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True Romance (1993)

by on 2011/02/13

“That’s the way romance is.  Usually, that’s the way it goes, but every once in a while, it goes the other way too.”

* * *

I recently watched an interesting documentary called Special Thanks to Roy London, a tribute to the late acting coach by dozens of Hollywood stars.  Among the memorials, Patricia Arquette’s stood out for me in particular.  She remembered consulting with her mentor in a panic, unable to reconcile her personal discomfort with the demands of a script.  That script was True Romance.

I was reminded of her anecdote in seeing it again because, try as I might, I also don’t see how the crimes committed by its characters are really “so romantic”.  Much as I want to join in the fun, I feel like the movie is telling me how to react without truly earning my devotion.

I’ve heard varying accounts about the origins of this piece:  it’s a remake of Quentin Tarantino lost effort, My Best Friend’s Birthday; it was the first part of a longer screenplay, the second half of which became Natural Born Killers.  Whatever the case, many count it in the Tarantino canon, although it was directed by Tony Scott of Top Gun fame.

Set in Detroit, True Romance tells the story of Clarence Worley (Christian Slater), whose birthday gift is a paid-for visit by a budding call girl, Alabama (Patricia Arquette).  Initially she only pretends to be interested in him, however her affection soon becomes genuine.  They marry, forcibly disentangle her from her pimp (Gary Oldman), and flee to Los Angeles, half a step ahead of the mob and law alike.

Part of my aversion has to do with Clarence himself.  I find him just about as unlikable as Patricia Arquette did.  While occasionally charming, this die-hard geek is just as occasionally irrational, delusional, and aggressive.  Alabama’s affection for him paints her as pitiable — tragic, desperate, and possibly even stupid — in turn.

There are compelling moments throughout, and yet they remain isolated.  One particular highlight is a scene in which Clarence’s father (Dennis Hopper) reconciles with his estranged son, before facing off against a mob lieutenant (Christopher Walken).  That scene marks the end of the first half and, despite a couple of strong scenes, the second falls short in comparison, both slower and more uneven.

Fortunately, every player here is highly watchable.  In fact, the cast ranks among the best ensembles I’ve seen, with James Gandolfini, Samuel Jackson, Chris Penn, Bronson Pinchot, Brad Pitt, Saul Rubinek, Tom Sizemore, and Val Kilmer.  The names, as well as their number, are very Tarantino, many featuring in his own films.

Just as familiar to his fans are the subpop references:  to comics, Janis Joplin, martial arts flicks (especially those of Sonny Chiba), the Partridge Family and — most integral to the narrative — Elvis Presley, Clarence’s imaginary provocateur.  Another Quentin script, another incongruous diner conversation.

However, many other things are distinctly not Tarantino, most notably the filmmaking itself.  The photography, take durations, pacing, editing, and music all differ substantially from the style he’d develop later.  None of which should suggest an inadequate production.

After all, it would be unfair to dock True Romance for failing to be the embodiment of its writer’s aesthetics.  Tarantino’s personal approach could hardly be formalized, given he’d completed only Reservoir Dogs at the time this movie was made.

But even on its own terms, it still didn’t convince me.  It strikes me as sensationalist for its own sake, with precious little story, and lacking Natural Born Killers’ pretense of satirical comment.  And taken as pure entertainment, it remains thin and sprawling, only intermittently interesting.  While parts are rewatchable, it’s a bit of a slog overall.

Director Tony Scott takes a lot of criticism for his hyperkinetics, but I’m actually a fan of his Enemy of the State.  Plus, I often enjoy Quentin Tarantino.  Unfortunately, this collaboration doesn’t work as effectively as I’d hoped.  The whole becomes a bloated, glossy version of a superior, unrealized film, one with a narrower focus, a grittier texture, and a more unique voice.

True Romance may have its adherents, but I’m not at all surprised it’s never been followed by other Tarantino/Scott collaborations.

* * *

Rated R for adult situations, language, nudity, and violence

121 minutes

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