Synopsis: Boy meets girl. Girl is a hooker. Girl falls for boy. Boy kills her pimp. They steal some coke and flee to Hollywood. A love story for the ages, with a whole lot of guns.
As part of my James Gandolfini retrospective I wanted to go back and look at one his earliest roles I remember, and at the same time give myself a reason to revisit one of my favourite movies of all time, True Romance.
Twenty years on it still makes me smile like a child from start to finish.
For those that haven’t seen it, firstly: what have you been doing the last 20 years? Stop reading this and go stream it right now. If you can’t be bothered though let me explain. If Natural Born Killers is Tarantino doing Bonnie & Clyde, then True Romance is his Romeo & Juliet. Two tragic and flawed lovers destined to be together despite the forces of the Universe conspiring to keep them apart. It is a story of the awesome power of unrelenting love and the strength it can give people to do extraordinary things. In this case that strength comes in the form of Clarence (Slater) killing the white rasta pimp (Gary Oldman) of a girl (Arquette) he meets on his birthday at a Kung Fu triple bill. In doing so he accidentally acquires $500k of coke that belongs to the mob. The star crossed lovers decide to travel to Hollywood to sell it and make a new life for themselves, all the while being pursued by the mob, led by Vincent “evil personified” Coccotti (Walken) and Virgil (James Gandolfini). And when he feels like he might be losing his nerve Clarence can always count on his mentor, Elvis, to turn up and give him sage words of advice. It is, by definition, a Tarantino love story.
Back when he was still a fledgling director with one, albeit immense, movie under his belt, QT was padding out his pockets selling scripts. A year before we felt the full force of his encyclopedic knowledge of geek culture in Pulp Fiction, we got True Romance. By filtering QT’s peerless talent for snappy pop culture infused dialogue and his patchwork of homages to exploitation cinema through the ruthlessly commercial eye of Tony Scott, we also got one of the best pieces of work either of them produced.
It was also arguably a career high for Slater and Arquette as star crossed lovers Clarence and Alabama. Certainly Slater has never been more likeable than as the Elvis obsessed, Kung Fu and comic book loving loser. QT has been open in saying that Clarence is essentially based on him. And watching this in later life, knowing that much more about QT as I now do, it becomes less and less subtle. When you hear the way Clarence talks with passion about Spiderman #1, Jailhouse Rock and the fact that he’d sleep with Elvis “if he had too” it’s all too easy to hear those words flowing out in that staccato nasally Tarantino voice. Given the pastiche of himself Tarantino has become it’s easy to forget how fresh and exciting a writing talent he was 20 years ago. Without the engorged ego that he would develop from critics and movie goers fawning over him at every turn, it’s a beautifully stripped back and honest account of how QT saw the world from behind the counter of his video rental store all those years.
Unsurprisingly when writing himself as the hero of the movie QT gave himself the woman you imagine he thought about every night when he tucked himself in with his favourite Sonny Chiba VHS. Smart, unfeasibly cute, devoted, smoking hot and with a love of grindhouse cinema, the only way she could be more of a quintessential Tarantino love figure is if she was a giant foot. Patricia Arquette’s portrayal of Alabama melts my heart. I want to bottle her imperfect smile and girlish giggle and open it when I am sad. Like Slater, she has never been better. As Virgil points out as he he holds her wet and bloodied head “she’s got heart”.
Which brings me onto why I decided to watch True Romance again in the first place. I never need a reason but trawling back through James Gandolfini’s early work gave me one nonetheless. As was so often the way, he was required to play against his character as brutal henchman Virgil, a man who is so numb to violence he kills just to see the change in the expression on his victims’ faces. He really only has one major scene, like so many of the big name supporting cast, but it is a viciously stylised and prolonged portrayal of Alabama’s resilience to his violence as he tries to beat the location of the coke out of her. Never has a motel room, with it’s neon decor and mirrored ceiling, felt more like a cross between a Duran Duran music video set and a scene from The Bourne Identity. The brillianty perverse expression that he pulls as he first lamps ‘Bama and just before they cut is worth the DVD price alone.
The use of occasional episodic scenes that wrap the central narrative also gave some clue in hindsight as to how he was constructing Pulp Fiction. The most famous and entertaining is the back and forth between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken as Coccotti tries to locate Clarence and Alabama. Hopper’s Sicilian blood line speech is pure Tarantino delivered with heart and humor. Watching two character acting giants trade blows with Tarantino’s dialogue still makes my hairs stand on end. It makes the De Niro/Pacino Heat scene look like a dinner theatre production.
There are too many cameo highlights to mention and I could wax lyrical for hours about Gary Oldman’s pre Leon turn as dreadlocked pimp Drexl Spivey, Brad Pitt’s stoner Floyd, or Val Kilmer’s turn as the spectre of Elvis who appears to Clarence in times of self doubt. But in the interest of time I will leave those pleasures for you to discover yourself.
I can’t finish without taking a moment to remember just how great Tony Scott was when he was on form. He made unashamedly commercial movies. Unlike his brother he never took himself too seriously and that attitude carried over into his movies which were, on the most part, personified popcorn entertainment. With True Romance, when shifting the action to Hollywood, he was able to capture and satirize the community of over coked and over massaged egos that supported him without concern for his own personal relationships. It saddens me that the last movie he made, before tragically being overwhelmed by depression last year and taking his own life, was Unstoppable (reviewed here).
True Romance reminded me of just what a special commercial talent he really was and how young popcorn directors can look to his work on how to make entertaining, glossy cinema with heart, humour and purpose.
Conclusion: Arguably Quentin Tarantino has never been smarter or more accessible than in sculpting this pop culture injected anti Bonnie & Clyde story. Every time I watch it I never want it to end. My perfect love story.
Director: Tony Scott – The Scott brother who never disappeared up his own butt, his commercial sensibility bled into everything he did. For me he never bettered True Romance, although Man on Fire runs a close second.
Writers: Quentin Tarantino – His best script not called Pulp Fiction, back when he was writing Tarantino dialogue rather than someone trying to write like Tarantino and seeming like they are trying to hard
Cast: Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Brad Pitt, Tom Sizemore, Chris Penn, James Gandolfini, Val Kilmer, Gary Oldman, Samuel L Jackson, Bronson Pinchot, Saul Rubinek, Michael Rapaport
- The comic book that Clarence shows Alabama is “Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos” #18. In this issue, Nick has gotten a ring for his sweetheart (Pamela Hawley) that he keeps on a chain around his neck. Later in the story, he gets in a fight with a Nazi and the ring falls overboard but Fury dives into the ocean to retrieve it. What Clarence doesn’t tell Alabama is that when Fury returns to give the ring to his love he finds she’s been killed. On a side note, Samuel L. Jackson (who appears as Big Don) would go on to play Fury in Marvel’s series of Avenger films.
- According to Dennis Hopper, the only words that were improvised in the scene with Christopher Walken were “egg plant” and “cantaloupe”
- The structure of the script was different in Quentin Tarantino‘s original script. The first two parts of the movie were told in trademark Tarantino nonlinear fashion. Director Tony Scott hired ‘Roger Avery’ to change the script to linear structure for filming
- Tony Scott gave Patricia Arquette the Cadillac featured heavily in the film as a gift after filming wrapped.
- The hat Brad Pitt wears in the kitchen sequence he found abandoned on the boardwalk in Venice, California. He took it, washed it, and wore it for the film