True Romance (1993)

Info SidebarI can only speculate as to why Quentin Tarantino refused to direct this movie himself. Every line of dialogue, every complication, every character breathes with his breath. From the opening scene alone we are assured that Tarantino’s fanboy passion for movies, pop culture icons, dirty language, and corrupt individuals transcend the words and speak in a language that only Mr. Blonde, Mr. Pink, Mr. White, Mr. Orange, and all those other colourful men are familiar with.

Here’s the opening scene: Clarence (Christian Slater) is sitting at a bar with a well-dressed woman. They start talking about random things. Elvis. Movies. The cinema. Kung fu movies. Sonny Chiba. The woman gets up and walks away. Clearly Clarence lives in a world of his own, content to enjoy the movies and equally content not to share them with anybody else (Sonny Chiba, as you remember, will later play the famous katana maker in Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies).

A beautiful call girl, named Alabama (Patricia Arquette), seduces him that night and sleeps with him. The next morning, they are in love. It’s the whole true romance thing. But she complains of her pimp, who’s a nasty fellow responsible for disfiguring some of the other girls’ faces. So Clarence decides to man up and take the pimp down. The pimp, wouldn’t you guess it, is played by Gary Oldman. Bloody brilliant. He’s a white guy who thinks he’s black — dreadlocks, ghetto speech, the whole shebang — and with a name like Drexl Spivey you’d expect him to run his own pharmaceutical company. In a way, he does. Illegal pharmaceuticals. Clarence invades Drexl’s pad, kills him and his bodyguard, and accidentally takes a suitcase stuffed with uncut cocaine.

Here’s where Tarantino’s story changes lanes and begins to resemble a Coen farce. This one little accident starts off a chain reaction that brings together cops, mobsters, Sicilian gangsters, a sympathetic father, idiotic movie moguls, and a couple of bums. They’re all thrown into this cauldron of mayhem, and to escape, they have to crawl over each other’s heads and reach for the rim. All the while, Tarantino’s fire is burning beneath them. The movie’s climax, which takes place in a sort of penthouse, is an explosive cacophony of gunfire and screams. It’s also reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs’ climax, but more intense and less tasteful.

The movie is directed by Tony Scott, who understands what the material is. He’s clever that way. He shoots his scenes with vibrancy, but most of the time he holds back, letting his characters speak for themselves. After all, what else can you do with a Tarantino script? You need only hold it in front of your face and it will talk to you. Tarantino is such a master of writing smooth dialogue that we never question its credibility. And in this case, neither does Scott. What he does with True Romance is admirable. He takes the Tarantino script, remembers his earlier movies like Top Gun, and fuses both together. In Top Gun, his characters played with big toys. Here, they play with smaller toys that compensate by being more unpredictable. Only one thing can be predicted: Everyone will die.

The cast is a mixed bag of acting legends. There’s Oldman, the pimp. Brad Pitt plays Floyd, the stoned bum. Chris Penn and Tom Sizemore play a couple of meat-headed policemen. There’s the movie producer, played by Saul Rubinek. A couple of the Sicilian gangsters come in the form of Christopher Walken and James Gandolfini. An unfortunate drug dealer is played by Tarantino stalwart Samuel L. Jackson. Val Kilmer is Clarence’s hallucinatory mentor Elvis Presley (say what?). And Dennis Hopper plays Clarence’s father. Some of these characters last long, others don’t. But they’re all adequate.

Where True Romance puzzles me is in its angle and intended message. There is a message, I’m sure of it. There’s also an angle. But what are they? Is the story told from Clarence’s point of view, or Alabama’s? Why does she narrate if Clarence is the one we’re first introduced to? And are we really meant to take their side? To me, they’re just a couple of low-level thieves trying to make a buck by selling stolen coke. It’s not a very honourable endeavour. If you think about it, all the gangsters want to do is reclaim their property. Sure, they have to torture and kill in the process — it’s what they do — but are they the real villains here?

Best Moment | Walken’s and Hopper’s conversation. Gold.

Worst Moment | The climax.

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