Sunday, February 13, 2011

True Romance (Director's Cut)

Continuing with my mini-theme of romantic movies that I actually like, in honor of Valentine's Day, I bring you True Romance.  Directed by Tony Scott and one of Quentin Tarantino's first professional screenplays (I can never figure out if this came first, or Reservoir Dogs), True Romance is a blend of crime, action, Tarantino dialogue, and true love.  This film also boasts one of the all-time greatest supporting casts, with some of the most memorable scenes highlighting supporting characters that you will ever see.

Clarence (Christian Slater) works at a comic book store (awesome!) and, for his birthday, has decided to catch a triple feature of Sonny Chiba movies at a local theater (awesomer!).  While watching the movies, a busty blonde named Alabama (Patricia Arquette) comes in and spills her popcorn all over him.  Clarence is very gracious about the whole thing, possibly because of her cleavage, and the two strike up a conversation.  They end up getting some pie after the movie (awesomest!), which eventually leads back to Clarence's place for some sexy sexy time.  Of course, this isn't as perfect as it seems.  It turns out that Alabama is a call girl, hired by Clarence's boss to sleep with him as a birthday present.  Clarence doesn't mind at all, insisting that he had had the night of his life; the two abruptly declare their eternal love for each other and get married in the morning.  Aww.  The rest of the movie has the two getting to know each other and finding out that true romance means compromise.

The "crime" part of the story begins when Clarence chooses to confront Alabama's pimp, Drexl (Gary Oldman).  He doesn't really have a solid reason for this, it's just his inner alpha male (which is personified by an imaginary Elvis that gives him advice) needing to prove itself.  The short version of the story has Clarence killing Drexl and leaving with a suitcase of Alabama's clothes.  When he returns home and tells Alabama that he just killed Drexl, her response is "That's so...romantic!"  I guess Clarence married the right gal.  The suitcase he brought with didn't have his new wife's old clothes, though; it was filled with uncut cocaine.  Not knowing what to do with a suitcase of coke, Clarence and Alabama do the only sensible thing they can think of: they go to California to sell it to move stars.  Unfortunately, the late and unlamented Drexl was selling the drugs for the mob, and they are not as forgiving as you might think.

The first thing you notice about True Romance is the dialogue.  It still sounds fresh and funny today, but it really sticks out against the rest of 1993 Hollywood.  To put it in perspective, the nominees for Best Picture that year were The Fugitive, The Remains of the Day, The Piano, In the Name of the Father and Schindler's List, none of which were particularly renowned for their rapid-fire creative vulgarity.  And while you might recognize some echoes of Tarantino's dialogue from this movie in Pulp Fiction, it's still good stuff.

The script is definitely this film's strongest point, but the astonishing supporting cast is a close second.  This movie has so many recognizable actors in it, and most of them have surprisingly meaty roles.  Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken share one of my all-time favorite scenes, and it's just the two of them talking.  Brad Pitt is hilarious as a worthless, pot-smoking roommate; he was actually offered the role of Clarence, but it conflicted with his filming schedule for Kalifornia --- he just picked Floyd, who originally had no lines, out of the script and ad-libbed all his stuff.  And Gary Oldman's performance as Drexl is so good that I usually watch it two or three times before continuing with the rest of the movie.  I don't know whose idea it was to make this pasty-white pimp pretend that he was a black man, but it's pretty damn funny; Oldman doesn't let his character become a joke, though, and turns out a frightening performance.

Just those four performances would be enough for most movies, but this film is overflowing with larger-than-life supporting characters.  Chris Penn and Tom Sizemore (before he was a train wreck) did a great job as detectives.  Bronson Pinchot and Saul Rubinek play obnoxious Hollywood types almost to the point of becoming caricatures, but they're still entertaining.  James Gandolfini has a good scene as (what else?) a mob enforcer.  Even the normally talentless Michael Rappaport looked good (because he was playing a talentless actor).  And then there are the bit parts!  Samuel L. Jackson has a brief but entertaining scene where he discusses the universal nature of oral sex, Val Kilmer plays Clarence's imaginary Elvis (whose face is never shown, thanks to some truly awful makeup), and a young Kevin Corrigan has a small non-speaking role, too.  On the whole, this supporting cast is good enough to star in three or four solid movies; all together with a clever script, True Romance is a movie that has no boring scenes, and every minute has an actor you recognize in it.

Of course, all that support would be worthless if the main actors are no good.  And, to be honest, half of them aren't great.  Patricia Arquette, while very white-trash hot in this movie, does not do a good job.  In fact, I would argue that she sounds like she has some sort of mild retardation.  For some reason, her character is given a voice-over at the beginning and end of the movie, too, and they're not great either, even with a good script.  Christian Slater, though, does deliver his lines well, giving Clarence a cocky, roguish attitude that matches the tone of the picture perfectly.

Tony Scott directed this movie, but it was before his work in Enemy of the State, so it doesn't have all the 360-degree, fast-motion establishing shots that his last decade of films have had.  Instead, he plays it pretty simple and lets the script do most of the work.  Nobody's monologue is interrupted by unnecessary camera cuts, there are no fancy split-screens or anything like that.  Aside from some particularly violent fights scenes, Scott doesn't really take the opportunity to show off, and the film is better for it.  I disagree with giving Alabama bookend voice-overs, but that's a small price to pay.  Really, aside from a better soundtrack, I don't see how this movie could be improved by having Tarantino direct it himself.

This is a fast-paced crime movie with lots of overly-clever vulgar dialogue. If that's not your thing, then catch a Katherine Heigl movie instead.  This is the first time (and only time, so far) a Tarantino script had anything resembling an actual romance in it, and while pretty unconventional, it works.  There is no point in the movie where I wondered why these two characters were together, and that adds a lot of heart to the mix.  This isn't your typical romantic comedy, but Clarence and Alabama's unquestioning, immediate, and confident love for each other is unusually refreshing.  It's simple and untroubled, and that's perfectly fine in a movie like this.  Even with Arquette's mentally challenged performance, True Romance remains one of my favorite films of the 1990s, and one of the few that deserve ten stars.

1 comment:

  1. Ah, when Gary Oldman and Tom Sizemore were good, instead of taking any pay check and in legal trouble. The 90s were a simpler time, I tells ya.