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Non-Review Review: True Romance

True Romance is one of those films I’m surprised never found a stronger audience, even retroactively. It features a screenplay from Quentin Tarantino which really put the future director on the map, but it also features a huge number of pre-stardom appearances from actors as diverse as James Gandolfini, Brad Pitt and Chris Penn. The movie holds together fantastically, but perhaps it works better as a collection of scenes than as a fully-realised movie – but, when the scenes are this good, that’s not necessarily a heavy criticism.

It's Whirley ride...

The movie follows the romance between Clarence Whirley and a callgirl names Alabama. She’s hired to spend the night with Clarence, a somewhat awkward but charming Elvis and pop culture fanatic, and the two end up falling head-over-heels in love. Through a variety of random events, fortuitous and otherwise, what follows is a surreal cross-country trip involving $500,000-worth of uncut cocaine, the mob, the cops, a slew of celebrity cameos.

The leads in the film are Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette and they are, perhaps, the best that they’ve ever been. They’re great – admittedly the couple are upstaged by many of the actors who pop in for a scene or two before the couple continue on their journey, but I could never understand why either of them (especially Slater) never really made it big afterwards (although Arquette has been on what seems like a lifetime-worth of Medium, so I guess it’s not too bad).

Walken in a walk-on part...

The script was written by Tarantino, and it’s easy to spot quite a bit of the director in his male lead. This is a guy who works in a niche comic book store (Tarantino famously worked in a video store) and who has a unique affection for obscure pop culture (for example, Clarence bumps into Alabama at a Sonny Chiba screening, a martial arts performer Tarantino has a lot of affection for – he even cast him Kill Bill).

Of course, Clarence ends up having a slightly darker side than the vast majority of Hollywood nerds (the cover to the DVD has Clarence holding a revolver and he causes his fair share of carnage), but he remains a likable guy throughout the film. Along the way, Clarence is advised by what appears to be the spirit of Elvis. “I like you Clarence,” the King declares, pointing at his fan. “Always have. Always will.” It’s little elements like these which give the movie a very distinctive flavour, especially when compared to typical romantic road movies.

Return of the King?

That said, the lead couple are somewhat upstaged by the supporting cast. One of the things I genuinely like about the movie is the way that it explains the strange circumstances and coincidences which conspire to affect the adventures of our protagonists – many of which they aren’t aware of. Clarence, for example, will never know how he ended up with a suitcase filled with cocaine – and neither the mob nor the cops can explain events as occurring the way that we saw them. No character in the film seems entirely aware of events as they actually unfolded (for example, nobody implicates Drexyl in the theft of the cocaine), except the audience.

It’s a neat little trick, and it reminded me of reading Romeo and Juliet in secondary school. To my young mind, the whole “delayed by being trapped in a plague town” as an explanation for the misunderstanding between the couple seemed a rather ridiculous external factor – because there’s no reference to it in the text before it happens, no foreshadowing or hinting. Here, we get to see all the little external factors which have a bearing on the story of Clarence and Alabama, and most of them make sense. It seems random, in the way that life really is – except maybe pushed to (or past) its logical extreme.

Dennis is menaced...

It helps that these littler interludes are populated by skilled actors reading Tarantino dialogue. Being honest, I imagine bits of this film are on a lot of actors’ showreels (well, they’re probably so famous they don’t need showreels, but you get what I’m saying). The film is directed by Tony Scott, and it’s to his credit that he can so skilfully integrate many of Tarantino’s tangents and diversions – like Gary Oldman and Samuel L. Jackson discussing oral sex or Dennis Hopper discussing the history of Sicily. Even minor moments, like a brief conversation between a stoned Brad Pitt and an eerily polite James Gandolfini (“don’t condescend me, man,” the stoner mutters, “I’ll #@!%in’ kill ya, man”), crackle with energy.

Then there’s the famous scene between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken. I posted it when Dennis Hopper passed away, because it’s the scene I think of when I think of either of the pair of them. It’s a masterclass in acting, as each actor approaches the scene in their particular style and manages to keep the audience’s attention without ever seeming to consciously try to upstage the other. It’s a throwaway scene, but it lasts nearly nine minutes – nine minutes of insanely quotable Tarantino dialogue delivers by two superb veteran actors, to a wonderfully dissonant soundtrack and a scene worth the price of admission alone).

Let he is yet to star in se7en, cast the first stoner...

There are various other cheeky moments throughout the film – for example, I loved the scene of the cops listening in Clarence and the actor, playing the role of audience surrogates – as they, for example, laugh at his antics or worry that he’s really going to pull the trigger. “I love this kid!” one of the cops listening to the wire remarks, with a smile on his face. Similarly, James Gandolfini’s scenes with Patricia Arquette give the actor a lot to work with as he discusses how your first kill is always the most difficult.

In the end, these numerous little diversions do threaten to overwhelm the film – but that’s not a bad thing. It helps that Clarence and Alabama are so earnest and their arc so clear that these moments don’t feel like a distraction – we know what our leads want and are up to, so it’s okay to take a few minutes to show what happened to Clarence’s father, for example. All of it is delivered in such a way, and with such charm, that it can’t help but win the audience over.

Who says romance is dead(ly)?

Hans Zimmer’s score is wonderful. It’s all based around classic romantic motifs, in a way that sounds instantly familiar and yet also original. The movie’s core theme is one that I frequently (and often subconsciously) find myself humming. Scott handles the direction with flair – the movie, despite containing Tarantino’s trademark dialogue, feels a lot more focused and direct than most of the autuer’s work. It’s a strange mix – it’s a fairly conventional road movie delivered in a very unconventional manner, and it’s to Scott’s credit that it works at all.

In short, if you’re a Tarantino fan, you need to see this. If you want an unconventional nineties thriller, then this comes highly recommended. If you like ensemble pieces, this is a must-see. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it an instant classic, but it’s a little movie with a lot of heart that is well worth two hours of your time.

4 Responses

  1. I’ve seen all the movies Tarantino directed, but I’ve yet to see this one, although I did see the opening scene one time. This and From Dusk Till Dawn are on my list of movies I feel embarrassed not having seen.

    • It’s well worth your time. I genuinely enjoyed From Dusk till Dawn, but I have an especially soft spot for this one – just because I found it myself back before I stumbled onto the on-line film community.

  2. I think the fact that Tarantino’s script was chopped up and rearranged chronologically might have something to do with it “work[ing] better as a collection of scenes than as a fully-realised movie.” Even still, mixing Tony Scott with Quentin turned out better than I ever would have imagined.

    The small roles – Val Kilmer as Elvis, Brad Pitt as Floyd, and Gary Oldman as Drexyl – really make the movie for me.

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