Directed by Tony Scott. Written by Quentin Tarantino. Produced by Gary Barber, Samuel Hadida, Steve Perry, Bill Unger. Music by Hans Zimmer. Photographed by Jeffrey L. Kimball. Edited by Michael Tronick, Christian Wagner. Production designed by Benjamín Fernández. Starring Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Val Kilmer, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, Christopher Walken, Bronson Pinchot, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Rapaport, Saul Rubinek, Conchata Ferrell, James Gandolfini, Anna Levine, Victor Argo, Paul Bates, Chris Penn, Tom Sizemore.
When you strip away its graphic violence, drug deals, prostitution, pimps, evil lowlifes and sleazy Hollywood executives, Tony Scott’s True Romance is a downright sweet movie. One could imagine a movie with this title and these elements, from director Tony Scott and writer Quentin Tarantino, to use its love story insincerely and with a wink. The very starkness of the title True Romance speaks to a presumably soon-to-be-revealed ironic distance. You would expect a stylistic exercise.
And yes, True Romance is a stylistic exercise. Yet it is also honest about its central characters, even within a hyper-realistic setting, and their love story is real, convincing, and charming. The two heroes, Clarence (Christian Slater) and Alabama (Patricia Arquette) are fugitives—but they’re running from the Mafia, not the cops, and when the cops do get involved later, it’s through a series of misunderstandings that would be at home in a screwball comedy. Clarence’s main goal, which is to sell a suitcase full of cocaine to a mid-level drug distributor (Saul Rubinek), is illegal, certainly, but we respect his honest attempt to exploit a morally neutral system that’s already in place, since he otherwise has no idea what to do with the drugs. And, as he points out, he prices them knowingly at a bargain to make things easier. Not that it does, but good for him.
Even the couple’s more unseemly crimes can be allowed. Both Alabama and Clarence are capable of killing, but I wouldn’t exactly call them murderers. Not only are there Sicilian mobsters pursuing them, but these guys are vicious and evil, as a hotel room confrontation with one tough guy proves. As for the man that Clarence killed and stole the drugs from, a repulsive pimp named Dexter Spivy (Gary Oldman), well…Clearence only went to him to stick up for Alabama, a former prostitute, and we soon learn that spending one minute with Dexter is reason enough to justify any homicide.
What I’m trying to say is that even though True Romance is about criminals, these people have a code and are considered about their crimes. They’re even nice about them, all things considered. This isn’t a cheap attempt at unwelcome irony, or a cynical stab at giving a lovers-on-the-lam adventure a different spin. It’s a methodical effort to make the point that all criminals have their reasons, and the movie invites us to judge the reasons, not the actions. When you do that, Clarence and Alabama come out looking pretty good.
I said before that this is a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino. Can’t you tell? Tarantino often gets labeled as an innovator of marrying crime fiction to pop culture—he writes stories about characters who watch, love and remember movies. We see that here, as we meet Clarence at a Detroit bar trying to invite a girl to a Sonny Chiba marathon. He doesn’t succeed, but he goes solo and meets Alabama, falling so hopelessly in love that he takes her first to his comic book shop and then to his bed, which in Quentin Tarantino-world sounds like the right order of priorities. When Clarence eventually meets Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek), a B-grade Hollywood producer and drug kingpin, the two men first bond enthusiastically about his movies. If Tarantino has a consistent theme that carries through all his work, it’s that movies are cultural currency; they create shared experiences that create reference points, conversations, and relationships.
But if Tarantino is a talented screenwriter (and he is), then he doesn’t get enough credit for his supreme talent: telling stories about morally questionable people that have as much heart and wit as a good drama, or even a romantic comedy. His characters are capable of gruesome actions, but they have feelings, passions and smarts. Tarantino helped pioneer that juxtaposition in Pulp Fiction (1994), a movie where each character, no matter how vicious, has vulnerabilities that define them past their capacity for murder. Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) and Pumpkin (Tim Roth) are stick-up artists whose love is so genuine they could be related to Clarence and Alabama. Vincent (John Travolta) takes out Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) and while he is scared about getting too close to his boss’ wife, his affection for her is real. Even Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), and his change of heart about his profession, is infused with thought and consideration. Tarantino’s lasting legacy, in Pulp Fiction and his later films, is that he invented characters who are criminals and make no apologies for that, but are also as clever, passionate and driven as any traditional hero.
True Romance, which was released the year before Pulp Fiction, contains many of these elements, and conforms to Tarantino’s predilection for predictable-seeming characters who end up surprising us…not for cheap laughs, but because I think this reflects Tarantino’s general worldview that people are surprising. There’s delight and invention humming through every scene, like in most of his work, and yet he keeps his eye on the ball and makes sure the love story is in the forefront. There’s lots of stylistic nonsense swirling throughout, but I think that’s calculated, as True Romance is a pop culture vision where the characters know they are in a movie, and why not? They love movies.
The success of the love story in True Romance is a testament to sharp writing and perfect casting. Christian Slater is a good-looking guy, sure, but he has a presence that, while we enjoy, we can certainly imagine getting on some people’s nerves. We understand why he might not have many friends, and that he’s unlucky with women. When Alabama comes to him, it’s like a gift from God that he’ll defend violently. Alabama, who starts a long tradition of Tarantino heroines who are abused but find strength, is wonderfully played by Arquette, who finds the character’s buoyancy, and makes everything else subservient to it. Not many actresses would be able to pull off her response to Clarence coming home and telling her he’s killed her pimp: “That is so romantic.” She does.
The strength of the two central performances is important, because True Romance is jam-packed with character actors who threaten to walk away with the picture. There’s Gary Oldman as the dreadlocked pimp Dexter, who has an intense scene with Clarence that escalates with precision that is pure Tarantino. Rubinek’s producer is foul-mouthed but hardly evil; it’s telling how even in the middle of a drug deal, he pauses to ask about a tangential character who wants to be an actor and asks “Is he any good?” And there’s Val Kilmer as Clarence’s “Mentor” inside his head, who is basically Elvis, and who really has to be heard to be belied. Just like in The Doors (1991), Kilmer shows exceptional skill at impersonating a famous rock star. Know you know the kind of movie this is when I tell you Elvis shows up for a few scenes as the main character’s conscience. But only a few scenes.
Look who else shows up. Brad Pitt plays the stoner roommate of Dick (Michael Rappaport), who helps the pair of lovers when they move to Los Angeles as a transition point to starting a new life. Samuel L. Jackson turns up for a scene as a drug dealer, as does Conchata Farrell as a casting agent. James Gandolfini has one scene as a tough guy who visits Alabama when she’s alone in their hotel room, and it’s a scene you won’t soon forget. Even sitcom star Bronson Pinchot appears as a nervous guy in Rubinek’s entourage who turns into an informant—if you ever want to see the guy who played Balki with a face full of cocaine, then here’s your chance. And the movie’s last third is almost completely dominated by Tom Sizemore, who plays a vice detective who’s as enthusiastic as a talk show host, while Chris Penn backs him up as Ed McMahon to his Carson.
The movie’s best scene comes at about the halfway point, as Vincenzo (Christopher Walken), the Sicilian mob boss, comes to visit Clifford (Dennis Hopper), Clarence’ father, who was the last person to see the boy. What follows is a tense exchange, wonderfully written by Tarantino, that combines humor with encroaching dread in just the right proportions. Both actors are exemplary, but I particularly like the little dying laugh that Walken gives himself towards the end, even when enraged by what he’s hearing. The speech, which speculates on Sicilian parentage, is chockablock with racist epithets, is not a racist scene, because it’s about the Hopper character manipulating a situation by using charged language. It’s risky and daring, and it gets away with it.
The film’s best quality is actually its worst quality: there’s an embarrassment of riches that screws with the movie’s momentum. Walken, as delightful as he is, only appears for a scene, which is odd since he should be a driving force of the conflict. For the rest of the movie, the Mafia angle is carried by smaller characters. Hopper only gets a couple of scenes. Rubinek is such a vivid character, but he’s only briefly sketched. I’m not criticizing Tarantino’s approach for making every character so colorful, but I do wish each character had more to do over the course of the film. And I do wish there was a more imaginative climax for all the remaining ones than a four-way Mexican standoff, which devolves into overblown chaos that is a little too reminiscent of the conclusion to Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992). The entire movie is pitched at the level of a fever dream, and at the end I think it gets a little too fevered.
Still, the movie works. It works because of its performances, its sense of humor, its well-calibrated moral compass, and because Tarantino’s script is ambitious in its juggling of elements, and constantly shocking and inventive. It it’s a worthy piece to the Tarantino script family, which extends not just to the films he directed but also his screenplays like Natural Born Killers (1994) and From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), with their deeply surprising script turns. And it extends even to movies he simply appears in, like Sleep With Me (1994), in which his character takes a moment to mark the homosexual subtext of Top Gun. No other writer/director is as ambitious and endearing at welding ludicrous flights of conversational fancy to subject matters (crime, romance, etc) that should be taken seriously. He makes it all work, because his characters, while often at odd angles to each other, are never at too far a remove from the material.
Like Top Gun, True Romance was directed by Tony Scott, a sterling technician and director of action pictures (Crimson Tide , Enemy of the State , Man on Fire , Unstoppable ). Scott’s trademarks were that of male-oriented action, and a stylized visual look that, as his career went on, only got more stylized (see the insane ramblings of Domino ). Here he keeps himself mainly reserved, resorting sometimes to canted angles and locations thick with smoke, color and depth…much like his brother, Ridley.
Scott’s stylistic touches get in the way once or twice in True Romance, especially in an early scene where Clarence takes Alabama to the comic shop he works at; there’s so many shadows and depth that we feel disconnected to the material. But for the most part, Scott’s choices work, since Alabama and Clarence are not real people, they’re hyper-stylized people in a hyper-stylized world, and they’re love is so pure and true that together it’s like they’re starring in a movie that’s unspooling in their own heads…a lurid, hyperkinetic movie perhaps much like True Romance. And I really l like for how Scott shoots True Romance, aided by cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball, placing Detroit in steely cool blues, and then moving to Los Angeles for sun-dappled hazy browns that really make both cities look good.
Something Scott never got enough credit for was his attention to actors. Many of action filmmakers give little thought to their principals, but Scott clearly liked working with them, and wanted to make them look good. Even outside the examples in True Romance, let’s look at the roster of other talented performers he worked with: Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Denzel Washington, Robert de Niro, Brad Pitt, Robert Redford, Will Smith, Gene Hackman, Eddie Murphy, Nicole Kidman, Jon Voight…it goes on. Scott took great steps to be an actor’s filmmaker even within relatively shallow big-budget studio adventure films (with a few notable exceptions). Scott was also deeply progressive in the casting of his tentpole action pictures; it’s telling that an accomplished actor like Denzel Washington chose to work with him multiple times, and vice versa.
Scott’s favorite subject was the urban, rough-and-tumble male. He liked tough guys, and occasionally white-collar men (and some women) who transformed into men of action. He loved photographing technology and cityscapes, and had a keen eye for making real (not stagebound) environments look evocative, expressive, and controlled, scaling back just from the edge of stylistic excess. He also valued experimentation—pushing the limits of how a film can look, advancing technology to accommodate his visions, and even embracing weird little touches that helped make the traditional a little different. (In the Denzel Washington thriller Man on Fire, for example, note how sometimes he puts dialogue on screen in dynamic subtitles, to indicate a dramatic headspace.) Sometimes his editing was a oppressive, but no one could argue that he didn’t love to make movies, and any artist who wants to experiment with the form deserves respect.
Scott, who died last week from a suicide attempt, leaves behind a body of work that is one of the more influential in today’s Hollywood. His Top Gun (1986), for better or worse, pointed the way towards the era of high concept blockbuster packages. But creating a genre isn’t easy, because if it was then everyone would do it, and we can only appreciate that Scott did it very well. His best film is probably True Romance, because while it has tons of action, it’s got quirky characters and a propulsive energy that speaks to a perfect union between writing and directing. Scott in many ways resembles the two central characters in True Romance: while frowned on by some, he did what he loved, all the way to the end, how he wanted it, and didn’t care what people think. There’s a purity to that approach. As true as romance.
This review is humbly dedicated to the memory of Tony Scott (1944-2012).