‘True Romance’ (1993) Revisited

  How does Quentin and Tony’s cocaine rollercoaster ride hold up, almost 30 years after its release?

“Tony is all about rock n’ roll” – Ridley Scott, speaking in the ’90s about his brother Tony Scott

“I’m a plagiarist – I always look back at other movies, and I steal, but I steal well, and I reinvent” -Tony Scott

“We now return to Bullitt, already in progress” – Clarence Worley

Do you remember The Summer Of Quentin?

It lasted more than a summer. More than a winter too. It lasted maybe four years in total and started with a tense, bloody ensemble piece about 6 yappy, profane bad guys dressed like undertakers cracking and perishing under the weight of their own mutual mistrust. It peaked with the second-most memorable dance scene John Travolta ever did, at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a pop culture diner that looked like the inside of its yappy, profane young author’s head. And in between it took two road trips, both the mirror image of the other, where extreme violence coexisted with sweetness and tenderness: a comic book cinematic universe long before such a thing was called into world-dominating existence…

Popular cinema thrives on the idea of the auteur: it wets its jeans at the first scent of fresh blood in the water, the New Voice that renders everything within earshot obsolete, unhip, unnecessary, tired. To live through the 90s was to be suddenly deluged by films where everyone was an expert on popular culture, rock n’ roll, comic books, old movies, old TV. Whole pages of dialogue about cheeseburgers and Elvis and The Partridge Family were jutting awkwardly out of scenes where they didn’t quite fit. Violence was more extreme than ever, but it was also somehow meant to be funny now. It’s alright ma, they’re only bleeding.

The man who was to blame for this metatextual revolution was in the ascendant in the early nineties, and of the four films that came out in that blood-red Summer of Quentin with his name attached it became clear that he was the only one who really knew what he meant, who could really do his own patented blend of wittily arch dialogue and wacky, slapstick cruelty justice.  The two films he wrote and directed in this period (Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction) were literal game-changers: The two films he wrote but didn’t direct were much messier affairs, tonally uneven, ostentatiously directed on bigger budgets than Quentin Tarantino himself would see for a long time. Neither of them were unqualified triumphs, but both were way more interesting than anything else around them at the time.

Let’s leave Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers aside for now: Tarantino disowned and disavowed it from the get-go. Too up-itself with portentous meaning, too polemical, too avant-garde: it was a cinematic action painting, as vivid and exciting and messy as mainstream film gets, but it felt hollow: a spectacle of the society, a funhouse mirror of the Quentinverse where the pep and zest and fun had been sucked out and replaced with cleverness. Not what we want to talk about today.

Its companion piece (and originally part of a much, much, MUCH longer screenplay called The Open Road, which encompassed both NBK and large parts of Pulp Fiction) is another story of young love among the bullets, beatings and bad luck of a life on the run. But this one came with the QT stamp of approval. A director he loved, a screenplay left largely unmolested by rewrites and what would turn out to be one of the most extraordinary casts ever assembled for a Hollywood film.

True Romance is still, almost 30 years after its release to a largely baffled and disgusted reception from the public at large, an odd, uneven curio. Its qualities are abundant, its originality undeniable, its audacity breath-taking, the skill with which it’s assembled as plain as day. But does it work? Did it ever? Does it matter? We’re living through a different cultural moment now. It’s harder to laugh at some things. Edginess has lost its edge. Let’s see how Quentin and Tony’s cocaine rollercoaster ride holds up, shall we?

The premise is pure Incel Wish Fulfilment. Clarence Worley (played by Christian Slater at full squint, like Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood were fused together in the tele pod from The Fly) is what all teenage nerds secretly want to be: a repository of arcane tastes and secret knowledge about rockabilly, Elvis Presley, Sonny Chiba martial arts movies, Nick Fury comic books. At a late-night screening of The Streetfighter trilogy in a hazy fleapit cinema a leopard skin-clad bombshell named Alabama (a vibrant, funny, career-making turn from Patricia Arquette) drowns him in popcorn and apologies and awkwardly befriends him in the strobing half-light from the screen: before too long they’re getting to know each other in a neon-lit midnight diner, and eventually they’re pressing their perfect silhouettes together in Clarence’s blue-tinted bedroom.  Light is being mentioned a lot, you’ll notice, which is because, much like his brother, Tony Scott never met a diffused fill light or a dry ice machine he didn’t like.

But, as Clarence himself perceptively notes, there’s something ‘rotten in Denmark’ from the get-go. Alabama isn’t just there for the popcorn, pie and kung fu: Clarence’s boss at the comic book store has paid her to be with him on his birthday. Only thing is, Alabama never expected him to be both good-looking AND sweet and she’s fallen head over heels for him four days into her new job as a call-girl (do NOT call her a whore). Clarence is equally besotted of course and together they decide to wait out the coming storm together as giggling newlyweds in the Detroit snow.

But Clarence, as it turns out, is not only good-looking, sweet and a repository of arcane pop-culture: he is, it’s heavily suggested, just a little psychotic. He carries on whole back and forth conversations with Elvis Presley (Val Kilmer, partly out of focus, partly out of frame in a gold lame jacket) where his smouldering resentment towards Alabama’s pimp Drexel (Gary Oldman, playing a kind of dreadlocked proto-Ali G) is kindled into vengeful fire. When his negotiations for Alabama’s freedom go south quickly and violently they take off on a cross country trip, pursued by ruthless mobsters, to end up where else but Hollywood: the dream factory fuelled by the very cocaine Clarence and Alabama happen to have accidentally acquired a bulging suitcase of.

To divulge much more of the plot wouldn’t be fair to those seeking True Romance out for the first time: suffice it to say thing go very, very, very badly, for a lot of people who cross our dynamic duo’s path. They’re not the bad guys (we’re told repeatedly), they just attract the attention of a lot of bad guys, most of whom end up dead as Dillinger.

To give this film its due, it’s a handsomely-mounted operation, from all angles. Tony Scott cut his teeth on slick car commercials, and his lighting and editing feel like that hazy, rarefied, permanently-foggy autumn morning, or that searingly red-hot summer afternoon, where such ads exist: a kind of parallel universe of sexy silhouettes and shafts of smoky light, bathing everything in an idyllic smear of almost neon textures, which are barely glimpsed before being whipped away for the next light-drenched tableau. Pauline Kael, among others, frequently berated him for this tendency, nicknaming him Tony ‘Make It Glow’ Scott . It worked for him for nigh-on three decades though. Those unmotivated shafts of light and (by the end of his career) almost stroboscopic flurries of editing had legions of fans in the flickering fleapits of the world.

It’s a handsomely-worded operation too. Quentin Tarantino almost reinvented the way characters talk in films, drawing from many sources in hard-boiled pulp, comic book lore and exploitation cheese to give us something that sounds like realistic dialogue but on closer inspection is as stylised and self-consciously unreal as anything Shakespeare, Joyce or Beckett ever wrote. His characters are hipper-than-hip, badder-than-bad, occasionally madder-than-mad. Everyone has a story they want to tell, and won’t shut up until they’ve told someone, in granular detail, with much colourful embellishment and ripe language.

Here his tendency to put intricate monologues in the mouths of his characters drew the sort of cast most films can only dream of: as well as stalwarts like Chris Penn (working with Tarantino for the second time after Reservoir Dogs), Victor Argo, Michael Rappaport (as palpably excited as a newborn pup playing in the biggest sandpit of his life) and a lean-and-hungry young Tom Sizemore, we witness a handful of legendary actors gifting us with one or two-scene cameos that linger in the memory long after the gunfire and sweet-talk of our two leads have faded.

Notable performances come from some pleasingly unexpected sources: Brad Pitt, caught at the height of his youth, beauty and ripped-surfer-dude-cum-fashion-model megastardom having a bit of a laugh as the perma-stoned roommate of Clarence’s LA actor buddy:  he’s in maybe four scenes and his screen time can’t amount to that many minutes, but his presence leaves a (not-entirely-hygienic) mark.

The aforementioned Gary Oldman, complete with dreadlocks, horrible fashion sense, scars on his face, a cloudy eyeball, metallic teeth and a noticeably relaxed attitude towards the N-word makes an absolute feast out of his two scenes early on. On the commentary track Tony Scott mentions Oldman’s status as a modern ‘Man Of A Thousand Faces’, and one is reminded that few big movie stars are so relentlessly driven as Our Gary to hide themselves completely inside flamboyant grotesques like Drexel.

The most unexpected masterpiece of casting (and, it has to be said, most of the genuinely big laughs) come from Bronson Pinchot (yes, the guy from fondly-remembered, probably not that great ‘80s fish-out-of-water sitcom Perfect Strangers) as Clarence’s harassed, panicky and sceptical Hollywood go-between Elliot. Somewhere between an oily, self-serving snake and a nervous little boy way in over his head, Pinchot is terrific: his dysfunctional relationship with his snarky, borderline-abusive movie producer boss Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek, fantastic) is hysterical and saddening all at once.

The film has a symmetrical structure, and at near-equidistant points from its beginning and its finale come two one-on-one confrontations between hunter and prey, that ends with one of them dead. The first is arguably the scene that everyone thinks of instantly now when they think of True Romance, and it’s the one scene in the film where Tarantino’s dialogue is so powerful and surprising that it hushes Scott’s hyperactivity as director: it’s the only scene in the film that feels like it could have been lifted whole from Quentin’s own oeuvre, and it dominates the film disproportionately.

As Christopher Walken’s hulking, quietly menacing mob enforcer Vincent Cocotti settles down in his seat across from a bleeding, groggy Dennis Hopper (playing Clarence’s luckless, doomed father Clifford) something tints the air immediately and it isn’t just more of that bloody diffused light.

We know something special is about to go down, and oh boy, does it ever. Walken’s Cocotti is a one-scene masterpiece of menacing charm, quietly inflected threats and sudden bursts of physical brutality: Hopper’s Clifford Worley is a man who’s escaped a life of turmoil and oblivion and now just wants his own little patch of peace and quiet to ride out his remaining days. Clifford has no desire to go out in a blaze of glory, but to protect his fugitive son and new daughter-in-law it’s what he’ll have to do. He just accepts his fate as quietly as he can, and decides, while smoking a final cigarette, that he’s going to stick a few verbal knives into his captors before he goes down.

Much has been said about the shockingly racist nature of Hopper’s monologue: is he himself calling on his innate white-trashness and bringing up a deep-seated xenophobia against blacks and Sicilians, or is he cleverly using his adversary’s innate xenophobia against him? Perhaps the genius of the scene is that we’re never sure, and we never will be. Tarantino’s people are like that. We’re never sure what they’ll do next.

Almost hidden within this scene is a stocky, nondescript young man in a brown overcoat. At a given signal he’s the one who slices Hopper’s hand open and pours what looks like vinegar into the wound. He’s the guy who gets his own moment of infamy in the notorious motel room scene later on, as he batters a defiant Patricia Arquette almost to death (the scene which got the film significantly censored in many territories, including the US). It’s Tony Soprano himself, the late James Gandolfini in his first featured screen role, and the seeds of what he’d later become are all there: the charm, the likeability, the underplayed intelligence. Then suddenly WHAM, a capacity for cold-blooded violence that makes us physically flinch in our seats. The scene is tough, the toughest in the film. It hurts us to see our cute, witty little heroine succumb to the fists of this monster: when she turns the tables in a righteous rampage of revenge the film at least acknowledges that this is costing her something profound.

The fact that none of these many virtues really add up to that much is curious then.  True Romance has become an enduring cult classic in the intervening years, and this handsome Blu Ray is fine resting place for its legacy. But it’s an unsatisfactory film in many ways. There’s so much going on in it, almost too much, and Scott is not quite up to the ensemble complexity. It’s one of those films that feels like it should be great on first viewing, and it’s certainly never boring. But there is, sadly, something about its certainty in its own audacity that feels cloying and unearned. A handful of terrific moments SHOULD make a great movie, but there’s more to it than that. Scott practically invented what has become known as the ‘Simpson-Bruckheimer’ movie (named after the producers of his breakthrough hit Top Gun) and quite the Pandora’s Box of stylistic excess that was. The fact that Scott considered this glossy, noisy overstuffed  confection his ‘risky, low-budget, experimental’ movie tells you all you need to know about Hollywood in the 90s. Scott seems to think he’s making another Bonnie and Clyde or Badlands (Hans Zimmer’s jaunty, percussive musical score lifts the melody and arrangement of Carl Orff’s Schulwerk, used in Badlands to eerily counterpoint the flat affect of its psychotic, amoral young couple, note for note without so much as an acknowledgement), but it’s missing the vastness and desolation that those films offer. Scott is too hyped-up, too enamoured of the quick cut and the hazy filter to let his film rest easy enough to find the profundity that those earlier films touch on.

With the distance of almost 30 years (yikes…) True Romance is clearly a stepping stone from one Hollywood to another, but it struggles to be its own thing. The Blu Ray extras give us hints of its afterlife in a little featurette about the guy who bought the pink/purple Cadillac that Clarence drives in the film, who also organises an occasional True Romance festival at the Hollywood motel where it was filmed. True believers lounging around the pool dressed like Clarence, Alabama, Elvis, even God forbid Drexel:  it’s striking and perhaps fitting that a film so soaked in the ether of popular American culture, where people speak about and try to sound like their silver-screen heroes with almost religious fervour should become its own cult, its own quasi-religion.  There’s something to it, hell there are a million things to it, but whether it stands the test of time, whether it works, whether it ever did, can only be up to you.

Your mileage, as they say, may vary.

❉ ‘True Romance’ Limited Edition 4K UHD Blu-ray was released by Arrow Video on 19 July 2021, RRP: £34.99. Click here to order.

❉ Daniel Marner is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

Images courtesy of Fetch Publicity/Arrow Films & Video.

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