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True Romance   A-

Warner Bros. Pictures / Morgan Creek

Year Released: 1993
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Tony Scott
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Val Kilmer, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, Christopher Walken, Bronson Pinchot.

Review by Jeremiah Kipp

People seem to forget, in their selective memory, that Quentin Tarantino is a great writer. Blazing his way into the indie film scene with his heist film gone wrong, Reservoir Dogs, QT mined his pulp territory of tough-talking gangsters who waxed eloquent on pop culture. He made it look so easy, every film student and their mother started imitating that trademark style. Most of those movies just plain sucked. The marketplace was so filled with wannabe's, the audience tuned out. QT sorta got lost in the shuffle.

It's getting time to re-evaluate QT's brand of cool before his 15 minutes get used up. Fact is, there's quality in his sense of structure and pacing that makes his dialogue funny. Frankly, I get bored listening to Gen-X drivel, but if it's used to fill the vacuum of dead air before all hell breaks loose, suddenly I feel cocked and ready. I'm more apt to laugh when anticipating the worst.

Jackie Brown certainly had its moments within that epic three hours. I persist in believing there's a good movie in all that mess, if some canny editor had the chance to trim it down to size. (Oh, and reshoot the ending so Pam Grier is given something to do during the climax. That would help.) Since that "almost-good" flick went down in flames, QT has been strangely quiet -- popping up only in bad Broadway shows and Adam Sandler's Little Stinky. It's time for him to make a comeback, directing a war movie or something. Anything.

In the meantime, home video serves as a reminder of his talent. Don't believe the hype for Pulp Fiction, because it wasn't as great as people made it out to be. But do give it points for his fun with structure, Bruce Willis at his leanest and meanest, and Samuel L. Jackson's star-making monologue about how he knows his name is the Lawd when He strikes down His vengeance upon thee. Jazz me, baby.

Then pick up Reservoir Dogs. It's the movie Lee Marvin wishes he could have made -- the cinematic equivalent of Hitchcock's ticking time bomb theory. Once you present the hidden threat, watching people gab, gab, gab becomes instantly suspenseful. Case in point right here.

But my top of the list, king of the hill, has gotta be True Romance. QT didn't direct it, but he is well serviced by Hollywood hack Tony Scott. It's surprising how well the glossy look compliments this scrappy, tangential, rude love letter to B-movies. The pretty "look" becomes ironic. Scott directed Top Gun, so True Romance boils down to Top Gun with cojones, blood, sweat, dirty jokes, Elvis Presley and a sack full of bourbon.

* * *

It's a fuck story on the road. Clarence Worley (Christian Slater, never better) is the kid every movie geek wishes they were. He works in a comic book store, has meaningful discussions with the ghostly King of Rock 'n' Roll (Val Kilmer: "I've always liked yuh, Clarence -- alwus have, alwus will!") and falls in love with a dumb hooker named Alabama (Patricia Arquette, Lost Highway) who has the requisite heart of gold.

Who cares how they meet? This Badlands coupling fall in love and run away together after a bloody shootout with inner-city hustler Drexyl the Pimp (Gary Oldman). Let's stop and take stock, for a moment: British actor Oldman, never one with a gift for subtlety, is playing a honky motherfucker who wishes he was black. He wears dreadlocks. His face is scarred, his vocal inflections are otherworldly. Before kicking the living shit out of Slater, he's on the couch wearing an open robe and boxers, munching on Chinese food, watching a cult classic on the tube. Who's did kid fink he is? Mofokin Charles Bronson?

What's not to like about True Romance? It's already introduced the first memorable supporting character, one of many colorful types. He's only in the movie for 10 minutes at most, so there's no time to wear out Drexyl's welcome. As the good showman says, always leave 'em wanting more! Oldman and Slater have some tasty one-liners during their tete-a-tete, including the classic, "You thought today was white boy day!"

That's how the entire movie feels -- a series of virtuoso hard-boiled stories strung together -- sketches in piss and fire.

* * *

The mob, the cops and, no doubt, some other hired killers pursue Clarence and Alabama. They all meet in a hotel room at the end and blow each other's brains out. To be honest, the final shootout was the least imaginative section of the film only because it takes very little effort to kill everything in sight.

Only slightly less annoying is the scene where Arquette battles a pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini to the death, relying more on stylistic images of shattered glass (how typical) than feral savagery. It's just too cool. Whenever a movie tries to be cool (see Tarantino's imitators), it's almost always trying too goddamned hard. Chill out, man. And as for those submoronic idiots who viewed this scene as a feminist statement because Arquette fights back, think again. She spends most of the scene getting maimed for giggles.

Compare the silly violence of Arquette vs. Galdolfini with the darker humor of another scene from True Romance -- Tarantino's finest ever, one that has gone down in the annals of film noir history. Ask any film geek, they'll tell you. The geek crew hates this scene because they loved it enough to memorize it, so now it's passé. Guess what? Long after folks are through thinking Tarantino is cool, this scene will remain as a testament to scribbler mindfucking in Screenwriting 101.

Yes, yes. You knew what I was going to say already, didn't you? It's the scene where Sicilian Mafioso Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken, the Antichrist Rampant) proceeds to elaborately threaten Clarence's father (Dennis Hopper). Walken wants information. There's no point in lying. Walken is the world heavyweight champion when it comes to spotting liars -- he's Sicilian, you see, and Sicilians are great liars.

Hopper smokes a cigarette and thinks about it. If he gives up any information, Walken and his gang of cutthroat killers will track down his son and skin him alive. Better to save Clarence by telling a story so offensive there's no way Walken could possibly let him live. There's a politically incorrect, scathing monologue that follows detailing, in lurid detail, how Sicilians were spawned from "niggers."

This is skillfully etched dialogue that goes beyond trying to push buttons in the collective audience (who, of course will laugh because Hopper's words go far beyond what is socially acceptable). It's a dance between bad, bad men. Hopper and Walken, seated for almost the entire scene, have a splendid rapport through eye contact, head tilts, smiles -- watching each other's reactions like card sharks.

What does the violin say to the viola? Walken gives Hopper a kiss goodnight then blows his brains out.

* * *

How does one really capture how tough this material is without shining a spotlight on it, jumping up and down shouting, "THIS IS GOOD! THIS IS REALLY, REALLY GOOD!"

You can't. Fan-boys are an annoying lot. The most that can be done is to attempt painting that butterfly excitement gut reaction in lurid prose. Good luck, buddy.

Other gangster movies fail because they are about the gun, the heist, the betrayals. That stuff is a bunch of bullshit. I can put on a tin badge, but that sure as hell doesn't make me a cop.

The surface elements that go into a movie, the genre requirements -- those pass from one film to another, indistinguishable. Just take a look at Joseph Campbell's "Hero's Journey" nonsense, which every screenwriter takes to heart. That malarkey can be applied to any film from Star Wars to Fight Club. Not the point. You're looking at the forest, not at the scars that line each tree.

There are many scars on QT's bark. He acquired them by watching many bad movies at the drive-in, or Hong Kong action that idolized honor among thieves. Drinking those in, he learned to adore them. By the time he started writing his own movies, he represented a few of his favorite things.

Quentin Tarantino's movies are about, well, other movies. In general, this is not as fulfilling as, say, Ingmar Bergman's reflections of his childhood. The movies are, in fact, a very limited palette. QT only has a limited universe. What makes it fun is his excitement for the subject matter. If he weren't entertaining himself (and us) every millisecond, he would implode. As long as he's not acting in the movie, he makes us excited, too, by virtue of that balls-out enthusiasm.

If this review is pointing fingers at stuff I find amusing, shouting, "LOOK AT ME, LOOK AT ME!", isn't that what QT is doing as well? Decide for yourselves, kids, whether or not you find his world amusing. Don't cut him short because others, amused by him, went off and mapped their own universes. Nothing worse than films that quote other films that already quote other films. Trust me, those films can only be even more limited.

Review published 03.03.2001.

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