Tony Scott created his strongest works whenever he paired with an equally gifted screenwriter. Having found a large degree of success from his collaboration with Shane Black in THE LAST BOY SCOUT (1991), Scott’s next project would stem from the mind of 90’s break-out wunderkind, Quentin Tarantino– arguably one of the most original, dynamic, and controversial voices in cinema to this day. The result was 1993’s TRUE ROMANCE, a Generation X take on the “lovers on the lam” film done so eloquently before with Arthur Penn’s BONNIE & CLYDE (1967) and Terrence Malick’s BADLANDS (1973).
TRUE ROMANCE is one of Scott’s most seminal films, and with good reason. Tarantino’s referential, witty dialogue meshes well with Scott’s aesthetic, and the cast is compelled to deliver some career-best performances. Despite being nearly twenty years old, it hasn’t aged a day. Scott foregoes a flashy, stylish look for something more subdued, subtle and timeless. It’s clear that BADLANDS is a huge influence on the film, and indeed, TRUE ROMANCE almost plays out like a grunge perversion of the same story.
TRUE ROMANCE is a simple story about a boy meeting a girl. However, it just so happens that the boy is an aimless slacker (whose internal monologue with himself takes the external form of hallucinating Elvis) and the girl is a prostitute. Clarence (Christian Slater) spends a magical night with Alabama (Patricia Arquette), a woman he met in a movie theatre (because where else would a Tarantino romance start?). When she reveals to him that she is a prostitute, he offers to free her from the grip of her slimy pimp so they can be together. To make a long story short: Clarence’s meeting with the pimp (Gary Oldman) goes horribly wrong, he kills the pimp and steals a briefcase of coke, and the lovers flee to Los Angeles with the coke’s mafioso owners in hot pursuit.
As a general observation, actors love working with Tarantino’s dialogue, and it’s certainly evident here. Christian Slater, who frankly has never been better than he is in TRUE ROMANCE, is likeable and sweet, despite his scruffy appearance, cheap sunglasses, and propensity for violence. As Alabama, Patricia Arquette is sweet and virginal, while fully aware of her sexuality. She’s a smart cookie trapped in a bimbo’s body. Together, they have incredible chemistry that singes the edges of the frame. It’s very clear that Tarantino meant for TRUE ROMANCE to be a modern update of the “lovers on the run” films he grew up with, and the characterization of these two lovers bears his umistakeable stamp.
The supporting characters are equally as strong. As Alabama’s pimp, Gary Oldman is utterly unrecognizable behind rasta dreadlocks and metal teeth. It’s a shocking performance, considering how fresh his take on Commissioner Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY is our collective consciousness. Samuel L. Jackson shows up in one scene as well, biting it fairly early on. As Clarence’s cop father, Dennis Hopper is a welcome presence. He’s a straight arrow, an exhausted part of the establishment. As a blue collar, middle-aged man, his performance is a far cry from his career-making role in the rebellious EASY RIDER (1969). It’s a brief appearance, but he brings an incredible amount of depth to his role, and accomplishes arguably the finest performance in the film.
Michael Rapaport, who never truly established mainstream success outside of television, plays Clarence’s actor friend in Los Angeles, and finds himself as the fulcrum on which the action of the second half swings. Christopher Walken makes a one-scene cameo as the drug lord who’s cocaine has been stolen. His interrogation of Hopper is one of the most famous dialogues in film history, and he burns the screen with a menace that hasn’t been equalled in his performances since. The future Tony Soprano– a fit and trim James Gandolfini– appears as Walken’s right-hand man who follows the lovers to Los Angeles. Chris Penn and Tom Sizemore also show up as a pair of tough, wisecracking LA detectives who find themselves way in over their heads at the film’s climax. And last but not least, Brad Pitt shows up in the minor, yet incredibly memorable role of Floyd. As Michael Rapaport’s character’s stoner roommate, the young Pitt is hilarious and incredibly believable. Having made his feature film debut in Ridley Scott’s THELMA & LOUISE only two years earlier, Pitt is able to squeeze in a career performance (making the most of minimal material) for the younger Scott brother.
I had seen TRUE ROMANCE once before in college, and enjoyed it. Watching it again, and having since seen Malick’s BADLANDS, the similarities were impossible to ignore. Tarantino has built a career out of paying homage to his influences, but TRUE ROMANCE is just different enough from BADLANDS to barely escape plagiarism. For instance, the score, composed by Hans Zimmer, sounds almost exactly like the theme for BADLANDS. It uses the same instrumentation and tempo, but the notes are inverted, as if this film were BADLANDS’ mirror opposite. The film also opens with a voiceover spoken by Arquette, which apes the manner of speaking heard in Sissy Spacek’s voiceover. Instead of idyllic midcentury suburban images of Americana, the voiceover is played out over a contemporary, post-industrial Detroit whose buildings are rapidly crumbling from neglect and abandonment.
Despite the similar storyline, Scott imbues the film with enough of his signature that it stands strongly on its own two legs. Reteaming with cinematographer Jeffrey Kimball, Scott brands the frame with his particular aesthetic: Anarmorphic aspect ratio, high contrast, deep saturation, dramatic skies, overblown light through venetian blinds, and a color balance favoring warm orange tones (even in the cold Detroit environments). Camerawork is similar to Scott’s work of the era, with a locked-off camera limited to pans, zooms, and dollies in terms of movement.
As an LA resident, it’s fun to catch all the little easter eggs in regards to where the film is shot. For instance, the Detroit theatre where Clarence and Alabama meet is the Vista Theatre, a small arthouse cinema near my apartment in Silverlake. The Safari Inn in Burbank serves as the seedy motel where the lovers shack up when they arrive in LA. But interestingly enough, the geography of the film insinuates that its located off of Sunset Blvd in Hollywood, not out in the Valley.
Once in a while, lightning strikes, and all the elements come together to create a truly memorable film. With incredible performances, sharp writing from a voice that became the zeitgeist of 90’s pop culture, and stylish, effective direction, TRUE ROMANCE deserves its place in Scott’s canon as one of his best works.
TRUE ROMANCE is currently available in it’s Director’s Cut incarnation as a high definition Blu Ray from Warner Bros.