Actually, in TRUE ROMANCE I was trying to do my version of an Elmore Leonard novel in script form. I didn’t rip it off, there’s nothing blatant about it, it’s just a feeling you know, and a style I was inspired by more than anything you could point your finger at. – Tarantino
(Spoiler Alert: Some key scenes and moments are discussed in the post, please note this).
Way back in 1992, Tony Scott met a video store clerk, at the now defunct, Video Archives, a rental library in California. The clerk had 3 scripts with him, and offered Scott the choice of 2 scripts, as he so badly wanted to direct the first script he had written himself. The clerk here was a certain Quentin Tarantino, the script he had with him was that of Reservoir Dogs, and the rest as they say is history. The script chosen by Tony Scott was his best movie to date in my view, True Romance, and yes the influence of Tarantino is felt every inch in the movie. It was a bit of an n odd combination; Tarantino was still a nobody, just testing the waters, when Scott had approached him in his video store. Scott by then was one of Hollywood’s A-List action directors, he had firmly established himself with Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, Days of Thunder. But unlike brother Ridley whose cerebral sci fi classics Alien, Blade Runner made him a critic’s favourite, Tony was seen more as a studio hack, high on style, low on substance. In effect most of Tony Scott’s movies were standard Hollywood summer blockbuster kind, big screen actioners, with a whole host of good looking stars, a snazzy soundtrack, over dramatic scenes and cliché’s piled on each other. To date many critics, give more credit to Tarantino, than Tony Scott for True Romance, it is as if he was incapable of making a really intelligent movie on his own, which I feel a rather unfair assessment. Much as True Romance owes to Tarantino, due credit should be given to Tony Scott, who stuck to the screenplay as it is, and while he made some changes, the overall signature still remains. It’s true Scott altered the ending, as also Tarantino’s standard non linear style of narration, but on most other counts he stuck faithfully to the original.
Despite all that shit, all the highbrows at the party, big house, the stupid clothes, he’s still a rude-lookin’ motherfucker. I’d watch that hillbilly and I’d want to be him so bad. Elvis looked good. I’m no fag, but Elvis was good-lookin’. He was fuckin’ prettier than most women. I always said if I ever had to fuck a guy… I mean had too ’cause my life depended on it… I’d fuck Elvis.
And it does show, the rapid fire staccato dialogue, the monologues by the actors from “Sicilians being spawned by Niggers” to “wanting to fuck Elvis”, the violent, raw, gut crunching action scenes, the assorted bunch of oddballs that surround the lead characters. And this is where I credit Scott with, he could have easily made this a studio, friendly”lovers on run” picture, tinkered the script around to his liking. But for a major part of the time, he sticks to the script, so much that you often feel you are watching a Tarantino movie, than a Scott one. Tarantino claimed that True Romance is one of his most personal movies to date, based on himself. And the lead character of Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) does bear it out to be so. In the opening shot of the movie, Clarence is trying his best to pick up a blonde woman, Lucy, turning his charms on her. And what does he do to impress her, he first launches into a monologue on how desirable his icon Elvis Priesley was, and then he asks her out for a movie. Only instead of a typical date movie, he asks her out for a triple feature to a Donny Chiba triple kung fu feature, which the woman rejects promptly. In one sense the character of Clarence looks pretty much what Tarantino was, here he is a comic book store clerk, obsessed with martial arts movies. True Romance itself was a satiric take on a series of romance comic books, popular in the 40’s and early 50’s with titles like “True Stories of Romance”, “Untamed Love” and plots that were equally cheesy, maudlin. In effect both Scott and Tarantino here take those overwrought, highly melodramatic romance tales, and turn them right on their head.
Apparently, I was hit on the head with something really heavy, giving me a form of amnesia. When I came to, I didn’t know who I was, where I was, or where I came from. Luckily, I had my driver’s license or I wouldn’t even know my name. I hoped it would tell me where I lived but it had a Tallahassee address on it, and I stopped somebody on the street and they told me I was in Detroit. So that was no help. But I did have some money on me, so I hopped in a cab until I saw somethin’ that looked familiar. For some reason, and don’t ask me why, that theater looked familiar. So I told him to stop and I got out.
Clarence here is not your archetypal, tall, dark, often rich hero, in fact for most of the movie, he is self absorbed, clumsy, gauche, living in his own world of comic books, kung fu movies. He is hopelessly inept at picking up a woman for a date, I mean which guy would ask a female out for a triple feature of kung fu movies. The girl though walks in literally into his life, going by the name of Alabama Whitman (Patricia Arquette at her best), at the rather quirkily named “Lyric Theatre”, where oddly no one else is there. The entire sequence that starts from here, till the time, Alabama reveals her real identity, is set up brilliantly, as Scott leads us through the beginnings of a rather unlikely romance. Alabama is rather eccentric, nutty, almost whacked out, when Clarence wonders if that is her real name, she takes out her driving licence. Clarence feels she is a girl after his own heart, I mean who else would take a cab all the way, to watch 3 Kung fu movies back to back in a seedy theatre, in a rundown Detroit neighbourhood.
Matter of fact Alabama is not your usual heroine; she has a childlike attitude, living in her own world at times, often casual, dreamy. She does cartwheels when Clarence is discussing with his dad, Cliff( Dennis Hopper), about a murder he is involved in, or in another scene, when she keeps on blowing bubbles in the background, while Clarence is in a tense discussion with his friend, Ritchie( Michael Rapaport). Yet she has her vulnerable side, too, as when she finally reveals to Clarence what she really is, a call girl, set up by his own boss. The entire part, where first Clarence gets to know more of Alabama at the diner, and then takes her to the comic book store where he works, describing to her his passion, and finally when both of them do a slow dance to the strains of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of my Heart” before they end up making out. The brilliance of Tarantino’s writing comes out here, he incorporates his characteristic trademarks, characters indulging in a talkathon, building up their intentions and then the final denouement. Here the growing attraction between Clarence and Alabama is built up step by step, as the characters emerge more fleshed out, you find yourself empathizing with them, and by the time they dance to the song, you are totally with them, wishing that you had that kind of romantic experience.
I don’t know. I didn’t talk with them. The plan was for me to bump into you, pick you up, spend the night, and skip out after you fell asleep. I was gonna write you a note and say that this was my last day in America. That I was leaving on a plane this morning up to Ukraine to marry a rich millionaire, and thank you for making my last day in America my best day.
And the romance is followed by the twist in the tale, Alabama revealing what she really is, a call girl set up by Clarence’s boss as a birthday gift. She feels guilty about the whole episode, and now has truly fallen in love with him. Clarence now deeply in love with Alabama, more than ever, proposes to her, which she accepts. The catch here however is Alabama’s sleazy, ruthless pimp, Drexl Spivey (Gary Oldman) who would not want to let go of here. Drexl with his dreadlocks, ghetto slang, thinks he is more of a black than white. He beats up the call girls he supplies, deals in drugs, kills off other hoods after having a normal chat, in short a criminal sans any redeeming feature. Clarence talks to the apparition of his idol, Elvis Priesley( Val Kilmer), who advises him to get rid of Drexl. In a rather violent shoot out, Clarence first picks up a fight with Drexl, and then shoots him dead. The scene again has trademark Tarantino flourishes, the generous amount of 4 letter words, the close up shoots zooming in on bloodied faces, and the best part, just before the action starts, the way the scene is set up again. Tarantino always has this style of using a long winded monologue or dialogue before exploding, and here it is on some exploitation flick being shown on TV. Unlike the stylized action scenes in earlier Scott movies though, here it is more raw, more guttural, no slow motion shots, it’s just brute force, faces being pounded in close ups and generous racial abuses too. This is the kind of raw, hands on, guttural action I miss of late in the CGI, 3D obsessed era.
Alabama proves to be even more quirky, when she finds Clarence’s killing of Drexl “so romantic”. The couple however discover that they have managed to bite off more than they can chew, the bag Clarence bought from there, has a whole stash of cocaine, which gets him worried. His dad Cliff, an ex cop, however assures him after finding out that the cops, see it as a typical drug related murder. The couple now flee to LA, to meet up, Clarence’s friend Ritchie, an aspiring Hollywood actor, where Clarence wants to sell off the stash, and settle down with the money he gets. The issue however here is the man Drexl, was a courier for, Vincenzo Cocotti (Christopher Walken), a notorious gangster, and who now wants that cocaine stash. This in turn leads to the best scene in the movie, the scene where Cocotti meets up Clifford, a scene that is rich with dark humour and satire. Cliff is accosted at his trailer home, by Cocotti and his goons, who demand to know the whereabouts of Clarence and his girl. Cliff at first denying it, then the beating up, the scene being embellished with some smart writing by Tarantino. Cocotti had identified the location of Clarence’s home, through the licence he had forgotten at the scene of the fight, established by Scott earlier on, when the camera zooms on it. As the torture gets even worse, Cocotti gets even cockier, and this is where it all comes through, first he smugly boasts of his Sicilian heritage.
Sicilians are great liars. The best in the world. I’m a Sicilian. And my old man was the world heavyweight champion of Sicilian liars. And from growin’ up with him I learned the pantomime. Now there are seventeen different things a guy can do when he lies to give him away. A guy has seventeen pantomimes. A woman’s got twenty, but a guy’s got seventeen.
What Cocotti is not prepared for however is Clifford’s reaction to it. For that matter neither are we, as first Cliff looks back at him, asks for a Chesterfield fag, and then that one killer line that totally throws Cocotti and his men off guard, ”In fact, I don’t know if you know this or not, Sicilians were spawned by niggers.”The beaten and bruised up Cliff has got one over Cocotti, who is startled, caught off guard, who really does not know what to say.Just watch the scene here to enjoy it even more.
While the writing and direction was top notch in this one particular scene, what made it stand out even more is the performance of both Walken and Hopper, two veterans, both of them equally adept at playing the nasty. Catch the change of expression in Walken’s face, when Hopper tells him, Sicilians were spawned by niggers, a mix of perplexment, amusement, shock, displayed in a restrained manner. Hopper anyway is one of the best actors, when it comes to delivering long winded dialogues, with his typically gruff voice. This was a scene, where it all just seemed to click together, the writing, the acting, the directing, making it one of the best movie scenes ever.
Walken and Hopper however are just two of the oddballs in True Romance, you have Michael Rapaport playing a wannabe Hollywood star, unwittingly getting pulled into Clarence’s misadventures. You have Brad Pitt as Rapaport’s junkie room mate Floyd who is permanently stoned out all the time. True Romance is a love story with two rather whacked out characters, a martial arts movie addicted comic book store clerk and a call girl, who insists she is not a whore. Add to it a whole bunch of drug dealers, gangsters, pimps, junkies, it has to be one of the craziest love stories. Love stories usually work, if there is a good chemistry between the lead pair, you often end up rooting for them. And in True Romance, the combination of Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette works big time, you end up rooting the pair, want them to walk off together. Patricia Arquette is just first rate playing a character, who is ditzy, wacky, eccentric, an oddball, and who can kick ass when needed, you just can’t help falling in love with Amanda. Slater pretty much an underrated actor, does well as the kung fu movie obsessed, self absorbed comic book store clerk, who lives in his dream world. Hans Zimmer once again gives an excellent background score, based on Carl Orff’s short piece Gassenhauer, that itself was referred in Terence Malik’s Badlands.