Imagine being a young film buff, working in a video store and writing a screenplay that tapped into your every cinephile fantasy.
The script provided a celluloid alternate life in which you are the anti-hero, pairing your film self with a “hooker with a heart of gold” named Alabama.
That’s exactly what Quentin Tarantino did when he crafted “True Romance,” his all-star cult classic and an early triumph by one of the most distinctly American filmmakers. However, even as the dialogue, characters and story are quintessential Tarantino, he didn’t direct the film.
While Tarantino’s film debut, “Reservoir Dogs” was, by turns, dazzling and horrifying art house theaters and slowly gathering a fanbase, his “True Romance” script was snapped up by Warner Brothers and given a big budget sheen by no less than “Top Gun” filmmaker, the late Tony Scott.
When “True Romance” surfaced late into the summer of 1993, the Christian Slater/Patricia Arquette-starrer, with its ultra-violence, hilarious dialogue and slightly ahead-of-its-time blend of hip post modernism and crime movie revisionism, died instantly in theaters.
Since Tarantino wasn’t a household name yet, only a few critics even noted that the film was penned by the same madman behind “Reservoir Dogs.” Over the years, “True Romance” found its audience and not simply because Tarantino’s hit streak, influence on film and pop culture makes his every work an event.
The cult following of “True Romance” is every bit as potent as those who can recite every line of dialog from “Pulp Fiction.” Its typically every Tarantino fan’s favorite Tarantino film not directed by the man himself.
Looking at the film as it quietly surpassed its 25th anniversary, “True Romance” remains a renegade work, the kind of spectacularly un-PC spin on love and crime that reflect 90’s nihilism and not the sensitive times we live in today.
Yet, then as it is today, the film is a movie about movies, a joyful (if occasionally savage) expression of the playfulness and possibilities of film.
FAST FACT: “True Romance,” released Sept. 10 1993, earned $12.2 million at the U.S. box office. That year’s no. 1 attraction? “Jurassic Park” with a $357 million haul.
“True Romance” maintains it forceful presence, surprising sense of humor and tour de force performances that make it essential. There are very few things about it that don’t work. The scenes that do crackle in the mind and linger like a Royale with Cheese being downed with a tasty beverage.
The ballad of Clarence and Alabama goes something like this: Slater’s Clarence is a tightly wound comic book shop worker who spends his time away at the local pub, failing to pick up a date. While catching a Sonny Chiba retrospective at a local movie theater, Alabama literally runs into him and Clarence is immediately smitten.
Their quick courtship and subsequent marriage is interrupted by the discovery that Alabama, a kind hearted prostitute, has a pimp named Drexl (Gary Oldman) who is awaiting her return.
Describing the rest of the story is best handled by listing the characters who turn up: in addition to Oldman’s frightening Drexl, there’s Dennis Hopper as Clarence’s father and Christopher Walken (a year away from giving his “Gold Watch” monologue in “Pulp Fiction) as a reptilian gangster.
Vlogger Michael Rappaport as a semi-talented actor, Brad Pitt as a stoner couch potato, Bronson Pinchot as an on-edge Hollywood figure, Chris Penn and Tom Sizemore as cops, James Gandolfini as vicious killer and Saul Rubinek as a famous movie producer.
I failed to mention Val Kilmer, who plays Elvis.
“True Romance,” like a lot of great movies, is a study of contrasts. Note the opening credits, with its grim cityscape and homeless men enduring a vicious cold front by warming themselves next to a trash can fire. This is countered by Hans Zimmer’s dreamy score, which is appropriately lifted from Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” (another iconic work about dangerous lovers on the run).
Clarence works at Heroes For Sale and shows Alabama “Spider-Man #1,” a touch that wouldn’t entirely connect in ’93. Now, comic book fandom has caught up with this movie and Clarence, as any Marvel fanatic will note, is giving Alabama a glimpse at the Holy Grail.
Arquette’s Alabama is, of course, a recurring cinematic fantasy about prostitutes. Like Julia Roberts’ “Miss Viviane” in “Pretty Woman,” the movie assures us Alabama’s profession is okay, because she’s only been a call girl “for four days.”
Alabama’s having to be free from her pimp is a touch that mirrors another ’93 cult item, “Mad Dog & Glory.” In that film, Uma Thurman’s nightclub worker is presented as a “gift” to a meek police officer (Robert De Niro) from a sinister mob figure (Bill Murray).
Both “Mad Dog & Glory” and “True Romance” were a few years ahead of their time and would have done better released post-“Pulp Fiction,” when hip, violent, off-kilter crime comedies were in demand. Anyway, Arquette’s inner fire and vibrant turn sells the role.
The sequence where Clarence confronts Drexl in his creepy lair is amazing and the film at its best. As the intensity builds, the dialog crackles and the violence is savage. It abruptly ends, we’re back with our lovers who, after all we’ve just witnessed, appear to be completely nuts.
Clarence talks to his imaginary Elvis and “‘Bama” finds Clarence’s murder of Drexl an act of romantic gallantry.
You know the movie has us because the actors make us believe in Clarence and Alabama’s youthful romance, and we’re not put off by their brazen wackiness. We’re early into this crazy flick and already alerted to the extreme nature and Hollywood fantasy-logic on hand. Our response to all this is to just go with it and mirror Alabama’s “Okay-dokey doggy daddy.”
FAST FACT: Tarantino wrote “True Romance” with Robert Carradine and Joan Cusack in mind for the troubled young lovers. Yes, that Robert Carradine.
Hopper embodies Clarence’s father with unexpected warmth and humanity, playing the role as real as possible (a contrast to the grand work by Oldman and others). When we get to the now-legendary scene between Hopper and Walken (so scary and good), Hopper’s outrageous, knowingly offensive monologue only plays like it does because the two actors (another drastic study of contrasts) are so superb.
Their control as performers and how they build the scene is masterful.
When the story moves to California, it provides a rich, still spot-on satire of Hollywood’s lost souls and powerful morons. As one character puts it, “We’re both here, we might as well enjoy the ride.”
Slater is a great actor for this material. When he asks, “Elliot, do I look like a beautiful blonde with big tits and an ass that tastes like French Vanilla ice cream?” (twice in fact), you believe him. Tarantino’s dialogue frequently overdoes the profane hipness, but these actors are all sensational and clearly relishing his colorful wordplay.
Pinchot (who was recently released from his “Perfect Strangers” commitment) is a riot and the subplot with Penn and Sizemore works because the two are so funny together.
Among the dozens of movies referenced or name-dropped outright include “Bullitt,” “Mr. Majestick,” “The Mack,” “Freejack,” “Mad Max,” “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Rio Bravo,” “Doctor Zhivago” and the works of Sonny Chiba.
I may be forgetting about 50 other titles. Curiously absent is “Wild At Heart,” made three years earlier and an obvious influence that the film never brings up.
To provide some further contrast to this otherwise celebratory assessment of “True Romance:” it’s far more violent than necessary. Considering how controlled and deliberate the violence is in Tarantino’s films during this period, director Scott (who previously made the overreaching “Revenge”) pushes the brutality further than it needed to go.
Specifically, during the scene where Alabama is nearly murdered by Gandolfini’s smiling thug- Jeffrey L. Kimball’s cinematography is so beautiful and new Ferrari-slick, it makes Arquette’s horrifying beating seem fetishistic and it goes on forever. The suspense of the scene dissipates as it drags on.
Scott has never been one to flinch from vivid acts of barbarism (note his “The Hunger,” “The Last Boy Scout” and “Man on Fire”) but, during key moments, he drowns out Tarantino’s crude wit with the scream of gunshots and splashes of gore.
“True Romance” concludes with a shrill onslaught of violence, which is a shame, as the buildup is so good. There’s so much here that clicks, so many performances that dazzle and large chunks of the film that deserve their classic status.
The problem isn’t that the film is so fiendishly un-PC (then and now), as it fits the world of these flamboyant lowlifes. Rather, the deliberate contrast of unabashed romance and drug-fueled bloodshed sometimes makes for a bitter blend that tests audience patience.
Like the rollercoaster ride Scott captures at the mid-point, some will thrill to the brazen exhilaration, while others will try not to throw up. At its best, “True Romance” merits Alabama’s concluding declaration that, “You are so cool.”