True Romance February 3, 2015
Guns, girls, cigarettes, karate, violence, curses, movies, thugs, Hollywood, motels, fast cars, money, cocaine, mafia bosses, pimps, prostitutes, sunglasses, hamburgers, blood, laughter, Elvis, and romance.
I could go on writing lists for hours, but these 24 words are True Romance. Really. If it were a person, it would proudly state that it lives in the United States of America and that it is a fantasy world dreamt up by a hormonal 15-year-old boy. This might suggest that in store is a shallow film. But as the feature makes for one of Quentin Tarantino's first screenwriting jobs, the shallow attributes are lovably shallow rather than stupefying so.
Tarantino’s mind, I assume, resembles a glorified exploitation movie theater, bursting at the seams with Kung-Fu triple features and spaghetti Westerns, rockabilly music drifting in the background of the foyer. True Romance is a chase movie on crack, exploitative in its violence but charmingly energetic in its dialogue and its acting. It’s unbalanced, sometimes off-putting and sometimes gloriously enjoyable.
The true romance on display rests on the shoulders of Clarence (Christian Slater) and Alabama (Patricia Arquette), who marry after a whirlwind night surrounded by movies and bedsheets. Clarence is a comic-book nerd, a friendless average Joe who celebrates his birthday every year by watching a series of Sonny Chiba vehicles; Alabama, in serious contrast, is a prostitute, or, as she puts it, a call girl for the last three days. They’re a mismatch made in heaven, he with his skinny, badly postured manner and she with her red lipstick, beach-blonde hair, and seedy fur coats.
Though he’s euphoric knowing that he’s finally found Mrs. Right, Clarence simply cannot ease into domestic bliss knowing that Alabama’s pimp (Gary Oldman) is still sneaking around, possibly looking for her. So, after a long-winded and seriously violent confrontation, he kills him, steals his suitcase of cocaine, and hits the road, his wife in tow.
True Romance is directed by Tony Scott and stars Christian Slater, and those are the most prominent obstacles the film encounters in its explosive 120 minutes. When directing, Tarantino generally makes his violence comically bloody, silly even; Scott, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same tongue-in-cheek attitude his writer does in terms of bloodletting, not always lining up with Tarantino’s cavorting screenplay.
The sequence in which Alabama is ruthlessly beat up by one of her dead pimp’s associates is so disturbing, it mismatches the splintery, witty writing of the earlier scenes. Slater, while decent enough to be a distraction instead of a film destroyer, is miscast. His acting is too calculated, too cautious. In a film so unhinged, the lead must be just as unhinged. Thank goodness for Arquette, Gary Oldman, and Christopher Walken, who are all tremendous, and, yes, unhinged.
That’s what makes True Romance so frustrating. Sixty percent worth consists of brilliantly realized conversations, traveling with the ease of a continuous meet-cute. But the other 40 percent is composed of heinous violence that doesn’t quite match the lurid wink of the remaining 60.
The violence is almost forgivable, but when you find yourself with a clearer image of Dennis Hopper getting his hand sliced open by one of Walken’s henchman than Clarence and Alabama’s initial meeting, it’s much too difficult. But when True Romance is good, it’s truly exceptional; there is a reason why so many consider it to be a classic of ‘90s cinema. Some might praise it for its climactic shoot-em-up, some might root for Clarence and Alabama’s unconventional romance, and some might get a kick out of its dialogue. There’s something for everybody, but one out of those three people will have a hard time consuming it all with no questions asked. B