Ridley Scott’s White Squall

Ridley Scott

White Squall movie poster

 

By 1996, Ridley Scott had worked in almost every typical feature film genre: most notably historical drama (The Duellists – read The Dork Report review, 1492), science fiction (Alien, Blade Runner), and police thrillers (Someone to Watch Over Me – read The Dork Report review, Black Rain – read The Dork Report review). But White Squall straddles several genres, sometimes all at once: coming-of-age melodrama, adventure, courtroom drama, and disaster on the high seas (like later peers Titanic and The Perfect Storm).

White SquallThe Albatross boys enact The Lord of the Thighs (and torsos)

Aside from the rare exception of the fantasy Legend (read The Dork Report review), Scott’s films are always about adults. But White Squall features teenage characters and is relatively mild in terms of violence, profanity, and sex (no bloody gunplay or slimy extraterrestrials here). The frequently shirtless young male cast, including star-to-be Ryan Phillippe, provided lots of beefcake that probably attracted a large teenage girl audience at the time. But the core of the story is still about male bonding, duty, and honor, placing it somewhat outside the bounds of a chick flick.

It’s also unusual in Scott’s oeuvre for being based on actual events. The screenplay by Todd Robinson is based on the nonfiction book The Last Voyage of the Albatross by Charles Gieg Jr. and Felix Sutton. In the 1950s, Captain Christopher “Skipper” Sheldon (Jeff Bridges) and his wife Alice (Caroline Goodall), a doctor, ran a series of boating excursions on the Caribbean Seas for young men. The trips, for school credit, provided a kind of high seas liberal education focusing on self-reliance, teamwork, and literature. An onboard English Literature teacher (John Savage, who resembles Ridley Scott) was always on hand to be generally annoying and pompously spout quotations. Unbeknownst to the boys’ parents, Sheldon’s concept of liberal education also included shore leave with abundant alcohol and the opportunity to meet hot young female exchange students the boys would never have to see again. This was a quaint time when sexually transmitted diseases were more of a rite of growing up than a life-threatening risk.

Jeff Bridges in White SquallJeff Bridges pleads, “This aggression will not stand, man!” Alternately, the mast really held the boat together.

The physical task of operating the boat could be seriously dangerous, but one particular trip in 1960 became especially so in more ways than one. The Cuban Missile Crisis erupted while they were out to sea, and they were boarded by militant Cubans. After a narrow escape allowed as much by chance as by Sheldon’s quick thinking, they encounter an even bigger problem: dealing with a spoiled rich kid (I can’t figure out the actor’s name, but he looks for all the world just like Cillian Murphy). The seemingly cursed voyage ends in a mythical “white squall,” a freak weather event in which a sudden windstorm appears without the traditional warning signs such as dark clouds. The voyage ends in utter tragedy, and segues into a courtroom drama bogged down in lame speechifying.

The end titles reveal that Sheldon overcame his personal grief and professional discredit to become the first Peace Corps Director in Latin America, before dying in 2002 (read The New York Times obit).


Buy any of these fine products from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report:

 

Ridley Scott’s Black Rain

Ridley Scott

Black Rain movie poster

 

Ridley Scott’s police thriller Black Rain (1989) opens in New York City at a time when The Meatpacking District actually was a meatpacking district. Tough cop Nick (Michael Douglas) is a ridiculously aggressive, foul-mouthed tough guy who tools around the city astride his crotch rocket. The despised Internal Affairs department suspects him of being a bent copper (spoiler alert: rightly, it turns out!), and pressures him to name names. By sheer accident, he and rookie partner Charlie (Andy Garcia) witness a Yakuza assassination in a Meatpacking District bar. After a thrilling chase through some vintage Manhattan locations since replaced by nightclubs, luxury condos, and The Apple Store, they manage to apprehend the perpetrator. The Yakuza assassin Sato (Yasaku Matsuda), being Asian in a Hollywood movie, is of course a martial arts expert. Contrived plot machinations result in Nick and Charlie escorting Sato back to Japan, whereupon they immediately and embarrassingly lose him. By this point, the plot has been constructed in such a way as to raise Nick’s stakes to the highest level possible: the only two things that matter to him, his honor and job security, depend on one task: catching or killing the bad guy. If he returns to the States empty-handed, he’s almost certainly to be disgraced.

Andy Garcia and Michael Douglas in Black Rain
Andy Garcia refuses to pass the edamame

In his Tokyo downtime, Nick entertains an unconsummated romance with gaijin Joyce (Kate Capshaw). The subplot is a boring distraction. Joyce is a mere love interest in the worst storytelling sense: her character is not integrated into the main thriller plot as is the female lead in Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me. It strikes this Dork Reporter as something of a copout on the part of Scott and screenwriters Craig Bolotin and Warren Lewis that their protagonist Nick goes all the way to Japan but doesn’t do as the Japanese men do (which is to say, Japanese women).

Nick and Charlie partner with upright Japanese cop Masahiro (Ken Takakura). Cultures clash, and the suave Charlie teaches the uptight Masahiro to party hearty, beating the Japanese at their own game (that being karaoke). When Nick’s moral ambiguity becomes known, the righteous Masahiro seems to convince Nick that theft of any sort is shameful. But in the end, it is Nick that teaches Masahiro that it’s OK to steal from criminals (in the moral universe of this film, at least). I’d never say that any work of fiction has an obligation to present morally-correct behavior (the kind of censorship that Hollywood theoretically left behind with the demise of the Production Code). But Black Rain seems to present Nick’s amoral behavior as The Right Thing, instead of the complicated actions of an interesting complex character.

Michael Douglas in Ridley Scott's Black Rain
A moodily backlit Michael Douglas contemplates a new hairdo

Scott stages a huge shootout sequence at a refinery, seemingly chosen for maximum visual appeal (picture the clouds of steam, showers of sparks, bursts of flame, etc.). In a kind of self-referencial closed circuit, Scott’s aerial shots of Japan look just like Blade Runner’s futuristic dystopian Los Angeles, which was itself inspired by Tokyo. Another direct lift from Blade Runner: Nick discovers sequins from Joyce’s dress at a crime scene, recalling the sequence in Blade Runner in which Deckard tracks down the origin of synthetic snake scales — belonging, of course, to one of cinema’s most famous femmes fatale.

The opening credits state “In association with Michael Douglas.” Douglas is of course a successful producer (for instance, One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest), but Black Rain has the feel of an ego trip. More trivia: the director of photography Jan de Bont was later to direct Speed.

One final cheap shot before I go. I don’t know what has dated more: the cheesy music or Michael Douglas’ big hair.


Buy any of these fine products from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report:

 

Ridley Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me

Ridley Scott

Someone to Watch Over Me movie poster

 

Ridley Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me (1987) is more of a drama than a police thriller, refreshingly focussed on its characters over suspense and action alone. Mike Keegan (Tom Berenger) is a salt-of-the-earth Queens detective assigned to protect material witness Claire (Mimi Rogers) from assassination. Keegan is a modest family man, recently promoted to the second rung of the police hierarchy. It’s no glamorous job; he spends most of his working hours just sitting around not finishing crosswords. He’s utterly unlike the over-the-top testosterone-laden cop character played by Michael Douglas in Scott’s other police thriller, Black Rain.

Tom Berenger in Someone to Watch Over MeAny dame what lives in a spread like this is outta yer league, pal.

Keegan is more-or-less happily married (to Lorraine Bracco as Ellie), but a man like him would never otherwise come into contact with a beautiful uptown girl like Claire. Cooped up in close proximity to each other every night, they inevitably lapse into an affair. Her effeminate but wealthy and powerful husband senses that Keegan is a romantic rival, but he is an effectively impotent character and frequently disappears from the film altogether. Also notable is song-and-dance man Jerry Orbach already typecast as a detective in a small role as Keegan’s tough Lieutenant.

Mimi Rogers in Someone to Watch Over MeWhen Mimi Rogers heard Director Ridley Scott was big on visual spectacles, this isn’t what she had in mind

One of the guaranteed pleasures of any Ridley Scott film is the visuals. Someone to Watch Over Me’s opening credits feature the namesake song by George Gershwin sung by Sting over beautifully sleek aerial shots of New York City at night. The final shootout is perfectly staged in a claustrophobically enclosed space, with huge mirrors placed for maximum dramatic impact. The principals stalk each other in near silence, punctuated by the wide dynamics of sound design. Perhaps Scott was competing with that other upstart master of cinematic shootouts, Michael Mann (in particular, the similarly explosive conclusion to the contemporary thriller Manhunter).


Buy any of these fine products from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report:

 

Girls and Their Unicorns: Ridley Scott’s Legend

Ridley Scott

Legend movie poster

 

Ridley Scott’s 1986 fantasy experiment Legend features a very young Tom Cruise (before he was “Tom Cruise”), costarring opposite vats upon vats of glitter. Cruise’s performance is bizarre and high-pitched, composed of crouched poses and unfocused stares. But to be fair, how else would any actor portray an uncivilized wild-child with a weirdly mundane name like Jack? Mia Sara is unmemorable as Princess Lily, save for the spectacularly plunging neckline she sports in the second half of the film (during which many parents were no doubt covering the eyes of their innocents).

Tom Cruise in Ridley Scott's LegendThat nice Cruise boy

There is plenty of very pretty cinematography to be enjoyed, but This Dork Reporter regrets to report that Legend is awful and almost painful to sit through. I recall loving the roughly contemporary fantasy film The Dark Crystal (1982) as a child, but ruined the pleasant memory by watching it again as an adult and discovering it to be tedious and condescending (with, granted, some incredible puppetry and art direction). Perhaps if I had seen Legend as a kid I might feel similarly.

The entire plot hinges on the kinds of typically arbitrary rules that characterize the fantasy genre. Pay attention, kids: only a virgin can touch a unicorn, it seems, but alas, they should never do so, lest the sun set forever and the world be consumed by The Lord of Darkness (Tim Curry). What’s a virgin, you ask? Shush. Not inconsiderable running time is taken up with awkward slapstick involving midgets, de rigueur in every movie fantasy since Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. Speaking of, Gilliam’s dark romp is by far the best of the 1980s heyday of fantasy movies – a genre not to return to prominence for almost two decades until the lucrative franchises Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials, and The Chronicles of Narnia.

Mia Sara in Ridley Scott's LegendGirls and their unicorns! This can only end in tears.

Even the old-school optical special effects are crummy, for which it is no excuse to say the film came before the age of CGI. The unicorns’ rubber horns visibly wobble, and a fluttering Tinkerbell-like fairy creature is a painfully obvious little lightbulb mounted on a wire discernible even on a low-resolution TV screen. No inch of skin is left unpainted with glitter, and never have bubble machines worked so overtime since The Lawrence Welk Show. But perhaps the most puzzling detail of all is in the sound design: unicorns sing whalesong, evidently.

All sorts of questions arise as screenwriter William Hjortsbertg’s plot comes to its trainwreck conclusion: What happens to The Prince of Darkness’ evilly goading mother? Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman’s brilliant Beowulf script did not fail to explore the vast Freudian story potential of a monster’s manipulative mother. And where did the last surviving unicorn find its mate at the end? Did the unicorn killed earlier in the film revive somehow, and if so, why? Even Disney’s Bambi didn’t chicken out by resuscitating the murdered mother.


Buy any of these fine products from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report:

 

Ridley Scott’s The Duellists

Ridley Scott

The Duellists movie poster

 

Ridley Scott’s first feature film The Duellists (1977) is based on the Joseph Conrad short story “The Duel.” Feraud (Harvey Keitel) and D’Hubert (Keith Carradine), two French soldiers serving under Napoleon, become loyal enemies locked in a lifelong adversarial relationship. D’Hubert, eager to appease his superiors and advance his career, volunteers for a mission in which he obliviously humiliates Feraud. Both men are at fault: D’Hubert for his ambition, and Feraud for obsessively nursing his perpetual grievance. Their personal battles supersede French history, with even the reign and fall of Napoleon a mere backdrop to their personal feud.

Harvey Keitel in The DuellistsDon’t let the frilly sleeves fool you, Feraud (Harvey Keitel) will frite your pommes and manger your croissant

The Duellists is respected for the historical authenticity of its French military uniforms and depictions of period wartime conduct, but Keitel and Carradine’s flat American accents threaten to undo its achievements in verisimilitude. Luckily, the important bits, the duels, are staged silently. Scott, with his background in advertising, films everything beautifully, although one does catch glimpses of the occasional lamp and smoke machine. The landscapes during the final duel are especially breathtaking.

Keith Carradine in The DuellistsKeith Carradine is a comin’ ta getcha, Mr. White!

I’ve seen hardly any of Carradine’s movies, but I do have great respect for his brilliant portrayal of one of America’s first celebrities, Wild Bill Hickok, in the HBO series Deadwood. And Keitel gets to show off his serious muscles in a gratuitous arm-wrestling sequence.


Buy any of these fine products from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report: