Although it is not the most famous film of the 1990s, “True Romance” is a sort of “unicorn” film of the era. We have the odd situation in which the writing credit on this movie is more noteworthy than the directing credit. Director Tony Scott is most famous for homoerotic testosterone booster films like “Top Gun”, which is all well and good, but the writer of the screenplay is Quentin Tarantino, who is on the Mount Rushmore of cinema and is clearly the more important human being. At the time, Tarantino had only directed “Reservoir Dogs” and was not as much of a known commodity, but the fetishized violence and edgy dialogue that has become his calling-card is ever-present. It would be fair to say that “True Romance” is the pseudo-prototype for some of Tarantino’s later, more remembered works such as “Pulp Fiction” and “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood”, and many of the other brilliant stories he seemingly can print out like they are counterfeit 20 dollar bills. Think “American Psycho” meets “Bonnie and Clyde” mixed with the twinkle in Tarantino’s eye that will eventually become “Pulp Fiction” and you’ve got the unadulterated adrenaline rush that is “True Romance”.
The story is a borderline fantasy or vision of escapism for a man named Clarence (Christian Slater) who lives a life of aloof nothingness that is so pathetic that his boss feels obligated to pay for a call-girl for him on his birthday so he doesn’t spend another one alone. A nerdy comic book-loving, Elvis Presley idolizing, Kung-Fu cinema enthusiast who is notoriously bad with women (I wonder where Tarantino came up with this idea), Clarence sets forth on a violent journey with an innocent yet sexually enthusiastic young call-girl, named Alabama (Patricia Arquette), who falls in love with him instantaneously. Along the way, they get caught up with violent pimps, mafia bosses, sleazy Hollywood executives, and $5 million of sweet, juicy, uncut cocaine. “True Romance” is a high energy film that feels like a cinema nerd with severe ADHD and a drug problem put the spiciest foods into a blender and somehow the whole thing came out appetizing.
Clarence is the likeliest surrogate for the audience of the film. He is a lonely nerd who gets a beautiful woman to fall in love with him instantly and then begins to live out all of his impulsive fantasies. He sports a deep “cool” factor that sometimes borders on unrealistic, because most people who view themselves as this kind of cool, rarely are. Seemingly driven solely by his imaginary friend, Elvis Presley, who insists on living as he does in ‘Jailhouse Rock’ where nothing matters “except rockin’ and rollin’, living fast, dying young and leaving a good-looking corpse”. If he were a real person, I feel like most people would be afraid of him. His unpredictability and self-assured righteousness of his actions are very unnerving. He radiates danger which is also his very appeal. While he is never explicitly chasing “release” from his own life, the implied sharp 180 degree about-face he does to go on this wild rampage signifies a man who was exceptionally repressed searching for the faintest rush of life and going overboard.
Slater and Arquette have tremendous chemistry which gives Clarence and Alabama an incredibly entertaining dynamic. Both are so dangerously impulsive that they fall in love after one night and set the whole plot in motion because they dove head-first into the deep end. The love is a bit unrealistic but the fact that they are total strangers is meaningless since the story is essentially about living like you are on fire. Unfortunately, after their initial night together, Alabama is more of a supporting character to Clarence, despite being billed as the co-lead of the duo. She still has scenes where she is able to shine, but ultimately, we do not get to know as much about her in the later parts of the film and it seems as though she goes along with everything because Clarence decides so. However, they are both fun characters that are much smarter and far more capable than they let on which is hidden behind their seemingly inexperienced and naïve demeanor. Is there anything more American than two deranged maniacs who are physically incapable of experiencing fear and can kill you then do the nasty on your still bleeding corpse?
The supporting cast for this film is incomparably deep, consisting of Oscar winners at every turn. Gary Oldman plays a Rastafarian pimp with a scarred face, weird voice, and a glass eye. Christopher Walken plays a mafia crime boss who is not afraid to do his own dirty work. Brad Pitt is an almost too realistic stoner roommate. And despite having minimal screen time compared to the leading cast, they are all like magnets drawing your eyes towards them. Their dialogue is enthralling, giving off vibes of many of the great Tarantino monologues that he had yet to produce at this point. Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper engage in a particular exchange that is dubbed “The Sicilian Scene” which could easily exist in any of Tarantino’s other films and be amongst the most memorable scenes from that respective film. Every word has a purpose and each seemingly has been mapped out, utilizing oddly specific and antagonizing wordage to create an aura of volatility and unease. It may not be a topic you wish to repeat in public but it is incredibly entertaining nonetheless.
The most attractive reason to watch this film is that it oozes natural human interest. The vivid color pallet used in the costumes and setting can only be matched by the wild personalities of the characters that inhabit this high-paced world. It is full of pop culture references and criticisms of the movie industry that clearly exhibit what Tarantino thinks of pretentious formulaic award darlings that are produced every year. Wisely, “True Romance” possesses the necessary self-awareness to keep itself from straying into the stilted boringness it keeps preaching against, all while being accessible with only a minimal strain of thought, just so long as blood and violence do not make you squeamish.
I give “True Romance” an 8.7 out of 10
Starring: Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Val Kilmer, Michael Rapaport
Directed by: Tony Scott
Runtime: 1 Hour and 59 Minutes