Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Films of Quentin Tarantino: True Romance (1993)

True Romance (1993) 
Directed by: Tony Scott.
Written by: Quentin Tarantino.
Starring: Christian Slater (Clarence Worley), Patricia Arquette (Alabama Whitman), Dennis Hopper (Clifford Worley), Val Kilmer (Mentor), Gary Oldman (Drexl Spivey), Brad Pitt (Floyd - Dick's Roommate), Christopher Walken (Vincenzo Coccotti), Bronson Pinchot (Elliot Blitzer), Samuel L. Jackson (Big Don), Michael Rapaport (Dick Ritchie), Saul Rubinek (Lee Donowitz), Conchata Ferrell (Mary Louise Ravencroft), James Gandolfini (Virgil), Anna Levine (Lucy), Victor Argo (Lenny), Paul Bates (Marty), Chris Penn (Nicky Dimes), Tom Sizemore (Cody Nicholson), Maria Pitillo (Kandi), Frank Adonis (Frankie), Kevin Corrigan (Marvin), Paul Ben-Victor (Luca), Michael Beach (Wurlitzer).
I’ve seen True Romance 4 or 5 times now, and I find it incredibly entertaining every time. And yet, there is a reason why I’ve only seen it four or five times when I’ve watched Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown 15-20 times each. Watching it this time, I think it clicked as to why it’s a lesser film than those others – and it’s basically that I don’t think Tony Scott, who was a great director, just doesn’t fundamentally understand what it is that makes Quentin Tarantino special. Everything about the direction of True Romance is too polished – it’s got that early 1990s studio sheen to it. The cinematography is too bright, the soundtrack is too hard rock, and the violence is too vulgar. Scott was a studio director, and he was making a studio film – whereas Tarantino still feels like an indie director – even as his budgets have increased dramatically over the years. Tarantino gets precisely what his screenplays need as a director, and gets it. True Romance may well be proof of something I’ve always thought – that Tarantino is perhaps an even better director than he is a screenwriter. None of the problems with True Romance doom it. The screenplay is still great, and full of great scenes. The performances are all top notch, and really bring that screenplay to life. And yet, True Romance is, for me, less than the sum of its parts – and it’s all in the direction. This isn’t meant as a criticism of Scott – not really. He did what he did better than just about anyone. But his best films are fundamentally different from True Romance.
At its core, True Romance is, appropriately enough, a love story. Young, pop-culture obsessed Clarence Worley (Christian Slater – essentially playing a Tarantino stand-in) meets Alabama (Patricia Arquette) at a kung fu movie marathon – and after a long night of talking and sex, they fall in love. The problem is that Alabama has recently started working as a prostitute – Clarence was a client (whose boss hired her as a birthday present to Clarence) – and needs to escape from her violent pimp, Drexl (Gary Oldman). So Clarence goes to let Drexl know that Alabama is done – and after a shootout leaves Drexl dead, Clarence grabs Alabama’s stuff and puts in a suitcase – which happens to be full of cocaine – about a half million dollars’ worth. Clarence and Alabama hit the road from Detroit to L.A. – where Clarence thinks his actor friend Dick Ritchie (Michael Rapaport) can help get him in contact with some Hollywood types who will buy all that coke. What Clarence doesn’t know is that the mob – whose coke it was – is on his trail, and the cops have also gotten wind of the deal going down. Another shootout is going to happen.
True Romance is not one of the best screenplays Tarantino has written – but that’s more because of how strong his films normally are, not because there’s much wrong with this one. Having said that, I do think that out of everything Tarantino has written, this is probably the one most reliant on those pop culture crutches that he leaned on heavily in his earlier work – and it’s a little too much at times. The bigger problem is probably that Clarence and Alabama, the main characters, are probably the least interesting characters in the film. Part of that is because the most memorable characters all have only a scene or two. Gary Oldman gives one of his very best performances as Drexl, and he basically has that one scene with Clarence. Still, you know everything you need to know about Drexl from that one scene – that posturing, phony swagger, that desire to fit in with all his black friends and massively overcompensates. Oldman is onscreen for less than 10 minutes, but owns it. A few scenes later, Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken show up – Hopper as Clarence’s dad, trying to cover for his son, and Walken as a mobster who wants to get the information he needs from him – and deliver another masterclass in acting, as they spar with each other, poke each other, trying to get one over on the other guy, and force them into doing what they want him to do. Hopper knows he’s not getting out of this alive – so he says what he says to try to get it over with quicker, so he doesn’t cave. Again, these are minor characters – it’s Walken’s only scene in the movie, and Hopper only has one more – but you know these characters completely. You can make the same argument for the cops played late in the film by Tom Sizemore and Chris Penn, who have such a natural report with each other that I wish they did an entire movie with them. Or Saul Rubinek as the profane movie producer who’s going to buy the coke. Or Bronson Pinchot, as his assistant, who rats to the cops. Or Brad Pitt, as Dick’s stoner roommate, who never leaves the couch. Even James Gandolfini as the mobster sent to get the coke – and ends in fight with Alabama. By contrast, Clarence and Alabama are just kind of young kids in love. I do like how the movie doesn’t have the types of moments we expect – Clarence doesn’t blink when Alabama says she’s a prostitute for example. They do appear like they are in love. I just never really understand why.
As a director, Tony Scott is smart enough to basically leave the dialogue scenes alone – he allows them to play out at length, and as in the Hopper/Walken scene, he doesn’t add much extra to the scene – and it works. In the big Drexl scene, he adds more flash – but much of it seems to be acting choices, like Oldman pushing that low hanging swinging light fixture at Slater again and again, works wonderfully. Much of the rest of it, not as much. The music seems to be a mismatch with the film – even that memorable score by Hans Zimmer. The violence has a sheen to it, that goes against the kind of sudden, shocking nature that happens in other Tarantino films of that time – and feels nastier as a result. That extended fight scene between Gandolfini and Arquette works as well as it does because of the performances – but the violence itself feels exploitive in an uglier way.
But we can thank Scott for one thing – the ending (spoiler alert, I guess). In the original Tarantino screenplay, Clarence doesn’t make it out of that shootout alive, but as unlikely as it seems, he does make it out alive in the film. At first, Tarantino disliked the end – but has come around it over time, saying it was the right ending for Scott’s film – although, it wouldn’t be the right ending for his film. Perhaps he’s right, perhaps he’s wrong – but it does work here. It gives the film a happy ending – and it works here, in part because Scott is very clearly trying to make a more mainstream film. And also because, it is the natural ending of this film. There is a mistake out there that assumes a same ending is more “real” – than a happy ending – but here, it is the proper ending.
Overall, I think that True Romance is less than the sum of its parts. The performances are great, and the screenplay, while flawed, is overall very good – and some amazing moments. The direction from Scott isn’t even bad – it’s just not the right choice for the material. And yet, this film is still entertaining from beginning to end.  

1 comment: