True Romance

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.

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