Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
"True Romance" is an odd little beast. It manages to weave a singular vision from two, seemingly oppositional threads. On one hand you've got the hyper-verbal, seventies-cinema obsessed script written by Quentin Tarantino. On the other hand, you have the eighties-honed, hyper-stylized direction by Tony Scott. Hindsight tells me that the man responsible for "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction" probably shouldn't gel well with the man who brought us "Top Gun" and "Enemy of the State". But when I first saw "True Romance", way back in 1993, I didn't have hindsight, and didn't care who was behind the scenes. Because what was on screen was just play wonderful.
You can't ever mistake "True Romance" for anything but a Quentin Tarantino film. Legend has it that this was the first script he ever wrote, the sale of which helped him finance "Reservoir Dogs". All his familiar motifs and rhetorical devices are present and accounted for. You've got one scene featuring a victim tied to a chair and tortured, another featuring a Mexican standoff, and a whole host of moments where characters discuss movies in general, and, more specifically, the Hong Kong/kung fu/exploitation flicks of Sonny Chiba and John Woo. And most importantly, it's all tied together with a plot that would look very comfortable between the pages of an Elmore Leonard novel. Tarantino has said that, in penning the script, he tried to write like it was "an Elmore Leonard movie that Elmore Leonard didn't write." Besides the criminals-looking-for-a-big-score plot, the film even takes place in Leonard's hometown of Detroit. Furthermore, our heroine, the lovely Alabama Worley, comes from Leonard's other favourite locale, Florida (a geographical nomenclature that reminds me of the similarly named Tennessee Williams, who paradoxically was raised in St. Louis).
You can't ever mistake "True Romance" for anything but a Tony Scott film. The brother of Ridley, and helmer of five Jerry Bruckheimer films (the she-wolf producer who brought us the Romulus and Remus of directors, Michael Bay and Simon West), Scott has probably the most distinctive and unremitting visual styles working today. Every darkened scene is punctuated by sharp, moody lighting, and every shot quickly edited and set as close to the actors as possible (so close, in fact, that you can usually see right up their nostrils… which are, not surprisingly, also harshly backlit). Scott's stock-in-trade is type-A machismo, his film stock wiped down with testosterone before beginning production. And when a gunfight breaks out in a Scott film, which is more often than my tastes would like, it feature more squibs than your average issue of The National Lampoon (the bloodshed in one scene here outdoes anything Tarantino himself has put on screen in all three of his movies; Scott's only fault here is that he tries too hard to distract the audience with excessive gunplay, in a story that needs no help being visceral). All of these elements are here in full effect, if somewhat diluted by Tarantino's flashy and self-referential script.
"True Romance" is the story of the love-at-first-sight relationship between Clarence Worley and Alabama Whitman. He spends his birthday watching a Sonny Chiba triple-bill at the local rep theatre, where she spills a giant tub of popcorn in his lap. And the sparks fly, and the birds sing. But before you can say "Gary Oldman in a dreadlock wig", Alabama admits that she's a call girl, and Clarence is off to visit her ex-pimp. Instead of retrieving Alabama's clothes, as he intended, Clarence accidentally picks up a suitcase full of cocaine. So its off to California for the pair, where Clarence hopes to make a quick score, on which Alabama hopes they can retire to Cancun. The best-laid plans go awry, as they usually do, but through thick and thin Clarence and Alabama show us all the meaning of true romance (aw!).
Our heroes are the definite forbearers of other lovely couples that will show up in the Tarantino canon. Most notably, Mickey and Mallory Knox from the Tarantino-penned and Oliver Stone-directed "Natural Born Killers', and, to a lesser degree, Butch and Fabienne from Tarantino's own "Pulp Fiction". All are outlaws, with an intense physical and spiritual connection that will eventually come close to, or in fact succeed in, destroying them. The film even alludes to the granddaddy of these kinds of characters, by pinching the bouncy musical theme from Terrence Malick's "Badlands".
Patricia Arquette plays Alabama. An actress of unconventional beauty, Arquette had me hot and bothered in such diverse fare as "Flirting with Disaster" and "Human Nature". But it was "True Romance" that first sold me on this buxom blonde's charms. Alabama is a flirty little thing, armed with an unapologetic id, an honest streak, and a Dolly Parton voice. She is terminally endearing, even when dressed in leopard prints, cheap sunglasses, and a Farrah Fawcett 'do. Christian Slater is more than her equal as the comic book-reading, kung fu-loving, Elvis-worshipping Clarence. Slater, back in 1993, was still riding high on his outlaw "Heathers"/"Pump Up The Volume" persona, and Clarence fits in nicely with those early roles (in a neat casting coup, Clarence's father is played by Dennis Hopper, who directed Jack Nicholson to stardom in "Easy Rider"; Slater was infamous, most notably with "Heathers", for frequently doing Nicholson impressions with his early performances). Ironically, Slater, as the film's nominal protagonist, doesn't even figure in to the film's two most dynamic scenes. Scenes that I for one, as a lover of visceral cinema, will be recommending till the day I die.
The first you've most likely been briefed on if you've heard anything about "True Romance". It features Hopper, as an ex-cop security guard, and Christopher Walken, as the Sicilian attorney for a notorious crime boss. More than eleven minutes long, the scene is intensely verbal, with each veteran character actor getting his turn to deliver a rousing and potent speech, while a vat full of seething menace hides just under the surface. It's the kind of scene that can be watched on its own, apart from the rest of the movie, and it would still be powerful and exciting. Each actor delivers perfectly, Hopper in the moment when he is resigned to his fate, and Walken with the boisterous laugh that hides his anger. The latter half of the scene is set to "Viens Mallika Sous Le Dome Edais" from Delibes' opera "Lakme", a tune you'll most likely recognize, but will never be able to hear again without thinking of the sorrow and the thrill of this scene.
The second scene that defines the movie comes much later. Alabama comes back, alone, to her California hotel room, to find a mobster waiting there for her. James Gandolfini plays said mobster, in only his second film role, and a full six years before he became Tony Soprano. The scene is brutal, resplendent with over-the-top violence, as Virgil tries to beat information out of Alabama. Lest you think that Scott and Tarantino are indulging in misogyny, it's actually a very empowering scene, as both Virgil and the audience are impressed by Alabama's willingness to fight back. Despite some dubious camera work at the end (noticing the stuntman is a surefire way to bring me right out of the reality of a scene), it's a powerful scene, giving both Arquette and Gandolfini opportunities to shine physically, but also allowing them to stretch their acting muscles too.
The rest of the cast list is loaded with a veritable who's who of powerhouse character actors and soon-to-be movie stars. Tom Sizemore and "Reservoir Dogs" alumnus Chris Penn play a pair of hotshot cops looking for a big collar. Saul Rubinek is perfectly oily as a movie producer looking to buy Clarence's "Dr. Zhivago". Bronson Pinchot is a marvel of slick cowardice as his flunky/wannabe actor. Michael Rapaport plies his stock-in-trade: the energetic, loyal, but slightly dim buddy. Samuel L. Jackson gets his first opportunity to show that he is a samurai when it comes to spouting Tarantino's dialogue, in a small but ill-fated role. Gary Oldman does what only Gary Oldman can do: go so deliciously over-the-top that he needs an elevator just to get back into the scene. Brad Pitt, who stole the show in his brief turn in Ridley Scott's "Thelma and Louise", does the same favour for brother Tony, in his small comic-relief role as Rapaport's burnout roommate. And Val Kilmer shows up too, although it would be cheating of me to let you know where. Have fun trying to spot him. Any one of these people could have been spun off into a movie of their own that would have been equally entertaining. Just goes to show that Tarantino is a whiz at creating credible and rounded supporting characters to people the backgrounds of his stories.
"True Romance" works, despite my hesitations towards the Tarantino/Scott pairing. It's the kind of whiz-bang roller coaster (figuratively, and in once scene, literally) of a movie that grabs you with its action, its torrential dialogue, and its propulsive plot. But it will have you smiling for days at this one realization, that despite the bullets and the bandits and the drugs and the drama, it's really only about one thing: true romance. Can't imagine anything cooler than that.
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