it on CHILI: Someone To Watch Over Me
BLACK RAIN (1989) – The problem with Someone To Watch Over Me is the film lacked an edge. Black Rain was samurai sharp by comparison, with double the budget, a certified Hollywood star and an international setting. Michael Douglas plays another New York cop Nick Conklin. He sports a mullet designed for the 1980s, rides a motorcycle, lives in a massive apartment and arrests a Yakuza who with partner Andy Garcia, he must escort back to Japan. Douglas plays his weirdly dislikeable big screen persona with his quasi-racist fish-out-of-water situations and Kate Capshaw, apparently remaining in the East after Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, is the love interest/cultural interpreter. Although production ran into millions of difficulties in Japan, on screen the neon wash meant Ridley is on Blade Runner turf once more. The film has some cracking set pieces and in atmosphere and look is the closest he ever came to directing a Tony Scott movie, or for that matter one of John Woo’s classics. The opening weekend was the biggest of Scott’s career thus far and profits overall were for the first time comparable with Alien.
1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE (1992) – 1992 saw two Christopher Columbus movies celebrating the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America. One boasted Marlon Brando, Tom Selleck and Catherine Zeta Jones and was utterly forgettable. The other was perhaps Ridley Scott’s finest flop. Gerard Depardieu plays Columbus, the Genoan navigator who is convinced against the strictures of the church and all other voices that there is a route to the East across the Atlantic Ocean. With his bearish charm he manages to convince Queen Isabelle (the return of Sigourney Weaver to a Scott film) and so embarks on his epic voyage. And epic is the word. Everything about this film is sumptuous and grandiose. The pre-CGI scale is breathtaking with real crowds and real ships in real locations. Depardieu struggles with his English dialogue but he’s also perfect as a man larger in every way than his time, deeply flawed but visionary. The film is also extraordinarily dark. Michael Wincott plays a superbly gothic villain, a cross between Colonel Kurtz and the Kurgan. The violence of the first battle with the natives is brutal, as are the burnings of the heretics in Spain. Columbus brings hopes of building a new world, but he also institutes slavery and cruelty and ends the film largely broken. Perhaps because America was awaiting a celebration, or because of the imperfect pronunciation of Depardieu,1492 found its audience mainly outside of the USA and has been largely forgotten. But this is Ridley Scott’s biggest period film, his first true epic, and it boasts another stunning Vangelis score.
THE COUNSELOR (2013) – On paper The Counselor looks amazing. Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz star in a film directed by Ridley Scott from a script by No Country For Old Men scribe Cormac McCarthy? What could possibly go…oh no. Oh dear God no. But there is a quality to a certain type of badness that is worth returning to. To begin with McCarthy has a highly-stylised form of dialogue with everyone talking as if they had dropped their Lacan in the salsa dip on the way to the pool party. A very kind review in Variety drew comparisons with David Mamet, but there was a lot who found it risible with lines about the ‘temperature of truth’ and what not. And there’s the quantity of the dialogue. And Javier Bardem’s hair and the general confusion about what is actually going on. But all that accepted, there’s also a finely tuned sense of dread, which builds and builds; some scenes of bizarre violence – Gwyneth Paltrow must have rewound and watched one particular death over and over – and the usual visual flair which makes even the most humdrum set up a pleasure to watch.
Watch it on CHILI: The Counselor