Tony Scott’s late-career, ultra-impressionistic style began taking its roots with the gloriously hyperactive Beat the Devil, his contribution to the historic BMW film series, The Hire, which was a series of extended car commercials in the guise of slick and exciting short films with serious Hollywood pedigree. The talent in front of and behind the camera on The Hire was staggering. Directors included John Woo, Wong Kar-Wai, Joe Carnahan, Ang Lee, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Guy Ritchie, John Frankenheimer and Scott with an acting lineup featuring the likes of Don Cheadle, Mickey Rourke, Madonna, Gary Oldman, James Brown, Danny Trejo, Stellan Skarsgard, F. Murray Abraham, Ray Liotta, Dennis Haysbert, Maury Chaykin, and Marilyn Manson. And for those of us who had hoped to see Clive Owen as the next James Bond, we’ll always have The Hire, where Owen plays the nameless Driver, an expert behind the wheel (always a BMW, naturally) who is tasked with various life-threatening missions with differing degrees of difficulty. The one linking thread between the different films was Owen, who brought a manly command to the lead role that helped solidify the entire series.
Beat the Devil is the most out-right entertaining film of the bunch, and it’s the one that seems to be having the most fun. It centers on the idea that James Brown (who played himself), back in his youth, sold his soul to the Devil (a hysterical Gary Oldman, in flashy make-up and garish costume that has to be seen to be believed) in exchange for the chance to have a legendary career. But now that the rocker is getting old, he wants to renegotiate the terms of his deal so he can go back to being young, so he suggests that his Driver (Owen) will race Lucifer’s driver, Bob (Trejo), from the Vegas strip out into the dessert. Winner takes all. For roughly 10 minutes, Tony Scott makes cinematic rock ‘n roll love to his camera; every image is cranked, every sound effect is juiced, every edit is sharp as a tack. His fragmented, cubist style that would be seen in future efforts like Man on Fire and Domino was being first experimented with here (and in the Amazon short Agent Orange – seek it out, it’s very cool), with overlapping subtitles, a washed-out and de-saturated color scheme, staccato editing patterns, and skewed camera angles. Beat the Devil exists primarily as a sensory blast but it’s also got a great sense of humor, probably the best sense of humor out of any of the entries in The Hire, which is why it’s my favorite of the bunch.