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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+

No. 5: “Apocalypse Now” (1979)

“I used to think if I died in an evil place then my soul wouldn’t make it to heaven. Well, fuck. I don’t care where it goes as long it ain’t here.” ~~Chef

There’s a moment lurking in the soul-deadening “Apocalypse Now,” a moment nearly muted by the hum of machine gun fire, that seems thoroughly unremarkable: In the chaotic trenches outside the deep Vietnamese jungle, Cpt. Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen), crawling on hands and knees in the dirt, asks who’s in charge. Wild-eyed, the closest soldier, reloading his gun, spits out: “Ain’t you?” 

That’s it, right there: the point of no return, the panicked realization that order and purpose have gone belly-up and taken hope right along with them. For in Francis Ford Coppola’s somber, haunting epic exploration of war and the shadowy places it drives men to, there is no hope. There’s just sweat mixed with the smell of napalm and dirty jungle water gone crimson with blood. Hope, Coppola informs us, left Vietnam long ago.

That abject despair — the kind that seeps down into your bones and slopes your shoulders — is what makes “Apocalypse Now” a masterpiece, a fearless and complex work of art that demands to be remembered as one of the greatest stories ever put to celluloid. Coppola’s masterwork is something that must be looked at and felt simultaneously, but the experience takes a piece out of us every time.

The way Sheen looks through the camera, though, it’s not hard to see “Apocalypse Now” demanded that same kind of intense emotional commitment from everyone involved in the production. Sheen, in particular, fills the screen with Cpt. Willard’s weariness. He’s been worn down by the violence, pared down from a whole person into a shell who hates war but can’t stomach peace, either. His decision to accept an odd mission — hunt down Col. Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), an A.W.O.L. Army Special Forces soldier who’s playing God somewhere deep in the jungles of Vietnam — changes not only his life but the lives of the men, who are mostly young and stupid and wholly unprepared, unfortunate enough to be part of the crew ferrying him up the Nung River. Willard knows what he’s in for but has no interest in playing father to a bunch of kids who treat the war as some kind of grand adventure. They’re in for a hell of a lesson, but Willard’s not exactly the sort to savor teaching moments.

In fact, part of the dark beauty of “Apocalypse Now” is the way Coppola showscases what warfare does to the human spirit. There’s a wrenching scene — one of the most unnerving in the entire movie — where Chef (Frederick Forrest) boards a civilian boat to search for supplies, and one false move leads Clean (Laurence Fishburne), the definition of green around the gills, to blow apart every unarmed person. Willard’s matter-of-fact dispatchment of the only survivor is most chilling, and that moment shifts the balance of emotion; it’s a loud, clear move from the bliss of ignorance to the weighty horror of realization. By the time Willard makes it to Kurtz’s outpost, the remaining soldiers can scarcely function as human beings, let alone killers. They stumble about with eyes that can’t focus because they don’t want to see anything anymore.

And here is where “Apocalypse Now,” so dynamic and huge in scope, succeeds on a surprisingly intimate level: There are characters we get to know, not anonymous faces bound for body bags. Forrest’s Chef is particularly frightening as we watch madness descend on him like a bell jar, while the fear behind Clean’s shoot-anything-that-moves approach gnaws at us. We get the sense that Robert Duvall’s Lt. Col. Kilgore’s has hardened his disbelief into an ardent belief that victory is possible (or maybe he’s just that crazy). And though Brando does fine work creating a man driven purely mad by what he’s seen, it’s Sheen who perfectly captures how war mutes the spirit and deadens the mind, how it shines unwelcome light on the dark corners of the soul.

This, I believe, is where Coppola succeeds: He understands that war wastes all men, and he creates a movie that does the same to us.