Review: “True Romance” (1993)

“True Romance” has been called a fantasy, a violent, sexy fantasy. But let’s ix-nay P.C. talk and call the film what it really is: a violent, sexy teen boy’s wet dream. (Was it one from Quentin Tarantino’s personal collection? Don’t put it past him.) Not that there’s anything wrong with that, specifically if said dream is as action-packed and overstuffed with talent as “True Romance” is. Plus, there’s a flippant, postmodern cleverness to the script, which requires a character to say, while whipping his purple Cadillac into reverse in traffic, “We now return to ‘Bullit’ already in progress.”

That character is Clarence Worley (Christian Slater), an amiable guy who works in a Michigan comic book store, loves kung fu movies and waxes philosophic about Elvis. (“True Romance” begins with a conversation, this time about “Jailhouse Rock” showcasing the true essence of rockabilly, and Val Kilmer steps in as Clarence’s Guardian Elvis.) Clarence, like so many men in Tarantino’s movies, is a regular guy catapulted into extraordinary circumstances. What’s intriguing is that in every film the protagonists react differently to these gamechangers. In “True Romance,” it’s a chatty blonde named Alabama (Patricia Arquette) who upends Clarence’s life. They meet at a Sonny Chiba filmfest, there’s a shared moment over pie and soon they’re back at his place professing love. The trouble is that Alabama’s a prostitute — only four days in — with a pimp, Drexl (Gary Oldman) as delusional as he is sadistic. Oldman, barely recognizable in dreads, has a blast but doesn’t skimp on the sadism; Drexl is one scary hustler, even creepier than Harvey Keitel in “Taxi Driver.”

Since Clarence has been waiting his whole life for a twist like this, he seizes the opportunity to defend Alabama’s honor in a gleefully bloody fashion, a choice that leads to all manner of complications — including his accidental possession of a suitcase jammed with blow — that must be seen to be believed. Slater takes to the part with ease, glossing over Clarence’s good looks and getting right at his desire to be someone’s action hero. And that tango with Drexl provides him with plenty of opportunities. Into his quiet life come: a mafioso named Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken, witty perfection); a dealer missing his suitcase of coke (the always-intimidating James Gandolfini); Clarence’s estranged father Clifford (Dennis Hopper); Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek), a movie producer looking to buy the coke cheap and flip it; Lee’s squeamish assistant (Bronson Pinchot); and some cops (Tom Sizemore, Chris Penn) bent on busting up that deal. Mayhem abounds, and with more than a few scenes involving grisly violence (that Arquette, she can handle herself with a toilet seat).

What with all this bloodshed, energy and colorful types, “True Romance” has all the trappings of a zippy Tarantino trip. Script-wise, it is, but where the film falters is in its direction. Action man Tony Scott’s in control of this venture, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. There seems to be a sizable disconnect between the world Tarantino has designed and the way Scott presents that world. The action, designed with panache and scripted for überdark comedy, is played straight, with none of the sequences showing particular flair. Particularly during the third-act shootout/bloodbath, the obvious precursor to the finale of “Reservoir Dogs,” Scott seems content to stick to the sidewalk. “True Romance” suffers for it. A ballsy story like this deserves an Evel Knievel calling the shots. Sigh. Even Tarantino was once a starving artist dependent on play-it-safe established types, I suppose.

Leave it to Tarantino, though, to write a movie that rises above unimaginative direction. The who’s-who in 1990s cast — Samuel L. Jackson and Brad Pitt have cameos — also works like a dream, with Hopper accessing his subtle side (he has one?), Oldman devouring scenery and Walken stealing the show with a tête-à-tête (“I’m the Antichrist. You got me in a vendetta kind of mood,” he tells Hopper). And while feminist critics could have a field day with Alabama, somehow I don’t see her as a shrinking violet. She’s misguided, a little moony, but she’s tough and smart, an able Bonnie to Slater’s Clyde. And, besides, if you’re yearning for a megadose of reality, kindly refer back to Sentence No. 1.

Grade: B+

19 Responses

  1. Tarantino, when Tarantino wasn’t cool. Good performances all around, with Oldman topping off one of the creepiest creeps around. Must be my second favorite Slater role (it’s hard to beat J.D. in “Heathers”).

  2. Yeah, that’s why he had to rely on Tony Scott to direct, I guess — T Man didn’t have enough clout.

    “Heathers” and this are my favorite Slater parts, but he also was quite good in “Broken Arrow” and “He Was a Quiet Man.”

  3. I have yet to see this movie. This reminded me to add it to my playlist. Gary Oldman is such a chameleon he is something to behold.

    • When I was younger I just remembered Gary Oldman from “Dracula” (how sad, I know), but he goes all over the map with his choices of roles. I like that in an actor.

  4. i like this one a lot, despite the presence of michael rappaport. and it gets bonus points for mentioning my town, Tallahassee.

    the scene with walken and hopper is an all time classic.

    • Gotta love it when two great actors go head-to-head, and then one of them gets a bullet in his … well, why spoil it?

      Michael Rapaport I’ve never liked in anything.

  5. I got into a tet-a-tet with Steve from “The Film Cynics” that I didn’t like the movie at all when I reviewed it. If Tarantino directed the film instead of Tony Scott, I probably would have liked it more.

    • Damn straight, Branden! In his review James Berardinelli asked that same question and came to that same conclusion. If Tarantino had been running things we’d have a totally different, much more ballsy movie.

    • Tony Scott is such a hack, he is riding his brother’s success. The only movie I actually liked from him was Crimson Tide.

  6. True Romance just doesnt do it for me. Christian Slater cant act and lots of other good actors overact.
    Sorry, but this just doesnt cut it.

    • This, “Heathers,” “Broken Arrow” and “He Was a Quiet Man” are the only movies I like with him in them. Otherwise, I agree the man is no Oscar contender.

      And I am the only one who thinks Johnny Whitworth — he played Det. Jake Berkeley on “C.S.I. Miami” — sounds EXACTLY LIKE Christian Slater?

      Wait, I AM the only one. The only one who watches that cheesy show.

  7. Surprisingly, I think it’s a good thing Tony Scott directed this movie. I don’t think Tarantino was ready as a director at that particular time to film an action movie. The final shootout works really well for me. If Tarantino had directed I’m guessing the film would have been less visually appealing and even more consumed by dialogue. It’s long enough as it is. In the same way, I’m glad Robert Rodriguez shot From Dusk Till Dawn.

  8. Never seen this one, but I’m totally intrigued now! Love me some Christian Slater!

    • It’s definitely worth a watch. I’ve never been a huge Slater fan but he’s done a few good movies and a few interesting TV cameos of late — including one on “The Office” — that are making me reconsider him.

  9. This is one of my favourite love stories. The characters and the dialogue such a classic. Don’t blondes have all the fun? Has Brad Pitt ever being that funny? Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper scene is the best. Gary Oldman played the craziest pimp/drug dealer. Can you tell I own this movie seen it a million times. Nice one!

  10. I like True Romance a lot, but unlike you I like it because Scott was around to make sure QT didn’t fuck up the movie like he’s done in all of directorial efforts. Without Scott’s ability to make QT’s dialogue mean something we would have been left with yet another overrated and vapid QT film, and another movie I wouldn’t like.

    And if you are looking for other good Slater performances then I suggest the criminally underrated and overlooked Very Bad Things.

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