By Marc S. Sanders
The structure built into the script for True Romance by Quentin Tarantino, directed by Tony Scott, is like the trunk of a solid oak tree with strong, sturdy branches representing its collection of seedy characters in off color scenes. Tarantino sets it up – an Elvis infatuated boy meets a rookie call girl (Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette). Boy marries girl, and then boy & girl find a suitcase filled with a fortune in uncut cocaine. A simple storyline that now allows a bunch of fun, short vignettes to be played out, all leading to one moment after the other within this universe of outlandish, lurid debauchery.
What works so well in True Romance is that literally from beginning to end, you are always meeting a new and incredibly interesting character. Each scene welcomes someone else into the fold. For that, you need an all-star cast. Gary Oldman, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Walken, Val Kilmer, Conchata Farrell, Dennis Hopper, James Gandolfini, Brad Pitt, Bronson Pinchot, Saul Rubinek, Michael Rapaport, Tom Sizemore, Chris Penn, Ed Lauter, Elvis & martial arts master Sonny Chiba. The list goes on and on. It should be noted that some of this cast were hardly bankable stars before this film, which flopped at the box office in 1993. Before the movie became a cult B movie obsession on home video and cable, it was blazing the trail of well-established careers for much of its talent.
Nearly every character can have a story of their own written about them. Take Gary Oldman in one of his best roles as the vicious looking pimp named Drexel, a white guy adopting a Jamaican gangsta accent with dreadlocks, gold caps on his teeth, a blind eye and wickedly curved scar down the side of his face. His appearance alone makes me beg to know this guy’s background in a whole other movie. Drexel’s introduction comes early when he pumps a shotgun into two hoods. Shortly thereafter he’s conversing with Clarence Worley (Slater), and we know who’s in charge of this scene. Oldman is only given about 10 minutes of screen time, but it’s hardly forgettable.
The same goes for Walken, as a well-dressed mafia don interrogating Clarence’s father (Hopper). This scene has become legendary for film lovers, and it carries into a stratosphere of intelligence and timing in performance duality. It remains one of the best scenes Tarantino ever wrote as we learn a probable origin of Sicilians from a doomed Dennis Hopper. This is an acting class at its finest.
Tak Fujimoto filmed the piece showing contrasts of a wintery cold and dirty Detroit versus a sun soaked Los Angeles. It’s sharp photography of gorgeous colors schemes.
Hans Zimmer scored the soundtrack, deliberately saluting Terrance Malick’s Badlands where we followed a similarly young criminal couple played by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. Zimmer’s fun, melodic tones to celebrate Arquette and Slater’s adventures is perfectly in tune with the two-dimensional charm of their new and happy relationship. Most of Tarantino’s script is not taken seriously. Zimmer was the right device for that.
A few spare moments are played with dread, though. Slater and Arquette are truly in love. So, Tarantino & Scott threaten what the film treasures. Arquette as a call girl named Alabama Worley is incredible throughout the film. She’s a silly, adorably cute Southern belle dressed in secondhand store accessories, such as a cow spotted patterned skirt with neon blue sunglasses, and red cowgirl boots. This is not someone you’d hire to manage your accounting firm or run a library. However, Arquette’s emotional range really comes through during a brutal beating scene with Gandolfini. It pains a viewer to watch the moment, but it comes long after we’ve grown to love her.
Later, towards the end, our favorite couple is again endangered during a three way Mexican standoff. It’s hilarious, and way off kilter, but then it also gets downright scary.
That’s the beauty of True Romance. It’s a well-organized mess of emotions from comedy to drama to violence and silliness. Tarantino has great set pieces put together in a connect the dots rhythm.
It’s an endlessly quotable film. It’s a visual film. It’s a literal roller coaster of dangerously amusing storytelling told with affection and gratuity. It’s also quite sweet.
True Romance remains one of my favorite films of all time.