Had this been released during Clint Eastwood’s late-’80s slump (The Dead Pool, Pink Cadillac), it might have looked more like the top-notch thriller the critics said it was. Coming as it did after Unforgiven — a tough act for any film to follow — it just seemed like a good movie, nothing spectacular. Realizing that vulnerability was “in,” Clint plays yet another aging tough guy tormented by his past — this time Frank Horrigan, a Secret Service agent who thinks he could have prevented JFK from getting whacked. (This has a bit more weight than Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard beating himself up over not taking the bullet for Ronald Reagan.) Enter Mitch Leary (John Malkovich in a classic performance), a nut who harasses Frank on the phone, taunting him with his plans to assassinate the current president. The plot is your basic Batman set-up — wise-ass villain vs. insecure hero — and it genuflects to all the Hollywood thriller conventions: when Frank’s young family-man partner (Dylan McDermott) appears, people in the audience call out “Lunch meat!” There’s also the much younger love interest Rene Russo (couldn’t Clint get involved with a woman slightly closer to his own age?), and while nothing is made explicit, Mitch does appear to be gay — continuing the motif that has marred quite a few Clint movies over the years, the Evil Fag. Still, this was a generally smart, adult thriller in the summer of Super Mario Bros. and Son-in-Law. Music by Ennio Morricone, who hadn’t scored a Clint film since their days with Sergio Leone. Director Wolfgang Petersen’s next was Outbreak, also with Rene Russo.
Archive for July 1993
Is it heresy to prefer True Romance to everything else Quentin Tarantino has had a hand in? I certainly find it the most repeat-viewable: It plays out like candied noir, with a classic dialogue scene at least once every ten minutes. The movie, which a young Tarantino wrote and Tony Scott directed, contains scenes that hungry actors both old and new can glory in. At the time he wrote it, Tarantino was a struggling actor; he sort of fell sideways into writing and directing, deducing that the only way he would get to act would be in his own movies. (True Romance contains two Struggling Actors — Michael Rapaport’s Dick Ritchie, a sweet-hearted if talentless guy who gets all jazzed about a bit role in a T.J. Hooker movie, and Bronson Pinchot’s Elliot Blitzer, whose gig as assistant to an abusive, coke-snorting producer has coarsened him. Tarantino’s sympathy obviously lies with Dick, though Pinchot occasionally shows you the simpler aspiring actor that Elliott used to be.) Like no other Tarantino film, True Romance embraces actors; the entire movie is a marathon performance, enacted by a large cast of eager stars and character actors. It is Tarantino’s valentine to who he used to be — the comics geek and movie geek who went on fruitless auditions and maybe hoped to meet a firecracker like Alabama Whitman at a triple bill of Streetfighter flicks.
Clarence Worley (Christian Slater, giving full play to his Jack Nicholson voice) is a romanticized and cooler version of Tarantino, a loner who lives in an apartment above the comics shop where he works. Alabama (Patricia Arquette) falls into his lap at the aforementioned triple feature, and the two have sex and fall in love in record time, this being a movie. (In the Tarantino-verse, True Romance is probably a “movie-movie” like Kill Bill, the kind of movie one of his “real” characters from Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown might go see.) Like Tarantino, who once played an Elvis impersonator on The Golden Girls, Clarence fetishes the King, who, in the blurry background person of Val Kilmer, visits Clarence in bathrooms in times of trouble and imparts the kind of harsh wisdom you’d expect to hear from the Elvis of Bubba Ho-Tep. (Hipster writers always indulge in a bad-ass fantasy of Elvis, not the reality of Elvis as the Vegas crooner your mom remembers fondly.) What would Elvis do? Well, he’d take off after Alabama’s erstwhile pimp, Drexl Spivey (Gary Oldman), and pop a cap in his ass.
As Drexl, a white pimp who fancies himself black (a description that won the actor over to the project without his even reading the script), Gary Oldman might have stolen many a lesser movie. As it is, he’s merely an appetizer — and that’s saying something, considering Oldman’s quotable performance (“Now I know I’m pretty. But I ain’t as pretty as a couple of titties”), marinated in an almost exotic menace. Drexl is your early indication that both the good and bad guys like to wag their chins before pulling the trigger; in a brief scene that passes for character set-up, Drexl defends the act of cunnilingus before shotgunning a few drug associates (including Samuel L. Jackson) and swiping a suitcase full of cocaine. That cocaine becomes the movie’s McGuffin, changing hands and coveted by nearly everyone in the large cast. (Interestingly, only the characters who evince no interest in the coke — Dick Ritchie and his stoner roomie Floyd, played in an amiable daze by Brad Pitt — escape this narrative unscathed. At heart — particularly given Tarantino’s original, more tragic ending — True Romance is as moralistic as any Hayes Code flick.)
Both Clarence and Alabama (in a wincingly brutal hotel-room scene that gave James Gandolfini his start as a mob killer with quirks) take hellacious beatings, the only instances of realistic pain in this flashily violent movie. Tony Scott keeps the proceedings appropriately light — the movie has a party atmosphere, as if you were moving through rooms in Tarantino’s head and encountering various lively strangers. The film’s highlight, defiantly protracted and probably containing far more talk than a pre-Pulp Fiction audience was comfortable with, is the sit-down between Christopher Walken’s Vincenzo Coccotti, who wants to locate the thief of his cocaine, and Dennis Hopper’s Clifford Worley, who wants to conceal his son Clarence’s whereabouts. The mockingly solicitous, casually hostile dialogue — it could be a post-punk rewrite of drawing-room comedy — covers Tarantino’s three main preoccupations: lying, loyalty, and lineage. In Tarantino’s original script, Coccotti, provoked by the father’s leering anecdote about Sicilians, flies into an immediate rage; but Walken (and he was wonderfully right to do so) plays the scene amused at Hopper’s sheer balls — “I love this guy. Beautiful” — and the result is a tete-a-tete that transforms itself into an actors’ classic as you watch.
For fans of that scene, everything after it may come as a slight downer, but there’s more fun to come, including Pinchot’s dead-on turn as a sarcastic toady, and Saul Rubinek playing scummy producer Lee Donowitz with a caustic yet affectionate relish that only actors who’ve dealt with producers (Dustin Hoffman in Wag the Dog, Kevin Spacey in Swimming with Sharks) seem able to muster. Chris Penn and Tom Sizemore show up, too, cranked up to the max as two L.A. detectives (amusingly named Nicholson and Dimes) who lean on the rapidly crumbling Elliott to wear a wire and entrap Lee during his purchase of Clarence’s coke.
“You’re an actor, motherfucker, act!” screams Sizemore at the absent Elliott, and that could be True Romance‘s mission statement — everyone in it is acting out a role, being the bad-ass heroes of their own matinee movies. It’s easy to forget about the contributions of the stars, given all their onscreen competition, but Christian Slater always helps you believe in what Clarence thinks he’s doing — steeped in movies, like his creator, Clarence gets in deep over his head but prevails by calling on scenarios he’s probably seen in the cinema of Elvis or John Woo. Likewise, Patricia Arquette sells the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold (“I’m a call girl, there’s a difference, you know!”), a sweet girl with a romantic soul. Even the callous James Gandolfini, who now kills people “just to see their expressions change,” has to stop and admit to Alabama, “You got a lot of heart, kid.”
So does the movie. True Romance is really less a noir than a bubbly road movie; fairly quickly, we give up on the idea that Alabama might be a bad dame (especially since her lovestruck narration — heard only at the beginning and end — kick-starts the credits) leading Clarence down the road to ruin. Tarantino means us to see these two as a couple of kids who are crazy about each other, skimming restlessly over the surface of violent pop culture. True Romance is explicitly a young male geek’s fantasy, but it feels like undiluted, this-is-everything-I-love Tarantino in a way that none of his films until Kill Bill quite did. It is, indeed, a “movie-movie,” seeking not to plunder the movies Tarantino adores but to sit on a shelf with them.
Abel Ferrara’s meditation on life imitating art (and vice versa) is one of his weaker efforts, but it didn’t deserve the scorn it got. Harvey Keitel is Eddie Israel, a filmmaker very similar to Ferrara. (His wife is played by Nancy Ferrara, real-life wife of guess who.) Eddie is directing a psychodrama starring two actors who hate each other (James Russo and Madonna) playing a couple falling apart. Meanwhile, Eddie sleeps with Madonna (wonder if Abel did, too?) and wrecks his own marriage (wonder if Abel … ah, never mind).
It takes an extremely ballsy filmmaker to direct a scene in which his onscreen surrogate confesses to his wife’s onscreen surrogate (played by his wife) that he’s had lots of on-set affairs. Is any of it interesting? Sure. It gives us insight into how directors get performances out of actors, and more specifically how Ferrara gets them. There’s some wit in the casting of Keitel as the Ferrara character — he gets to show us what Ferrara probably put him through on Bad Lieutenant.
Among the movie’s triumphs is that Madonna actually wakes up and gives a solid, believable performance, both as Claire the religious convert in Eddie’s film and as Sarah the traumatized actress in Ferrara’s film. Some would say she’s just playing herself either way — which I think is part of what Ferrara is getting at: Great acting requires you to play yourself, to dig out the part of yourself you’re least proud of and lay it bare.
Dangerous Game (originally titled Snake Eyes) is a good film-buff movie, but it’s too smitten with its own fancy intricacy, and eventually even the most confrontational scenes (Eddie insulting Sarah off-camera to provoke her into reading her lines with the appropriate venom; James Russo getting carried away and doing everything in the script for real) seem like movie-magazine clichés. I kept expecting Ferrara to step into the frame and coach Keitel on how to play him.
In this Merchant-Ivory production — uh, pardon me, this Martin Scorsese film — food is presented as lovingly as it was in another Merchant-Ivory effort, GoodFellas. People sit and talk and eat, and the camera pans over sumptuous banquets the way it panned over a collection of guns in the Merchant-Ivory classic Taxi Driver.
Okay, enough sarcasm. The point of all this face-stuffing is clear: In the proper New York of the 1870s, the upper class cultivated insatiable appetites to replace the sexual hunger that went unfulfilled. Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) does a lot of wistful staring at Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), the woman he loves, who happens to be the cousin of his boring intended, May Welland (Winona Ryder).
Poor Newland! The Countess stimulates his mind, his heart, and other body parts, while May — who’s a nice enough girl, or seems to be — leaves him cold. Then something supposedly fascinating happens: May turns out to be a shrewd manipulator who knows full well what Newland’s thinking, and she’s determined to hold onto him.
The critical hosannas for Scorsese’s drastic-change-of-pace romance (it came right after his hyperbolic thriller Cape Fear) don’t match up with what he puts on the screen. He keeps his camera busy, and he creates a stifling atmosphere of messy emotions constantly held in check. But that’s what he has always done. He fails, however, to establish any real heat between Newland and the Countess. They just seem like two smart people who laugh knowingly at each other’s jokes; then suddenly they’re swapping anguished sexual glances. The movie turns preposterous in a hurry. Where is Scorsese’s renowned sensual instinct when it matters? The food scenes get our juices flowing more than the romance does.