True Romance (1993, Tony Scott)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Having killed a pimp and stolen some drugs, newly-weds Clarence and Alabama head to LA to sell the cocaine…

What does QT do? The project began in the 1980s as a script written by Roger Avary, a pal of Tarantino’s, which told the story of a wild couple called Mickey and Mallory. When he got the chance to rewrite it, Quentin added a new storyline about another young couple in love called Clarence and Alabama, and the original plot became fantasy scenes in a script Clarence was writing. Later, QT cut the story in two. The Mickey-and-Mallory half became Natural Born Killers, while the Clarence-and-Alabama sections – True Romance – ended up in the hands of director Tony Scott. Tarantino wasn’t involved in the filming, but has said he likes the end product.

Notable characters:
* Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) is a geek who works in a comic-book shop. He’s a fan of Elvis (who he’d fuck if he had to), kung-fu movies and Spider-Man, and has a rockabilly fashion sense. There’s a chance he’s a Mary Sue for the writer. Slater is charismatic and full of energy.
* Alabama Worley née Whitman (Patricia Arquette) is a prostitute hired as a birthday present for Clarence, but she quickly falls in love with him. In a less sexist world, True Romance would be more definitively Arquette’s film: she provides opening and closing voiceover and is, in many ways, the real heart of the story.
* Drexl Spivey (Gary Oldman) is Alabama’s pimp. He has dreadlocks, deals drugs, bandies the N-word about with his posse of sidekicks, and speaks in a ghetto accent. Despite all that, he’s played by someone who was born in New Cross.
* Big Don (Samuel L Jackson) has one scene where the bad guys discuss pussies. This was Jackson’s first landing on Planet Tarantino – he’s never really left.
* Elvis Presley (Val Kilmer) appears twice to Clarence as a ghostly mentor who guides him through the story. He’s always slightly out of frame so we never quite see his face.
* Clifford Worley (Dennis Hopper) is Clarence’s dad: a night-watchman who lives in a caravan parked next to the train tracks. He hasn’t seen his son for three years when Clarence shows up asking for help. After Clarence and Alabama leave, bad guys arrive and torture Cliff for information.
* Dick Ritchie (Michael Rapaport) is Clarence’s actor friend in LA who helps connect him to someone who’ll buy the cocaine. We first see Dick auditioning to be in an episode of TJ Hooker (said to be “the new TJ Hooker” because the show was actually axed in 1986). Despite being clearly terrible he gets the role.
* Vincent Coccotti (Christopher Walken) is the mafia lieutenant who interrogates Clifford in the film’s most famous scene: a sensational, potent and deliberately offensive dialogue exchange between Walken and Dennis Hopper. (In a later scene, Clarence mentions films staring the actors – Walken’s Deer Hunter and Hopper’s Apocalypse Now.) Coccotti is a walking stereotype: a mobster who dresses immaculately, mixes good manners with brutal violence, and has a gaggle of dim Italian sidekicks.
* Virgil (James Gandolfini) is the most heavily featured of Coccotti’s heavies. Coccotti drops out of the film after his one and only scene, with Virgil becoming his proxy. He’s killed while beating up Alabama.
* Floyd (Brad Pitt) is Dick’s permanently stoned housemate. He’s a fun bit of comic relief.
* Elliot Blitzer (Bronson Pinchot) is an acting-class friend of Dick’s. While negotiating the sale of the drugs, however, he’s caught by the cops and forced to wear a wire at the transaction.
* Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek) – a movie producer famed for Vietnam flick Coming Home in a Body Bag – wants to buy Clarence’s cocaine.
* Nicky Dimes (Chris Penn) and Cody Nicholson (Tom Sizemore) are the pair of clichéd police detectives on the trail of the drugs.

Returning actors: Chris Penn had been in Reservoir Dogs.

Music: The score is by Hans Zimmer. Making great use of the marimba, it’s uplifting and whimsical. The pre-existing tracks used in the film rarely feel vital to the scene, though we get to hear bits of Billy Idol’s White Wedding, The Big Bopper’s Chantilly Lace and The Shirelles’ Will You Love Me Tomorrow.

Time shifts and chapters: Tarantino’s shooting script – which was published in the UK in 1995 – shows that he wrote the film with a flashback structure. Essentially, he started with Clarence and Alabama showing up at Clifford’s caravan, then followed them to LA. Only after Dick asks how they met would we have cut back to the earlier events. This explains a few oddities in the movie, such as Coccotti’s inaccurate description of Drexl’s death (it would have been a set-up for when we later saw what *really* happened). But Tony Scott felt the story worked better in chronological order and re-edited it during post-production.

Connections: It’s often said that the Alabama mentioned by Mr White in Reservoir Dogs is meant to be this film’s Alabama. However, his description of a career criminal doesn’t ring true here.

Review: This is a geek wish-fulfilment story. Watch Clarence go: he kills! He woos the hooker with a heart! He steals a suitcase of cocaine! He evades the cops! He cons a powerful film producer! He survives being shot in the face! The film can never even remotely justify any of these things. Clarence has no journey, Alabama is a maternal-whore character, and the cops and gangsters are all walking stereotypes. But it doesn’t matter. The title says it all – this is a story with a blinkered, romantic view of the world. It’s a *fantasy*. On the face of it, Quentin Tarantino and Tony Scott are very different filmmakers. One revels in crafted dialogue, pop-culture references, innovative structures, shocking violence and surprising plot twists. The other made Top Gun, perhaps the most straight-ahead movie ever shot. But Tony Scott also directed a number of very interesting films, such as neo-noir The Last Boy Scout, the tense Crimson Tide, techno-thriller Enemy of the State, the contemplative Man on Fire and a glossy remake of The Taking of Pelham 123. True Romance is actually a pleasing meshing of his and Tarantino’s styles. Scott brings his Hollywood sheen – close-ups with out-of-focus backgrounds, side-lit faces, neon lighting, smoke and steam, a sex scene shot like it’s a music video – to a script full of character and colour. As mentioned above, he also flattened out the story’s chronology. But this gives the film a vibrant visual shift from the early Detroit scenes (set at night or dawn, cold, menacing) to the later LA stuff (set in blazing sun, warm, hedonistic). If Scott’s contribution has any negative effect, it’s in his use of violence. True Romance contains some savage acts of brutality. Alabama being beaten up is especially difficult to watch, while the climactic shootout in the hotel suite is *ridiculously* over-caffeinated. But on the whole this is a really enjoyable watch.

Eight Sicilians out of 10

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