From the DVD Shelf: True Romance (1993)
The recent passing of Tony Scott prompted me to pick up two films, both directed by Mr. Scott, that had been sitting for quite a whole on my “to-watch” shelf: True Romance and Crimson Tide. I hadn’t seen True Romance since college, and Crimson Tide since it was originally released back when I was in high school, and I’d long been thinking about re-watching both of them. As my own personal little memorial to Mr. Scott, I sat down for a fun double-feature last week.
I can’t decide if True Romance’s title is meant to be ironic or genuine. It’s a jump ball to me. But the story works either way you look at it. The movie is a fairy tale, albeit a blood-soaked, crazy, fever-dream of a fairy tale. It’s totally implausible from the very beginning to the very end, but it’s so endearingly insistent in maintaining a tone of over-the-top madness that it’s hard not to get swept away by the story. It helps that the two leads, Christian Slater as Clarence and Patricia Arquette as Alabama, are so likable. You can’t help but root for this crazy couple to survive all the drug-dealers and double-crosses to find themselves a happy ending. Watching this film, I can understand why Christian Slater was once a big star. He’s electric in the role, manic and dangerous but with a hundred-watt smile and such a huge amount of cheerful affability that he’s incredibly lovable, even when the movie dares you to turn your back on him. (We’re not too far into the film before he decides to hunt down and kill a dangerous pimp, spurred on to do so by a vision of Elvis. You read that right.) And I’ve never enjoyed Patricia Arquette quite as much as I do in this film. Yes, she’s written as a comic book nerd’s idea of a perfect woman (sexy and tough and into kung fu triple features), so that of course makes her hard to resist, but she brings so much life to the role. She’s street-wise but also innocent, naive without being a dim bulb. Her chemistry with Mr. Slater is magnetic.
True Romance was written by Quentin Tarantino (it was released the year after his directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs), and the film is dripping with Mr. Tarantino’s particular wit and influences. Like most of Mr. Tarantino’s work, the film is intense and very violent, but also incredibly funny and filled with characters discussing their love of film and music and other geeky things. Clarence and Alabama meet in the middle of a Sonny Chiba triple feature, what more do I need to tell you? It’s interesting to see Mr. Tarantino’s unique vision filtered through the eye of another director. In this case, it seems to me that Tony Scott stepped back and allowed the script to shine through, without piling on too many unnecessary directorial flourishes, and I think that was a wise choice. If you’d told me that Mr. Tarantino had directed this film himself back in 1992, I’d believe you, and I think that’s a great compliment. But let’s not neglect Mr. Scott’s skill which is on display. He was able to helm a film that is a madcap roller-coaster ride of love and crime without ever losing the delicate balance of tone the film requires. As I wrote above, it’s a fairy tale. The events in the film are unbelievable. (A call girl falls in love in one magical night with a dude who works in a comic book store? Said comic book store guy is then able to outwit and murder her pimp? And that’s just in the first 30 minutes…) But we must be able to suspend our disbelief and go along for the ride in order for the film to work. The film’s energy derives from its anarchic anything-can-happen craziness, but Mr. Scott is always able to keep one foot anchored into reality, and that is why the film succeeds.
Well, and also because Mr. Scott and his team cast the hell out of the picture. I’ve already praised Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette, but the supporting cast of True Romance is shockingly overflowing with talent. I don’t even know where to begin! How about with Dennis Hopper, who plays Clarence’s dad, and Christopher Walken, who plays a vicious mobster on the hunt for Clarence and Alabama. Mr. Hopper is in only two scenes of the film, and Mr. Walken is in just one. But that one scene is with Mr. Hopper, and it’s the most delicious scene in the whole film. Mr. Walken’s character knows that Mr. Hopper’s character knows where his son Clarence has gone, and he means to obtain that information by any means necessary. No one writes interrogation scenes like Quentin Tarantino, and this scene is a beauty, masterfully performed by Mr. Walken and Mr. Hopper. The scene is it’s own little movie, in the middle of a larger movie, and it is deliciously intense and funny and horrible. (“You tell the angels in heaven you have never seen evil so singularly personified as you did in the face of the man who killed you.”)
Equally fantastic is a nearly unrecognizable Gary Oldman as Alabama’s pimp, the brutal, scarred Drexel. I was well into the film before I realized that Drexel was played by Gary Oldman — he absolutely vanishes into the role. Drexel is an animal, vicious and primitive. He’s a dog, but also sort of effete, prancing around in his slippers with his shotgun. Drexel is such a bizarre, unique character, and Mr. Oldman sears him in your memory. After the Walken-Hopper scene I described above, I think my next-favorite scene in True Romance is Christian Slater’s confrontation with Oldman’s Drexel. Mr. Tarantino’s dialogue crackles and the two actors, Mr. Slater and Mr. Oldman, deliver the words like they’re Shakepseare. (“I’m not eating ’cause I’m not hungry. I’m not sitting ’cause I’m not stayin’. I’m not looking at the movie ’cause I saw it seven years ago. It’s The Mack with Max Julien, Carol Speed, and Richard Pryor. I’m not scared of you. I just don’t like you. In that envelope is some payoff money. Alabama’s moving on to some greener pastures. We’re not negotiating. I don’t like to barter. I don’t like to dicker. I never have fun in Tijuana. That price is non-negotiable. What’s in that envelope is for my peace of mind. My peace of mind is worth that much. Not one penny more, not one penny more.” Holy cow do I love that speech!!!)
Then there’s Val Kilmer as Clarence’s imaginary Elvis, Michael Rappaport as Clarence’s wannabe-actor friend Dick, Brad Pitt (yes, that Brad Pitt) as Dick’s perpetually-stoned, couch-dwelling roomate, Bronson Pinchot (Cousin Balkie himself) as Elliot, the weenie assistant to Hollywood producer Lee Donowitz, Saul Rubinek (Frasier, Curb Your Enthusiasm) as Donowitz, James Gandolfini (The Sopranos) as the tough mob hit-man Virgil, Samuel L. Jackson in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role as a doomed drug-dealer, Chris Penn (Nice-Guy Eddie in Reservoir Dogs) and Tom Sizemore (Natural Born Killers, Heat, Saving Private Ryan) as a pair of LA cops… good lord, need I go on? Each one of those actors could headline a movie, and they each make their character instantly iconic and interesting even if they only have a few minutes of screen time. I am extraordinarily impressed with Mr. Scott’s eye for casting this film.
I wrote above about Mr. Scott’s careful balance of the tone of the film, and in considering that balance I must also praise Hans Zimmer’s wonderful score. It’s not an out-and-out comedic score, but it certainly adds a note of whimsy to the film’s events. I think this helps establish the film, in the audience’s mind, as being a bit left-of-center of reality. It’s terribly effective.
True Romance is undeniably bizarre, and I’ll admit that I had to pause at some of the film’s more outlandish twists. (Most problematically, I never really bought Clarence’s decision, after his magical first night with Alabama, to go and confront her pimp Drexel. There’s no real reason for his character to do that, except that it’s that confrontation that sets the whole rest of the story in motion. But even in the heightened reality of the film that had already been established, I never believed that this guy who works in a comic book shop would ever decide to go and do that.) But I was nevertheless quite swept away by the atmosphere of the film, by its humor and intensity and audacious weirdness. The film fits squarely into Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre, and I’m pleased to have revisited it after all this time.
I’ll be back soon with my thoughts on Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide!