A film to prove that straight-up feelgood comedy is not Ridley Scott’s forte and casting his favourite leading man is no guarantee of success, either. This is based on a novel by Peter “A Year in Provence” Mayle: incredibly, it is Russell Crowe playing the quirkily conceited yet adorable Brit who inherits a sumptuous house-plus-vineyard in the south of France, comes over intending to sell it, but instead falls in love with the place and all the picturesque Frenchness thereabouts, including Marion Cotillard.
A director’s cut was later to redeem some of its reputation but basically this period action movie from war-torn 12th-century Europe still feels like a bombastic liberal fantasy. Orlando Bloom plays a young blacksmith – the illegitimate son of nobleman Liam Neeson – who joins the Crusades not to drive the Muslims out of the Holy Land, but to broker peace. Weirdly, Scott returned to the tricky issue of the Crusades in Robin Hood (see below).
Here is Michael Douglas in his action-lead heyday, playing a tough and ruthless cop adrift in Japan’s smoky, rainy, neon-lit Osaka – an urban locale that’s slightly reminiscent of Scott’s Blade Runner. Douglas and his cop partner, played by Andy Garcia, capture a Yakuza gangster in New York, then come to Osaka and hand him over to people they believe to be police but are in fact Yakuza in disguise. So Douglas has to journey into the dark infernal heart of Yakuza gangland to recapture his man. The action sequences are a bit perfunctory.
Demi Moore plays the wannabe Navy Seal in this serviceable and underrated movie: she is navy veteran Jordan O’Neil, who always resented not being eligible for full combat during the first Iraq war of 1991. But now the rules have changed and she can become a Seal if she survives the terrifying training course, presided over by the super-scary Viggo Mortensen – and she doesn’t want any special treatment. It’s quite earnest and the sexual politics feel naive, but it has the authentic Scott virtues of forthright action and propulsive energy.
This was the cheesy action-romance concept that was done more successfully five years later by Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston in Mick Jackson’s The Bodyguard – but Someone to Watch Over Me isn’t too bad. Mimi Rogers plays a high-society beauty whose life is in danger because she has witnessed a murder, Tom Berenger (an underrated, plausible lead) is the working-class cop assigned to protect her, and of course they fall in love. Lorraine Bracco, later to become a legend in Goodfellas and The Sopranos, is Berenger’s angry and heartbroken wife.
Scott’s true-life war movie set in 90s Somalia set out to create a modern American Dunkirk myth: the US is pursuing its peacekeeping operation in Mogadishu and special forces attempt to kidnap a warlord terrorising the blameless civilian population. But the mission turns into a fiasco when one of the Black Hawk choppers goes down, and now the only real object for the Americans is to get all their guys out alive. It is a situation treated with full-on, non-stop deafening pyrotechnics: an almost meaningless blizzard of action. Scott certainly puts his pedal to the metal.
Michael Fassbender has accumulated a bit of form as a Scott leading man in the past couple of decades, and here he is in this hyperactive, flawed action thriller from screenwriter Cormac McCarthy. He plays a lawyer (addressed as “counselor” in the American style) who is tempted by the big score. Through his criminal-clientele contacts, he figures he can get in on a lucrative Colombian drug deal; there is a great scene in which he proposes marriage to his girlfriend Laura, played by Penélope Cruz; Brad Pitt and Javier Bardem are in the mix. It runs out of steam but there’s a lot of energy in the first act.
Scott’s Alien: Covenant is the stylish second prequel to the first, classic Alien film, coming after Prometheus. The Covenant is the name of the spaceship, which is hurtling through the galaxy on a mission to set up a plantation on a distant planet apparently able to support human life. Fassbender returns as the inscrutable robot and there is a great scene at the beginning, set in a room of Kubrickian whiteness, in which the robot is being questioned by its scientist-creator and asked to choose a name for himself. He picks “David” after the Michelangelo statue.
All right, Russell Crowe’s Irish/geordie/Norfolk accent as Robin is a bit weird (he uncorked one of his legendary strops with a BBC radio interviewer who innocently asked where it was supposed to come from). But it’s an entertaining fantasy, powerfully and robustly directed by Scott, who showed his enduring talent for period warfare and battle scenes. Crowe’s Robin is no merry japester in the Errol Flynn style but a battle-hardened ex-soldier sickened by cruelty to Muslim civilians in the Crusades, and basically an anti-French loyalist of Richard the Lionheart. His entry into the world of stealing from the unjust rich is something he slides into for the most blameless of reasons.
Scott’s ambitious and lovely-looking film takes place before his sci-fi classic Alien, and it is part prequel and part variation on a theme. Noomi Rapace is the scientist who discovers ancient cave paintings in Skye that depict primitive humans worshipping a specific constellation. Astronomers find this pattern of stars, and soon Rapace is on a spaceship heading there, with crew-members including Charlize Theron and Idris Elba as humanoids, and Fassbender as the eerily and unnervingly inscrutable servant robot, David, who glides about the place like an automaton-butler, but scarily may have a mind of his own. Prometheus repeats many ideas from Alien, perhaps without the original’s mule-kick charge, but with intelligence and style.
Probably no sequel could in any way live up to Jonathan Demme’s classic The Silence of the Lambs, but Scott brought all his energy and unflinching appetite for chaos and gore to this followup. The talented Dr Lecter – still played by Anthony Hopkins – is now on the run and living incognito in Florence (perhaps in tribute to the infamous serial-killing “Monster of Florence”). He makes contact once again with Clariiiiiiice, now played by Julianne Moore, and their reunion is to involve an awful reckoning for a certain corrupt cop, played by Ray Liotta with something on his mind.
Scott left his generic comfort zone for this genial and seductive little black comedy about con artists. Nicolas Cage plays the veteran grifter who feels sad about what he does – parting stupid people from what little money they have. He is divorced, lonely and, furthermore, suffers from OCD, a condition that only threatens to worsen as he gets older. He has a tricky relationship with a young wannabe conman, played by Sam Rockwell, whom he is supposedly mentoring in the slimy art of confidence-tricking. But then he is reunited with his long-lost and now teenage daughter (Alison Lohman) who, to his fatherly pride, wants to be a grifter herself and is very good at it – like Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon – and this causes no end of quasi-family dysfunction and resentment with Rockwell, his supposed heir.
In this film, Scott created a big-screen, big-league costume period action drama of the sort no one else is able or willing now to make, and despite its flaws, it is directed at a full-tilt gallop with overwhelming, muscular force, a way with spectacle and storytelling gusto. Basically, it’s a Rashomon-style competing-testimony narrative based on a true story from 14th-century France. Matt Damon, sporting an outrageous mullet, plays Jean de Carrouges, who demands of the king the right to duel to the death with a certain Jacques Le Gris, played by Adam Driver, whom he accuses of raping his wife, Marguerite, played by Jodie Comer. The film tells us the story from Carrouges’ viewpoint, then Le Gris’ and finally Marguerite’s. Perhaps Marguerite’s view gets crowded out but this is a vivid and well-made picture.
Science fiction was something that Scott came to be known for, but The Martian could not be more different than the dark and disturbing Alien franchise: essentially optimistic in outlook, and, made with Nasa’s enthusiastic approval and co-operation, it actually won a Golden Globe for “musical or comedy”. Matt Damon plays all-American scientist/astronaut Mark Watney, who is part of a team conducting research on Mars. When the station is devastated by a dust storm, the commander believes Watney to be dead and flies off with the rest of the crew. But he is still alive and this Robinson Crusoe on Mars makes a resourceful and courageous attempt to survive and get word to planet Earth that he wants to come home.
“Are you not ENTERTAINED?” Moviegoers around the world agreed that they were, and with this film, Scott single-handedly revived the sword-and-sandal genre that had lain dormant in Hollywood for generations. He also made an A-list star of beefy, macho Russell Crowe, who plays Maximus Decimus Meridius: father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife who will have his vengeance in this life or the next. He is the general who is betrayed and sold into slavery by the envious new emperor, Commodus, played by the soon-to-be-a-megastar Joaquin Phoenix, and who then plots his revenge in his new prominence as the greatest gladiator in the land. A mighty epic with some of the great period production design Scott is known for, making the very most of emerging digital effects for the spectacular Colosseum scenes.
In his 80s, Scott directed one of his very best films, and maybe it’s no coincidence that it’s about an old guy who has more energy and cunning than anyone else on screen. This is a raucous thriller based on the true story of super-rich oil tycoon J Paul Getty and his refusal in 1973 to pay the ransom when his grandson was kidnapped in Rome. Getty was originally played by Kevin Spacey but Scott, disgusted with revelations about Spacey’s abusive behaviour, reshot all his scenes with Christopher Plummer in the role, who in turn gave one of his best performances as the cantankerous and high-handed Getty, glittering with mischief, malice and scorn. He is the autocrat-villain, who perhaps already haughtily, considers that his former daughter-in-law (Michelle Williams) in gaining custody of his grandkids after a divorce has already made him the object of a legal kidnapping.
This classic road movie thriller, scripted by Callie Khouri and starring Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, was probably the closest Scott came in spirit to a kind of freewheeling New Wave lawlessness. Louise (Sarandon) is the tough and savvy waitress who is best friends with the good-natured and innocent housewife Thelma (Davis), whose husband neglects her. When they head off for a fishing weekend, they make a stop at a roadhouse, where a predatory creep attempts to rape Thelma in the parking lot – he has to back down when Louise threatens him with a gun, but then she shoots him dead in a rage when this man shouts abuse. From there on in, Thelma and Louise are wanted criminals, whose crime importantly is not down to self-defence as a court might understand it, but just pure rage at the patriarchy and generations of misogynistic ill-treatment. The final scene and final image, showing the two women’s existential defiance, has become iconic.
Scott made his dazzling feature debut with this complex and ambitious historical parable, derived from a Conrad short story, set in Europe during the tumult of the Napoleonic wars and partly inspired by the look of Kubrick’s period drama Barry Lyndon. It is about a young Frenchman called Armand d’Hubert, played by Keith Carradine, and how the course of his entire life is to be dominated by a mercurial, unstable and duelling-obsessed fellow officer, Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel) who through a quirk of fate comes to believe that he has been insulted by D’Hubert, and demands satisfaction on the field of honour. The resulting duel is inconclusive (as many of course were) and Feraud becomes even more obsessed with the idea that he must submit again and again to a duel – with swords, sabres, pistols, anything – until one or the other of them is killed. Feraud is mad, but then the convention of duelling is mad, and so is the convention of glamorous, noble warfare, and D’Hubert has no choice but to agree as the two men get older and rise through the ranks, until their existential duel is finally settled. Scott was always good at period drama and confrontational machismo but he was perhaps never again to make anything with such nuance and subtlety.
Scott’s 1982 futurist classic was adapted from Philip K Dick’s quibblingly named 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? With its new sleek, mysterious title, this movie introduced the world to the author’s vision and popularised new ideas in science-fiction cinema about identity, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. His vision of Los Angeles of the future (in fact, 2019) was to be one of Scott’s most potent and influential inventions as a film-maker: the megamodern cityscape, dominated by Asian corporations, with eerie, giant electronic ad signs, and often seen through sheets of driving rain. Harrison Ford plays Deckard, an ex-cop tasked by city authorities into resuming his work as a “blade runner”, a specialist killer whose job is to track down replicants (new-human android-servants) who have become disobedient. And he is to fall in love with one: Rachael, played with haunting, deadpan torpor by Sean Young – overwhelmed by the poignancy of the false memories that have been implanted in her mind. Perhaps it is the replicants that have souls, and not the downtrodden human beings, and Rutger Hauer’s replicant, Roy, has an amazing final speech (partly improvised by the actor himself) as he declaims about the vastness of his experience: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain …” The speech has a haunting poetry.
It is more than 40 years old, and yet Scott’s sci-fi horror masterpiece is still lethally contemporary. It is about the vulnerability of our bodies, the fear of the Other, the fear of disease and viral invasion, and the idea of space exploration as a limitless new extension of human paranoia. The setting is a mining spaceship of the future, which reluctantly makes a detour on its homeward journey on picking up an SOS signal from a remote, officially deserted planet. John Hurt plays Kane, the technician who fatefully volunteers for the job of going down on to the planet’s surface to see what’s happening, Ian Holm is the cool scientific officer, Ash, and Sigourney Weaver is crew-member Ripley, who is to achieve legendary “final girl” status as the only person left to combat the terrible monster. When Kane returns to the ship, he brings a nasty little stowaway with him, and the film is so brilliantly structured and edited that it is impossible to say what it looks like until the very end.
Alien matched Spielberg’s Jaws for shocks and thrills, and matched Sartre’s No Exit for the hell of other people. The simple idea of the alien beginning as a tiny little creature hardly bigger than a toad but then remorselessly growing to something the size of a bus, with multiple rows of teeth, is exquisitely frightening and horrible. Alien is a movie that kept alive the satiric, pessimistic and questioning tradition of sci-fi cinema, which was being swamped by the more childlike (yet brilliant in their own way) stories of Star Wars. And it was about biological weapons of mass destruction, which are beginning to proliferate in space in tandem with our own burgeoning rapaciousness and obsession with economic growth – an inspired parable of diseased humanity.