WFTB Score: 9/20
The plot: Elvis-worshipping loner Clarence Worley strikes lucky when pretty cinemagoer Alabama disrupts his solitary viewing and shows him a good time. Not even a revelation about her profession – the oldest – can diminish the love affair and the pair are married, though retrieving her possessions sets off a violent chain of events, culminating in a trip to Hollywood with a suitcase full of someone else’s drugs.
Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) isn’t, perhaps, Detroit’s most eligible bachelor. Living above the comic store where he works and given to spouting cheesy lines about his hero Elvis, his lonesome nights are often spent watching chop socky trilogies. His luck changes when friendly blonde Alabama (Patricia Arquette) spills her popcorn on him, their friendship developing remarkably quickly. Post-development, Alabama makes a few declarations: first, she loves Clarence; second, she’s a hooker hired by his boss out of pity. Happily, the first declaration is all that matters to Clarence and the besotted couple marry. With an encouraging word from his imaginary mentor (Val Kilmer), Clarence sets out to rid Alabama of her creepy pimp Drexl (Gary Oldman) and retrieve her effects: the first part is bloodily executed, but the suitcase he brings back contains a load of uncut cocaine instead of his wife’s smalls. Clarence quickly hatches a plan to hit Hollywood with the coke and, with the help of his wannabe actor friend Dick (Michael Rapaport), sell it to producer Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek) via nervous contact Elliot (Bronson Pinchot). All well and good, except the owner of the suitcase, one Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken), is rather keen to reclaim it; bad news for anyone who meets him and his henchmen, including Clarence’s father Clifford (Dennis Hopper) and Alabama. And that’s before Elliot stuffs up and becomes a stooge for cops Dimes and Nicholson (Chris Penn and Tom Sizemore).
In my salad days, when I was green in judgement and Quentin Tarantino was the feted wunderkind/enfant terrible of Hollywood, I thought True Romance was pretty cool. It wasn’t as visceral as the bravura Reservoir Dogs, of course, but it had compensations: that bloke off Perfect Strangers, a fun Brad Pitt cameo as Dick’s waster housemate and, best of all, a striking turn from Patricia Arquette in various states of semi-dress. Plus, there was still an amazingly bold emphasis on linguistic and physical violence, shot proficiently by action director Scott in memorable scenes such as Clarence’s visit to Drexl, the incendiary showdown between Walken and Hopper and the Mexican standoff that forms the movie’s exciting climax. True Romance is often fascinatingly audacious, and even if the full-on beating inflicted on Alabama is a little unedifying, it goes with the exploitation territory in which the film wallows (why else would she stay in that bikini top?). In any case, she eventually gets the better of James Gandolfini’s formidable heavy, Virgil.
But while there’s much to admire about True Romance’s attitude, experience shows up Tarantino’s script for what it is, an enthusiastic first attempt by someone with plenty of talent but insufficient discipline; big on head-smacking violence and breathtakingly filthy dialogue but sorely lacking in character depth or credibility. Take Alabama, for example: although Arquette does her level best to breathe life into the role, it’s essentially as naff as they come, the nice clean prostitute – she’s only three days into the job – who falls head over heels for Clarence because…er…well, exactly. With his love for (with apologies to Sonny Chiba) some pretty obscure movies, Worley is clearly a fantasy version of Tarantino, and I was unimpressed by the devices used to get us to warm to him. Neither the wearing of sunglasses, nor being given a note saying ‘You’re so cool’, actually make you cool, just as Elvis a mentor suggesting homicide in bathrooms does not make you a dangerous loony; I wasn’t persuaded either by Penn and Sizemore hanging on Clarence’s every word and constantly saying what a great guy he was.
Slater isn’t an actor who suggests great underlying pools of psychological trauma, and (not wishing to speak ill of the dead) Scott was never a director who worried much about character subtleties when gunplay or other action was in the offing, so it’s left to a number of reliable performers to give the film at least the illusion of depth. Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken are fantastic in the single scene they share, and it’s a crying shame that Walken only appears in this one scene. I’ve already mentioned Pitt, who does dazed and confused very well; Pinchot is amusingly clownish, Rapaport cutely goofy, and while the character of Drexl is a bit of a mess, Oldman plays him with intimidating badass intensity. If the shocking topics of conversation and explosions of brutality are what initially make True Romance an exciting watch, it remains watchable only because of the quality of the support, not because Slater and Arquette make out for two hours. Hans Zimmer’s score is good too, but it borrows very heavily from Carl Orff (and/or Gunild Keetman, to be precise) without, apparently, namechecking either.
Seen as a version of Bonnie and Clyde or Badlands filtered through Tarantino’s personality, vocabulary and movie library (or, indeed, a version of Natural Born Killers softened by Tony Scott’s mainstream sensibilities), True Romance is a passable slice of pulp fiction; indeed, if you’ve not seen anything quite like it before, there’s every chance you’ll love it at first sight. However, there are plenty of less self-consciously ‘cool’ movies out there, including a few directed by Tarantino himself; the more of those you watch, the less True Romance lives up to its name.