Skip to main content

Do you like to get pie after you see a good movie?

True Romance
(1993)

(SPOILERS) The track record for others adapting Tarantino’s early screenplays isn’t so hot – the prosecution offers Natural Born Killers and From Dusk Til Dawn – but Tony Scott’s envisioning of True Romance, made before the director went stratospheric with Pulp Fiction and after Quentin politely turned Tony down when he made it known how much he’d like to direct Reservoir Dogs himself, is nigh on perfect. Scott ironed the director’s tricksy structure into something linear, and brought with it an upbeat ending, because he knew that if you’re onboard with Clarence (Christian Slater) and Alabama (Patricia Arquette), you don’t need bells and whistles and foisted tragedy. And he managed to make a classic as a result, the best film of his career.

Tarantino is winningly unguarded on the commentary track he volunteered for the DVD release (he says he’s 36 on it, so it must have been recorded around ’99) It doubtless helps that he’s a gushing fan of the director – with his eclectic tastes, he cites Days of Thunder as a great movie, which is… generous – but he sounds entirely genuine in his admission that Scott’s decisions were perfect for the picture (“I gotta say I think Tony’s ending is better for the movie Tony made”), and he also hones in on just why that was, which is revealing of his own strengths and limitations as a purveyor of a self-styled oeuvre.

Tarantino recognises the idea that “the movie hadn’t earned a tragic ending” (in which Clarence dies; this can be seen on the Blu-Ray extras) and that under Scott “it became much more of a romantic fairy tale” than he had envisaged. And it’s true. True Romance is hopelessly romantic, cued as such by Hans Zimmer’s gorgeous, enchanting re-envisioning of Carl Orff’s Gassenhauer – used in Badlands by Terrence Malick and informed there by Sissy Spacek’s narration, both devices an inspiration here – and capped by Alabama’s sunset bliss in Mexico with an eyepatched Clarence and their young son Elvis.

Purportedly, Harvey Weinstein was kicked off the picture for suggesting Slater was too good-looking for Clarence (an altercation that led to the Weinstein-Tarantino-Miramax legacy). Which he is, but the casting serves to underline the fairy-tale element; we don’t have to pretend this is legitimately a real world where Slater actually is a nerd who goes to see back-to-back Sonny Chiba movies, who marries a hooker – I mean, call girl – procured as a birthday present on only her fourth client (because that means she retains her relative purity), who is manly and confident enough, despite being a nerd, to stand up to her pimp and blow him away, and then engage in a high-stakes drug deal. It’s a fully-formed Tarantino fantasy of himself (he admits Clarence is him, and Clarence comments “I’m basically a pretty resourceful guy”), the guy who is self-aware but also self-aggrandising (who will bitch slap someone to prove his masculinity, and shut interviewers butts down when they disrespect him).

You have to be on board with the contradictions to love True Romance. Clarence, who wears a Travis Bickle jacket during the Detroit sequence, was told by Scott to watch Taxi Driver to get Clarence’s attitude right… And Scott wanted a romantic ending? Perhaps he didn’t think Bickle was a sociopath? Or perhaps he was doing the only thing that could legitimately be done with such material – buying into the all-things-to-all element, that Clarence, with his ghost-of-Elvis (Val Kilmer) guidance figure, could be someone who wouldn’t bat an eye at killing someone (even a Drexl), leaving a trail of destruction wherever he goes in pursuit of his selfish desires (did his father, Elliot Blitzer, or even Lee Donowitz really deserve to die?) AND you should like him for it all, and want him to win out (as Alabama says when he comes back from Drexl’s, “I think what you did was so romantic”). Uma Thurman suggested to Tarantino, of Pitt’s stoner, “Floyd is telling us how to enjoy this movie” (not taking it all that seriously and just absorbing whatever appears), and that sounds about right.

Slater and Arquette are perfect (they “make a really cute couple”), it should be emphasised. The former still hasn’t come close to this and Heathers since (and indeed, aspects of his life have been decidedly cautionary, of the do not take Clarence’s ethos into the real-world aspect). The latter meanwhile, is supremely sympathetic and hilarious, with the caveat that, by dint of what this movie is, she is a wish-fulfilment fantasy on the writer’s part, Arquette managing to bring something more to the lack of substance and objectification that brings. Her standoff with James Gandolfini’s hitman Virgil remains the dramatic high point of the movie, an expertly structured sequence in which Alabama is battered and beaten but emerges triumphant through using her wits (rather than – and I know I said this was a fantasy, but I also said it’s also all things to all – foisted movie brute strength). The most triumphant element of True Romance is that it gets the leads so right, but then it also has the extraordinary supporting cast to feast upon.

I’ve mentioned Gandolfini’s hitman, curiously sensitive as he explains to Alabama how one gradually becomes desensitised to killing. Then there’s Oldman, the dreadlocked pimp who thinks he’s black (“He must have thought it was white boy day”), the briefest of Samuel L Jackson cameos (memorably talking about eating pussy, pussy dialogue, of course, being an early period Tarantino mainstay), Kilmer as an Elvis whose face you never quite see, and Brad Pitt as stoner Floyd, watching Freejack and doing his level best to ensure, through completely zonked dimness, that Blue Lou Boyle’s goons catch up with Clarence. Michael Rapaport is endearingly unaffected as Dick Ritchie, cluelessly aspirant actor (a part in TJ Hooker beckons) and best friend to Clarence. Bronson Pinchot’s priceless as Elliot, gopher to Saul Rubinek’s apoplectic Joel Silver riff Lee Donowitz (“Don’t give me the finger! I’ll fucking have you killed!” he screams at a passing motorist: also, “I’ve got more taste in my penis”). Chris Penn and Tom Sizemore are narc cops having a really good time providing a running commentary on their sting operation (“Get a hold of yourself, you fucking cissy!” screams Sizemore of Elliot, while professing how much he admires Clarence).

Best of all, though, and the scene of the movie, is the conversational standoff between Dennis Hopper as Clarence’s dad and Walken as Blue Lou’s consigliere Vincenzo Coccotti. Hopper knows from the moment Walken walkens in that’s it for him, so takes the opportunity to indulge a racist anecdote about the origins of Sicilians, much to Vincenzo’s simultaneous amusement and ire. It’s a perfect scene, and remains possibly the best thing Tarantino has ever written, so proficient is it with competing emotions, tensions and pathos (“If that’s a fact, tell me, am I lying?”) As Tarantino observes, it’s almost too good for the movie, as any other picture would subsequently collapse by being unable to compete.

It’s also to Tarantino’s credit that, even if Clarence has unbelievable beginner’s luck, much of the plotting is based on amateurs failing to get the better of professionals, yet sometimes sidling on by them despite themselves. After dad is killed, in a moment worthy of Midnight Run, one of Coccotti’s henchmen finds Clarence’s contact details on the fridge. After beating Alabama to within an inch of her life, Virgil finds the suitcase of drugs under the bed. Floyd, as mentioned, is an unguarded font of information on their whereabouts. Elliot manages to put a sign around his neck saying “coke fiend, arrest me”. And the grand climax finds flying bullets between professionals who won’t back down a great leveller on both sides of the law.

That scene has the transcendent image of the shot Wurlitzer (Michael Beach) collapsing on a sofa of enveloping feathers, and throughout, Scott and DP Jeffrey L Kimball (a veteran of three Scott movies) conjure gorgeous visuals of colour and pop and fizz. It’s there in the costumes of Clarence and Alabama, and the contrast of the shift from frosty Detroit to fiery LA. It also bears noting, given the Coens-esque call to fidelity of a Tarantino script, how much improv was said to have been allowed, including several lines in the Sicilians scene, the repartee between Penn and Sizemore, and also ideas from Pitt and Pinchot. Elsewhere, Scott came up with the rollercoaster setting (rather than a zoo). The changes aren’t all great, though: the song choices just aren’t in the same league as Quentin’s typical hit picks.

Tarantino confesses that this didn’t all come from nothing, but it was the first screenplay he had finished, culled from the mammoth The Open Road that incorporated Natural Born Killers (it sounds like Roger Avery should have got more credit for his involvement, but Quentin’s never backwards in coming forward). Thus, there are riffs from fallen projects (My Best Friend’s Birthday), and the movie-centric elements that encompass everything from Badlands – in one account of The Open Road plot, True Romance is the Hollywood version a screenwriter completes while trying to evade Micky and Mallory, which gives it an almost Black Freighter sounding quality – to Play it Again Sam (the Elvis/Bogart mentor). As with the director’s best work, though, the homage elements coalesce to form their own distinctive, polished gem.

True Romance is probably the Tarantino picture I’ve revisited more than any other, so it may say something about my lack of true acolyte status that it’s one he didn’t direct himself, and that it leaves me with the lingering feeling that his subsequent career may, at times, have benefited from removing himself from the equation a little more. What Scott brings to the material, and Slater and Arquette, is – ironically given the Tony’s soulless Simpson/ Bruckheimer rep rep at the time – heart, meat on the bones of what could easily have been rendered little more than a trite adolescent fantasy.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.

Moonraker (1979)
Depending upon your disposition, and quite possibly age, Moonraker is either the Bond film that finally jumped the shark or the one that is most gloriously redolent of Roger Moore’s knowing take on the character. Many Bond aficionados will no doubt utter its name with thinly disguised contempt, just as they will extol with gravity how Timothy Dalton represented a masterful return to the core values of the series. If you regard For Your Eyes Only as a refreshing return to basics after the excesses of the previous two entries, and particularly the space opera grandstanding of this one, it’s probably fair to say you don’t much like Roger Moore’s take on Bond.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991)
(SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…

Doctor, eh? You’re not in the best of shape yourself, though, are you?

Doctor Who  Season 26 – Worst to Best
I’m not a big Seventh Doctor fan. For me, Doctor Who pretty much ended with Season 23 (and not because it was awful: see here). Yes, there have been a few nu-Who reprieves (mostly notably Matt Smith’s first season), but the McCoy era flaunted an abundance of sins, from a lead who wasn’t up to snuff, to a script-editor messaging his social conscience wrapped in a breeze block (or bilge bag), to production values that made any given earlier era look absurdly lavish in comparison. And then there was the “masterplan” (which at least lends Season 24 a rather innocuous and relatively inoffensive quality by contrast).

Nevertheless, on the occasions I do return to the era, I’m always minded to give it a fair shake. And while that resolve inevitably crumbles within minutes, under the duress of cold harsh reality, it has, at times, led to a positive reappraisal (The Happiness Patrol, and, to an extent, perhaps unfathomably, Time and the Rani). So we’ll see ho…