This review contains spoilers.
Penned by Quentin Tarantino before even a second of Reservoir Dogs had been dedicated to film, True Romance has all the hallmarks of one of today’s biggest filmmakers without him even being in the directing chair. Sold for the guild-defined minimum of $50,000, it feels like a love letter to Hollywood and showbiz, from its star-studded cast to the looming presence of a certain King of Rock n’ Roll throughout. Which makes it fitting that True Romance pretty much starts in a movie theater.
Christian Slater, in one of his most memorable roles, plays Clarence Worley, a comic-book store clerk by day and cinema fanatic by night. Hereupon, at a triple-bill of Street Fighter movies, he meets call girl Alabama (Patricia Arquette, on scintillating form), with the two eloping and Clarence ultimately seeking closure on his wife’s former occupation by dealing with Drexl Spivey – a Gary Oldman character unlike any other. He’s conniving, slimy and pretty repulsive, and despite a fleeting amount of screen time, Oldman relishes his chance with a fluid, lively performance that steals every scene he’s in. This is where True Romance really shines: director Tony Scott compiles a truly star-studded ensemble, and gives each Hollywood mainstay a chance to steal the show. From Christopher Walken to Brad Pitt, pretty much everyone’s here – and there isn’t a misfire in any of their performances.
Clarence and Alabama, having chanced upon half-a-million-dollars worth of cocaine, take their chances and head to LA to flog it to any willing Hollywood exec. Yet it seems like more than just a chance to escape their Detroit surroundings – Clarence’s delusions of grandeur become greater and greater as his experiences on the West Coast continue. His obsession with Elvis Presley (played superbly by an understated Val Kilmer) invariably contributes to his own superiority complex. Slater does a brilliant job of transforming Clarence from a movie-going loner to a Travis Bickle-inflected one-man-army (even with the massive aviators): yet unlike Taxi Driver, his action aren’t condemned. The world around him is so manic, so ludicrous, that he becomes something of an urban legend even to those taking him down.
It becomes evident that the ‘True Romance’ of the title isn’t between Clarence and Alabama, but rather Clarence and success, Clarence and reputation, Clarence and glory. It’s clear that Clarence and Alabama are infatuated with one another: both Slater and Arquette wonderfully convey the physical passion and mutual admiration of a newly-born relationship, but it’s clear that Clarence’s lofty ambitions stretch above simply being in love. He strives to become something he isn’t, and Slater perfectly embodies this sheer delusion: we see him threaten others indiscriminately, barter to sell absurd amounts of drugs, and somehow manage to get away with it all: the ethereal nature of the ending purposefully leaves it up to interpretation as to how their story ends, but its fairytale nature means that true or not, Clarence has got exactly what he wanted – his name engraved alongside the icons he clearly admires.
Yet unlike Taxi Driver, from which there is a clear influence, Clarence doesn’t dominate the runtime like Travis Bickle does. Instead, director Tony Scott takes Tarantino’s trademark long dialogue sequences and gives them plenty of room to breathe – it’s an expertly paced film that thrives off these anecdotal and ultimately superfluous exchanges, but they’re supremely enjoyable. Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken – in a now-venerated interrogation scene where Clarence’s father is quizzed by Drexl Spivey’s superior, Vincenzo Coccotti – totally command the film’s momentum, and despite neither character showing up again, the quality of their exchange – and the sheer tension that pervades it – is masterful.
As a comment on Hollywood culture and the fallibility of ego, True Romance succeeds wonderfully. No Hollywood exec we meet here is remotely moral – Bronson Pichot’s Elliot takes smarm and privilege to the next level – and despite the plot being motivated by their love, Patricia Arquette’s Alabama is often relegated to the back seat – literally in some cases – in a world where men dominate. The common criticisms of Tarantino’s screenwriting can be echoed here – the violence against women or lack of female presence in much of his work – and while they are valid, Arquette’s role is clear: Alabama is intoxicated by Clarence’s allure, drinking in his visions of greatness, which are ultimately granted. Hers is the standout performance, capturing the giddiness yet also vulnerability and grit of a woman whose path was rarely chosen for her – with her fight scene against James Gandolfini’s Virgil proving to be considerably agitating.
True Romance thrives off of a love story that stretches beyond romantic, off of one man’s necessity to become more than he already is, and off of a truly stellar ensemble cast that shines at every given opportunity. There isn’t a dull performance here, and Tony Scott’s direction wonderfully translates Tarantino’s script into an ethereal, dizzying and relentless experience. It oozes style and thrill, and as a study of entirely two different types of love – one romantic and one self-driven and idyllic – it works fantastically.
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