Sunday, May 16, 2010
Did Russell Crowe ruin Ridley Scott?
Ridley Scott sucks anymore.
Forgive the questionable grammar/semantics -- it is 100% intentional. My friend Greg from college introduced me to this terrific phrasing, which is essentially a more effective combination of "So-and-so sucks these days" and "So-and-so is not good anymore." It gets you to the point faster and makes perfect sense to anyone who hears it.
So I repeat: Ridley Scott sucks anymore.
Personally, I blame his muse, Russell Crowe. And am just glad Crowe doesn't read my blog, or at the very least, doesn't know who I am, because I hear he has something of a temper.
So Robin Hood has gotten universally negative reviews. What a surprise! Who didn't see that coming?
I think I've seen it coming since Gladiator.
Before we get any further, let's make one thing perfectly clear: At one point in his career, Ridley Scott was a great director, someone to be envied by all his peers. He made two of the best science fiction films of all time (Alien and Blade Runner), and in Thelma & Louise, one of the best of all time of two different categories: the road movie and the female empowerment movie. He wasn't always a hit-maker -- G.I. Jane, anyone? How about White Squall? But those three movies bought him a career's worth of leeway.
It was when he received mainstream recognition of his efforts in the form of an Oscar that Scott started to become significantly less interesting, and not coincidentally, significantly more prolific. Perhaps also not coincidentally, Gladiator was his first film with Russell Crowe, another creative talent who was previously excellent, and has not been so excellent since. So perhaps the destruction was mutual.
Then again, he hasn't even shown a Burtonian level of commitment to his own version of Johnny Depp -- since starting to work with Crowe, he's made as many films that did not feature Crowe (four) as those that have (four). But Crowe has appeared in his last four, and I think that's when Scott's suckitude has really started to pick up steam.
Let's consider them in order:
1) Gladiator (2000). I liked Gladiator fine, but never in a million years thought it was best picture material. It was an impressively shot action movie that looked gorgeous, featuring Scott's trademark partial slow-mo technique. I am describing this terribly, and if anyone reading this can help me out, I'd appreciate it, but it's a technique he uses regularly that seems to allow him to linger on details without actually slowing down the film speed. For example, clumps of dirt that flew through the air in the Colosseum would be clearly visible in relief against the background, almost like they were hanging there a moment longer than they actually were. (In my colleague's review of Robin Hood, I see this correctly attributed to DP John Mathieson and described as a "high-frame-rate action style." That's as good a description as any.) Anyway, it was a breakthrough technique, and I think that this is Gladiator's real contribution to cinematic history. Everyone knows Crowe should have actually won his Oscar for The Insider the year before, and that Scott should have won his Oscar for 1492: Conquest of Paradise. (Ha.)
2) Hannibal (2001). The technique I described above was present again in this film (and will continue to be, so I'll stop pointing it out), and there was a certain grandiose, international quality to this film, but otherwise, it was considered a failure as a much-anticipated follow-up to Silence of the Lambs. Perhaps we needed Jodie Foster instead of Julianne Moore. This film is bizarre and gross, though paradoxically, its best part is its most bizarre and gross part: the horribly disfigured Lecter victim played by an uncredited Gary Oldman.
3) Black Hawk Down (2001). And this is where Scott starts to establish the persona he retains to this day: technically masterful yet devoid of emotional content. A movie about soldiers killed in a skirmish in Mogadishu should have been moving in some small way, but the characters end up faceless and interchangeable in this film. There's impressive filmmaking going on, for sure, but I remember leaving the theater thinking that I wanted to like it more than I actually liked it.
4) Matchstick Men (2003). Scott's attempt at a grifter movie with Nicolas Cage and Sam Rockwell is weirdly forgettable. It seems like an especially strange choice for a director who had been working on such a large canvas. Although I guess the fact that Cage's character has OCD gives it one additional layer.
5) Kingdom of Heaven (2005). Aside from Robin Hood, this is the only Scott film since Gladiator that I have not seen, despite the best efforts of my mom's boyfriend. (My sister and I joke about the time he wanted me to watch this giant epic about the Crusades on his iPhone.) It's a logical movie for me to have seen, but I think part of the reason I didn't is that I had seen one too many movies lately where the main character speechifies in some trite way: "Today! Is the day! Of all days! Of our destiny! Of our freedom!" And then two armies run at each other for an epic skirmish. In fact, when I was at one point going to focus only on the fact that this type of material seems incongruous for a Robin Hood movie, I was going to call this Scott's crutch, and point out that it also appears in Gladiator. I was going to call the post "Braveheart's sloppy seconds." I mean, aren't you kind of sick of that shit also?
6) A Good Year (2006). It seems strange, in retrospect, that the first film to reunite Scott and Crowe after Gladiator was a movie so unlike what either of them had ever made before. Normally I would applaud such diversity in an artist, but A Good Year is so slight and so frivolous that a person has to genuinely ask why either of them really wanted to make a movie about an English businessman with a hard shell who inherits a French vineyard. Maybe just as a chance to catch their breath after all the epics? It's not terrible, but it's also not consequential in the slightest.
7) American Gangster (2007). And here's where I really start to hate Ridley Scott. This is an over-long and pointless film that rips off many better gangster movies, and ends in one of the most peculiar ways you can imagine. I won't give too much away here, but you can't spend an entire movie making us view a character one way, then ask us to change how we view him in the last ten minutes of the movie. (It's Denzel Washington's character I'm talking about, not Crowe's). Although this film certainly has its fans, I consider it an utter waste of celluloid.
8) Body of Lies (2008). I actually watched Body of Lies last night, giving it the opportunity to provide Scott a stay of execution on this post. And actually, it sort of did -- until I woke up this morning and decided I wanted to write something with my morning coffee. Body of Lies is highly watchable and genuinely entertaining, but it's not something you will ever think about again afterward. Not every movie needs to be something more than it is, and here is a reasonably clear espionage thriller involving modern Islamic terrorism, set in numerous locations throughout the Middle East. Leonardo Di Caprio and Crowe are both good. However, I can't help but see this as another symptom of Scott treading water artistically, even though I enjoyed it.
9) Robin Hood (2010). Haven't seen it, don't really plan to, at least not in the theater. Crowe looks like he's playing Maximus again, and it's just shoehorned into the Robin Hood story. In this way it seems like it might be purely lazy, more than any of the other films on this list. Familiarity can breed contempt.
To take any ten-year period of a director's career and say that it's not as good as some other ten-year period is not really fair. Especially since Ridley Scott is not a young man -- he'll be 73 this year.
But I don't get the sense that Scott is winding down -- in fact, quite the opposite. Although IMDB is notoriously inclusive in terms of rumored future projects, it lists 18 such projects for Scott, at least three of which he's supposed to direct: two Alien prequels (this is the first I've heard of this) and a film called The Kind One. So far, none of Scott's future projects seem to be the same as Crowe's future projects. Maybe they had a dust-up on the set of Robin Hood. I could see Crowe punching out a man 25 years older than him.
And because Scott is still so active, I think it's fair to hold him accountable for his choices, and to expect more from him. This is a man whose films once had soul; now they do not. Whether his partnership with Russell Crowe has anything to do with that or not is left up to the speculation of bloggers like me.