Wednesday, December 05, 2012

MOVIES MADE ME #52: True Romance (1993)

It's not hard to understand why a young movie geek would fall in love with TRUE ROMANCE.  It's a movie that boldly asserts that even a socially-inept goofball (who spends all his time rhapsodizing about Spiderman #1 and fucking Elvis) is capable of, and deserving of, true intimacy.  It's as naive and yet as sincere as any teenager falling in love with the world one movie, one novel, one comic book, one song, one restaurant, one human being at a time. 

Writer Quentin Tarantino imported his own personal passions (for Elvis, Sonny Chiba, too much sugar in his coffee, etc.) into the character of Clarence, a comic shop manager who meets the love of his life and suddenly finds himself in the middle of an Elmore Leonard-style variation on BONNIE & CLYDE or BADLANDS.  Clarence is a fuck-up, but his love for spitfire call girl Alabama is as pure as the driven snow.  He'll do anything for her... and that includes killing without remorse. 

There are plenty of ways Tarantino could have told this anarchic story of two young lovers.  In the mid-1990s, it was natural to compare it to David Lynch's WILD AT HEART (1991) or Oliver Stone's NATURAL BORN KILLERS (1994).  Tarantino also provided the story for the latter, but Stone re-wrote the script and shifted the focus from character drama to the filmmaker's own heavy-handed statement on violence in the media.  (Don't get me wrong: NBK is an amazing movie, but it's not endearing in the way that TRUE ROMANCE is.)  WILD AT HEART is also a deeply personal statement about searching for a source of light in an increasingly dark world.  Lynch has said that it was his reaction to the L.A. riots, his way of saying, "Can't we all just get along?"  Speaking for myself, I can't really imagine getting along with Nic Cage and Laura Dern in that movie.  I'd rather steer clear. 

Clarence and Alabama may be naive as hell, but they have a contagious joie de vivre that makes them likeable even when they're killing people.  While watching the movie last night, my wife astutely compared it to the vampire flick NEAR DARK.  Death and destruction follow Clarence and Alabama the same way they follow Caleb and Mae in NEAR DARK, and yet the young lovers in both films somehow manage to retain their romantic innocence.  In fact, I'd have to say that TRUE ROMANCE is Quentin Tarantino's most unashamedly heart-on-its-sleeve movie, in spite of the fact that he didn't direct it.

Producer Bill Unger wanted Tarantino to direct TRUE ROMANCE as a followup to RESERVOIR DOGS, but Tarantino declined, saying he'd written the script so long ago that it would be like marrying an old girlfriend.  Tony Scott brings a very different directorial style to the story -- he relies more on edits for kinetic energy -- but he clearly understands the value of the dialogue and characterizations in the script... and, in light of Tarantino's cachet after RESERVOIR DOGS, he had no trouble assembling a stellar cast of character actors to deliver the goods. 

What I realized while watching the movie last night is that every significant character is as passionate about something as Clarence and Alabama are about each other.  Gary Oldman's pimp is passionate about power-play.  He relishes psychoanalyzing and intimidating Clarence as much as he likes his eggrolls.  Dennis Hopper, in addition to having such a strong devotion to his wayward son that he's willing to die for him, relishes insulting Christopher Walken.  He does it quietly, casually, methodically (and in the most aggressively un-PC way), which shows how much he enjoys it.  He's as restrained as Oldman is over-the-top.  You can also see Walken's admiration for the man he's going to kill.  He appreciates the calculated brilliance of Hopper's insult, and he appreciates how rare it is for people to maintain the courage of their convictions.  James Gandolfini demonstrates the same type of appreciation in the scene where he beats Alabama to a bloody pulp.  Once it becomes clear that she will keep fighting until her dying moment, he becomes surprisingly somber.  "You got a lot of heart, kid," he says quietly, no doubt thinking that it will be a shame to snuff out that light.  Of course, he finds out the hard way that it's not easy to snuff out a four-alarm fire.  And that, I think, is what this movie is all about.

Like RESERVOIR DOGS, this is an actor's movie and even the minor roles / characters get their moment to shine.  Michael Rappaport, Brad Pitt, Bronson Pinchot, Saul Rubinek, Tom Sizemore, Chris Penn and Val Kilmer all turn in brief but distinctive performances.  As a viewer, I like these characters... all of them.  They're all having fun.  They're all enjoying their lives.  For that reason, even though their world is full of violence and mayhem, I like being in this world with them. 

Tarantino's only quibble with the movie is the ending.  Tony Scott changed the final note so that TRUE ROMANCE resonates as a kind of crazy fairy tale, instead of a hyper-charged slice of life.  Scott's rationale was simple: He liked Clarence and Alabama too much to rip them apart.  The ending doesn't seem false to me -- partly because the lighthearted score of Hans Zimmer has suggested all along that we're watching a movie where sincerity and passion can tilt the scales of justice.  And then there's Alabama's voiceover: "I kept asking Clarence why our world seemed to be collapsing and things seemed to be getting so shitty. And he'd say, 'That's the way it goes, but don't forget, it goes the other way too.'"  Throughout the movie, this note just feels right... because, like the characters, the movie has a lot of heart.


  1. Great stuff, as usual.

    I was one of the few people who saw this upon its initial release. Neck deep in my fascination for all things Tarantino, TRUE ROMANCE helped fill the void between discovering RESERVOIR DOGS and the release of PULP FICTION.

    I wish that it was being screened alongside DOGS and PULP during the TARANTINO XX celebration.

    It's worth noting that this film owes a great deal to Terrence Malick's BADLANDS. That film echos throughout TRUE ROMANCE, in its focus on young killers and fiery first love and, more specifically, Alabama's voice over and Hans Zimmer's score. The latter is so similar it may have been borrowed outright. Whether these were decisions made by Tarantino or Scott I don't know, but they stand as some of the most subtle and inspired of the film references that populate Tarantino's oeuvre.

  2. Ben -

    Is this the first time you've commented on my blog??? I love it!

    Didn't you see TRUE ROMANCE at the drive-in in Staunton? I can't believe I didn't go...

    1. It's not the first, but maybe the second.

      I saw TRUE ROMANCE at the Seminole Square Cinema 4. I saw HARD TARGET at the Dixie 4 in Staunton around the same time I think. "Mymammatuk" a chance and dropped me off downtown back when there wasn't much there.

      If memory serves, I arrived late to TRUE ROMANCE and walked into the theater as Clarence and Alabama we're getting to know one another in their movie theater.

      More Tarantino to come, I hope. Are you going to go through the entire TARANTINO XX set?

  3. HARD TARGET references always welcome on this blog.

    PULP FICTION is coming... I'm not sure if I'll go beyond that. Might shift into a blaxploitation / spaghetti western mode in anticipation of DJANGO UNCHAINED...

  4. Anonymous12/05/2012

    For me, this was the first time that we see James Gandolfini as an actor capable of so much more dimension than the thug and next-door-neighbor roles he was getting up to this point. Thankfully he got to play a role like this so early in his career because it allowed him to get better and better roles quickly without having to languish for a decade or so in crap projects in order to put food on the table. He really is one of the best American actors of his generation.


  5. Terri -

    Thanks for the Gandolfini tribute. I'd be curious to know what you thought of his performance in WELCOME TO THE RILEYS.

    Did you notice all the comments that your THYR banner is getting on facebook?

  6. Anonymous12/05/2012

    I loved "Welcome to the Rileys." I thought Kristen Stewart was great, as I did about her performance in that Runaways biopic. Gandolfini hit all the right notes. I love actors who find the subtle truths of characters, and Gandolfini is one of them. I hope he keeps coming back to the indie-type film.

    I'm not on Facebook anymore. Also didn't know a graphic of mine was being used somewhere. The far reach of the Interwebs. :-P

    1. You broke free of the Facebook demon? Well done.

  7. Speaking of James Gandolfini, I'm a big fan of his performance in GET SHORTY. Again playing a thug, but with warmth and humanity. His performance stands out in a movie full of great performances.

  8. Now I'm going to have to re-watch GET SHORTY.

    And I should have responded to the Kristen Stewart remark (instead of just hypocritically decrying facebook). I thought she was great in INTO THE WILD and ADVENTURELAND, and I'm curious to see how ON THE ROAD turns out.

  9. Anonymous12/06/2012

    "Get Shorty" is one of those movies where I try to name my favorite scene, but I keep coming up with another and another. Right now, I thought about Danny DeVito's self-absorbed actor ordering food that isn't remotely on the restaurant menu. And then I thought, no, every scene with Dennis Farina after he gets his nose broken.

  10. I have seen True Romance 1993 many times and I can say this film is a celeb - a showcase of Tony Scott and Quentin Tarantino celebrating their cinematographic talent. Thank your review so much :)