In a nutshell: Lovers and newlyweds Clarence and Alabama accidentally find themselves in possession of a suitcase full of cocaine. They travel to Hollywood in the hope of making a fortune. Little do they know that both the Mafia and police are not far behind.
True Romance is an odd beast, inherently both “A Tony Scott Film” and a Quentin Tarantino film. The film was made early in the Tarantino’s career – he gave Scott the scripts for both True Romance and Reservoir Dogs, caveating that Scott was only allowed to film one of them. Scott was more drawn to the fairy tale romance, which allowed Tarantino to make his low budget firecracker debut.
From the very off, there’s no doubt you’re watching a Tony Scott picture but the first words are pure Tarantino, with Clarence rambling on about Elvis. He woos Alabama over his love of Sonny Chiba and Spider-Man comics – it’s pure geek wish fulfilment and Tarantino admits it’s his most autobiographical script. At the same time, it’s a classic case of economic exposition – within 20 minutes, they’ve fallen in love, got married, killed a pimp and are on the road with a case full of coke. Now that’s how you write a first act, kids!
With a sought after script and a major director, which actor wouldn’t want to be involved? With the opening credits, it plays like a who’s who of 1990’s acting talent – with some major players like Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, Brad Pitt, Val Kilmer and Samuel L Jackson grabbing mere minutes of screen time. Yet it’s one of the film’s strengths, that with so many characters, it still manages to be a coherent plot. If anything, you wish you could spend more time with compelling characters such as Drexl the pimp, Vincenzo Coccotti, hell, I’d be happy to watch Ritchie (Michael Rappaport) cock up more casting auditions!
“Now I know I’m pretty, but I ain’t as pretty as a couple of titties.”
Looking back, you can see the roots of a typical Tarantino scene that many would try to imitate over the next 20 years. Tarantino has a knack for writing engrossing scenes that simply feature two characters talking. In True Romance, it’s best demonstrated in the infamous scene between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken aka “The Sicilian Scene”. It’s not just a masterclass in acting between two Hollywood greats, it’s a great example of slow-building tension, with both the characters and the audience being wrong-footed.
The scene starts with Clarence’s father, Clifford (Hopper) surrounded and tortured in his claustrophobic trailer. We’re introduced to Vincenzo Coccotti (Walken) aka “The Anti…Christ” who’s on monologing duty. Coccotti knows when people are lying and we know Clifford is not going to survive. Yet Clifford slyly turns the tables on his executor, with an impromptu history lesson that insults Coccotti’s Sicilian heritage. Enraged, Coccotti shoots Clifford before he can be punished further to reveal Clarence’s whereabouts. In a turn of blind luck, one of Coccotti’s goons stumbles across Clarence’s whereabouts via a note on Clifford’s fridge.
Tarantino himself has named the scene as one of his proudest moments.
“I had heard that whole speech about the Sicilians a long time ago, from a black guy living in my house. One day I was talking with a friend who was Sicilian and I just started telling that speech. And I thought: ‘Wow, that is a great scene, I gotta remember that’.”
Come to think of it, the film is full of characters facing off against each other in a variety of bizarre settings – from Drexl and Clarence sizing each up in Drexl’s techno-tastic pimp lair, to a three-way conversation between Elliot, Clarence, and sleazy producer Lee Donowitz over the phone.
It’s a talent Tarantino continues to display to this day – his films may be of varying quality but he can still grip you with a scene – take Inglorious Basterds for example. A slightly messy and bloated film, but for me, it contains two of the most gripping scenes in any film. The opening scene where Christoph Waltz interrogates a farmer or a later tavern set standoff with the worst game of “Who Am I?” you’ve ever seen.
Tarantino repeats a similar trick in Django Unchained, where Leonardo DiCaprio’s villain is being charming dinner party host who suddenly explodes into a terrifying monologue. (DiCaprio is a brilliant bad guy – more villains please, Leo). However, there are instances like Death Proof, where people constantly monologuing can get a little tiresome.
However I don’t want to focus on Quentin too much- let’s not kid ourselves – this is such a Tony Scott film. From the slick cityscape montages to the blue filtered sex scenes, it’s obvious this is the man who gave us Top Gun, Beverley Hills Cop 2 and Days of Thunder. Indeed, there’s absolutely no need for a Clarence to meet Elliott on a rollercoaster, but it makes complete sense for Scott, with a snappily edited sequence to get the pulses racing.
The third act is another example of Scott’s famous quick editing style building up to a fairly convoluted Mexican standoff between cops, Clarence and co and Mafia goons. The director takes his time, ramping up the tension -with Clarence trying to woo Lee, Elliott losing his cool, the Mafia loading up their guns, and the police getting ready to make their raid. To heighten tensions even higher, there happens to be a war film casually playing in the background. When it comes to the climax, there’s bullets flying, feathers floating and cocaine snowing – it’s almost magical – Hans Zimmer’s upbeat soundtrack certainly helps.
The Mexican Stand-off (i.e. at least three different parties pointing guns at each other) quickly became another Tarantino staple (being present in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, From Dusk till Dawn, to name just a few) and again something that was imitated elsewhere. However, it also became a favourite of Scott’s, appearing in Enemy of the State and Domino.
As I mentioned earlier, this has one of the best casts of any film in the past 30 years, with everyone making the most of their limited screentime. Samuel L Jackson manages to demonstrate a knack for Tarantino dialogue and make an impression with around 2 mins of screentime. Gary Oldman’s Drexl is a horrible creation yet completely captivating, it’s no surprise that many consider it not only a breakout role but one of his best.
There’s also a young James Gandolfini (well, six years prior to The Sopranos), who is utterly menacing again with a few minutes screen time, in a scene, that in my opinion, is a little too violent. I haven’t even mentioned Brad Pitt’s loveable stoner Floyd, or the “hey fuggedaboutit! ” brilliance of pairing Tom Sizemore and Chris Penn as pent up cops.
As for our young lovers, Slater and Arquette are truly the beating heart of the film. You truly get swept up in their romance and want them to succeed. Interestingly Scott pushed for a happier fairly tale ending, where Tarantino has Clarence killed in the final shoot out. Slater has had some good roles in his time, but for me, this is his most memorable, he truly is, so cool. Maybe a little cool for a comic book nerd, but hey that’s Hollywood. I would say it’s definitely a career-best for Arquette, mainly because I struggle to remember any of her other performances, bar Boyhood.
Revisiting this movie, it’s not hard to see why it is beloved by so many. Full of amazing performances, great dialogue and directed by an accomplished action director – it’s a classic. With it’s Hans Zimmer xylophone, techno and music video montages, True Romance may feel like a 1990’s film, but it’s one of the best.
Alternative Title: Love and Other Drugs
MVP: Tarantino’s script allows everyone to devour with glee.
Coulda Woulda Shoulda: Liam Neeson turned down the role of Vincenzo Coccotti. Tony Scott wanted Drew Barrymore as Alabama but she was unavailable.
Want to hear more about True Romance? Check out our podcast review!