I have seen films from nearly every genre and nearly every decade, from Hollywood's Golden Age to the high art of the '70s to the modern wave of independent cinema. Of all those titles, there is one that stands apart from the rest. That is 1993's True Romance, a brilliant, wildly energetic and blistering masterpiece that puts every fiber of its being on a collision course with greatness, producing an explosion of crackling dialogue, devastating violence, varied personalities and, of course, young love. This is the kind of movie that gets better with every viewing. It's a testament to the talents of writer Quentin Tarantino and director Tony Scott to work in a genre that has seen many entries (Bonnie & Clyde, Drugstore Cowboy, Badlands), and come away with a funny, action-packed and thoroughly entertaining film.
When Tarantino wrote True Romance, he meant to direct it himself. He had another script in the works, Reservoir Dogs, but he lacked the funds to make it. In the end, he decided to sell his script for True Romance in order to make Reservoir Dogs. I can't say how well the film would have turned out under his direction, but I don't worry about that. Tony Scott is a capable director, and under his creative vision, True Romance turned out to be something special. It is my favorite film. There are no deep themes to analyze and no great truths to uncover. This is a headlong rush into a frenzied world where corruption and decadence are the norm.
Christian Slater stars as Clarence Worley, a young man who watches kung fu movies, reads comic books and idolizes Elvis Presley. His life isn't really going anywhere. That doesn't mean he's an underachiever in any way. He has a job in a Detroit comic book store, has an apartment and leads a stable life with no interruptions. He has a routine and is capable of fulfilling the simple pleasures in his life. He would like a girlfriend, but from what we gather in the opening scene, he just doesn't know how to approach women. That changes when he meets a call girl named Alabama (Patricia Arquette). She spills her popcorn on him during a Sonny Chiba triple feature. He doesn't get mad, but in fact is very polite and dismisses her goof as an accident. She likes kung fu movies too, and everything else he likes.
When the triple features ends, Clarence takes Alabama to the comic book store to show her around. There is a shot that lasts maybe ten seconds, but it says so much about these characters. Clarence shows Alabama a comic book and starts explaining its story to her. She listens with genuine interest, and nods her head slightly. This scene shows how Clarence is enthusiastic about meeting a girl who likes comic books, and wants to impress with his knowledge. He can be himself knowing that, for once, a girl won't dismiss him as some nerdish comic book store employee. In the way Alabama looks on, we sense her feelings for him emerging. She admires the simplicity of his life.
Once Clarence discovers the truth about Alabama's past, he turns into some kind of knight protecting his princess. He squares off with a horrifying pimp played by Gary Oldman, her former employer. When he returns, Clarence is stunned to see that a suitcase he thought was full of her belongings is actually full of cocaine. Alabama's reaction is priceless. This development leads to the heart of the story, which is of two young lovers on the run. The mob wants that cocaine back. After Clarence reunites with his estranged father Clifford (Dennis Hopper), he and Alabama head for California to sell the cocaine and live happily ever after. Their contact in Los Angeles is Dick Ritchie (Mark Rapaport), a struggling actor who has some connections and might be able to help sell the drugs.
Dick knows of a producer who can afford a suitcase full of cocaine. He is Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek), but first Dick and Clarence must convince him that there is no risk in this deal. As Lee's assistant Elliot Blitzer (Bronson Pinchot) reveals, this big-time movie producer has sellers who are reliable and safe. Buying from a no-name kid like Clarence is a gray area that Lee would want to be cautious about before making any commitments. Unfortunately, Elliot isn't very discreet about this potential drug deal, and after a patrolman pulls him over, under the influence and covered with cocaine, an investigation ensues and hotshot cops Nicky Dimes (Chris Penn) and Cody Nicholson (Tom Sizemore) grow excited over the possibility of busting one of Hollywood's leading producers.
Now, with two parties after them (the mob and the LAPD), Clarence and Alabama's situation grows increasingly complicated. The fact that they don't know about their pursuers adds tension to their predicament. What they're doing is illegal, that much is for certain, but Tarantino has a gift for creating sympathy for criminals. We wish the best for these lovebirds, and hope that somehow they can get away unscathed and with their dreams come true.
True Romance is divided neatly into three acts, with each one ending in some act of violence. The first act ends with Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken) paying a visit to Clifford Worley, in an effort to track down Clarence. Clifford does not cooperate, and what follows is one of the greatest scenes in the history of film. Vincenzo is an intellectual man, and he listens with interest, humor and increasing rage as Clifford explains the origins of Sicilians, using language as a weapon to stab his assailants with an unforgettable wound. The second act ends with Coccotti's henchman Virgil (James Gandolfini) attacking Alabama in her motel room, in a bloody fight that is unflinching in its brutality. The third act features one of those scenes Tarantino loves. All involved parties find themselves in the same room pointing guns at each other. In the middle of the room lies Clarence and Alabama's future.
There is not a single wasted performance in the movie. Christina Slater and Patricia Arquette are the stars, and even though screen veterans like Oldman, Walken and Hopper surround them, they are not overshadowed in any way. Their love and dedication for each other is always apparent. Both actors bring to their parts naiveté and confidence. They don't know what they're getting into, but once they become embroiled in a plot involving angry crime bosses and violent bodyguards, they adjust quickly to their new surroundings. Clarence successfully fools Lee Donowitz into believing his story about how he acquired the cocaine. (He lied and said a cop friend got into the evidence room and stole the suitcase.) How is that anyway, being that Clarence has obviously never dealt with drugs before? He probably learned how to talk that way by watching a lot of movies.
The supporting performances are all worth mentioning, but two in particular stand out. One is Brad Pitt as Floyd, Dick's roommate. Pitt was filming Kalifornia at the time, and couldn't accept the lead role as Clarence. Instead, he settled for the smaller part of Floyd, and gives the movie's funniest performance. He's onscreen briefly, but his response to Virgil, and later to the rest of the mob, concerning Clarence's whereabouts is hysterical. Also in a small role is Val Kilmer as Elvis. Clarence talks to him sometimes, when he's alone. What comes into question here is whether this is really Elvis' ghost or, more likely, a fabrication of Clarence's imagination. Either way, Elvis gives Clarence advice and assures him that he's on the right track.
Prior to True Romance, Tony Scott directed The Last Boy Scout, which had the same reckless attitude as this movie. That project prepared him for this effort. Working from Tarantino's screenplay, he adjusted the film's timeline into chronological order (Tarantino had the film out of order, like Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill) and changed the ending -- the right move in my opinion. What emerged is a fast-paced and kinetic film. No other movie has provided me with two hours of cinematic bliss more than True Romance.
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