Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Movies I Love: True Romance

by Patrick Bromley
Today's F This Movie! entry was originally going to be a review of The Master, the new movie from Paul Thomas Anderson that's due out in about a month. But then Tony Scott got diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor (or maybe he didn't) and chose to jump off a bridge and kill himself rather than wait to die, and it seemed like I should write something about it. He wasn't a filmmaker that always meant a lot to me, but he did make one movie that means more to me than most. For that, I will forever be grateful.

I've always been kind of a Tony Scott fan, even though I hardly like any Tony Scott movies. I made it a point to see every movie he directed (with the exception of The Hunger, which many consider his best and which I still have not seen), and even when they were bad -- and most of them were pretty bad -- there was something so slick and and watchable about everything he did that I had a hard time looking away. His movies were almost entirely about style and appearances (in later years, overpoweringly so), and while it wasn't a style I'm all that crazy about, it can't be denied that he changed movies. With Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop II, he essentially invented the Simpson/Brucheimer aesthetic, which, in turn, gave us filmmakers like Michael Bay. That's not to say that Tony Scott is entirely to blame for Michael Bay. That's like blaming The Beatles for the Insane Klown Posse (no, Tony Scott is not The Beatles, but you get my hilarious analogy). But everything Michael Bay has spent his career doing is just an imitation, then an inflation, then a bastardization of Scott's style. What I'm saying is that I would gladly watch every movie Tony Scott ever made before watching Transformers again just once. Even The Fan.

And, yet, a guy who directed an entire body of work I mostly don't care for managed to make one of my favorite movies of all time: 1993's True Romance.
I was 16 when True Romance was released, and can honestly say that no movie had ever spoken to me in the way that movie did when I saw it opening night. I had seen Reservoir Dogs one year earlier, so Quentin Tarantino was very much on my radar. It was the fact that he had written the screenplay to True Romance that brought me to the theater the first night (and the fact that the trailer made it look awesome, even though seeing it now is to realize that it is advertising a movie that is everything I came to hate about the post-Tarantino cinema of the '90s), as I was just paddling out to ride that New Wave of cinema that he helped usher in during the decade. And while his voice is everywhere in the movie -- Clarence Worley, the film's main character, might as well be Tarantino -- I quickly forgot that he was responsible for writing it. The characters, the performances, the insane energy all sucked me in almost immediately. I walked out of True Romance a different person, not because the movie reinvented storytelling, but because I had fallen so completely in love with it that I could just tell that something was chemically different inside of me. Some movies feel like they've always been living in our heads and our hearts, waiting to be shown back to us. When a filmmaker is able to do that, it's a kind of magic trick we didn't even know was possible, like someone guessing what number you're thinking of when you hadn't realized you were thinking of a number.

The screenplay -- which, incidentally, was Tarantino's first -- tells a simple enough story. Working-class geek Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) is sitting through a Sonny Chiba triple feature on his birthday. A beautiful blonde comes into the theater. She is Alabama (Patricia Arquette), and she immediately strikes up a conversation. They go out for pie. They talk. They have sex. Alabama confesses that she is a call girl and was paid to be at that theater by Clarence's boss as a birthday gift, and also that she's in love with him. They get married. Clarence decides to have it out with Alabama's pimp, Drexl Spivey (an unrecognizable Gary Oldman), and winds up with a suitcase full of drugs. So the couple heads out to California to meet up with Clarence's wannabe actor friend, Dick Ritchie (Michael Rapaport), because he lives in Hollywood and can surely find someone looking to buy a whole lot of cocaine.

There's also the Ghost of Elvis (Val Kilmer), who speaks to Clarence in the bathroom; Floyd (Brad Pitt), the perpetually stoned roommate who never gets off the couch; Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek), a profane, hilarious producer of Hollywood action movies who just happens to look JUST LIKE Joel Silver; Virgil (James Gandolfini), the sadistic hitman; Dimes and Nicholson, two caffeinated, swinging dick cops and much, much more. True Romance may lack realism. It may, at times, lack good taste. What it never lacks is color.

A lot of people have complained over the years about what Scott did to Tarantino's script -- putting it in chronological order and what not -- and have expressed regrets that QT didn't get to direct the movie himself, arguing that the movie would have been better as Tarantino had originally planned. I love love Tarantino, but those people are wrong. Scott's direction has a lot to do with making True Romance great, because, for once, his aesthetic is actually part of the story. Clarence sees himself as a character in a movie. He isn't living his life so much as he is playing a part, and he brings Alabama into that fantasy once the pair falls in love. Clarence isn't going to picture himself as the hero of a low-budget arthouse crime movie, which is what True Romance would have been if directed by Tarantino at that point in his career (he hadn't yet made Reservoir Dogs, much less become a household name with Pulp Fiction). Clarence is going to be the star of a slick, trashy Joel Silver action movie -- or, at the very least, a Lee Donowitz movie. Tony Scott made exactly the movie that Clarence is seeing in his head, all smoky and backlit, cut fast and loud and scored both by expensive mainstream bands like Aerosmith and Hans Zimmer music that sounds exactly like George Tipton's score for Badlands.

It's all cool. And for the first -- and pretty much only -- time in Tony Scott's career, his cinema-of-cool approach actually functions to comment on the material instead of just dressing it up.
It's also the only entry in Scott's filmography that really, really loves actors. He's made plenty of movies with a good performance or two (many of them courtesy of Denzel Washington, his leading man of choice since the mid-'90s), but True Romance is a movie that loves its cast so much that it slows down enough for EVERY SINGLE PERSON to have a moment. Yes, much of that comes from Tarantino's script; there's only a handful of filmmakers currently working that love actors as much as he does. But Tony Scott could have easily chucked all of that in order to get to more shootouts and drug busts. He doesn't.

Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette have never been better in any other movie; they've never even come close (well, maybe Christian Slater did in Heathers). Arquette has the more difficult role, since she's basically playing a variation on the geek's fantasy: hooker with a heart of gold, but who just happens to love Burt Reynolds, will sit through three kung fu movies and who, most importantly, LIKES YOU. Alabama is sexy because, call girl regrets aside, she's totally comfortable with who she is. She's confident. She dresses outrageously not because she's a hooker, but because that's how she likes to dress. But Arquette pulls off something in the movie which few actresses are able to do: she's both sexy and adorable (most Hollywood films require women to be one or the other). She's also funny and tough. Sweet. Ballsy. Brave. Supportive. Tarantino establishes early on (through the dreaded voice over, because fuck Robert McKee) that this is actually Alabama's story, and it's exactly the right choice. She is the soul of the movie.

It's hard to oversell just how special and rare the character of Clarence Worley was back in 1993. Nowadays, the geeks have inherited the Earth and every character in pop culture is Scott Pilgrim or the guys on Big Bang Theory. The idea of the protagonist of a Hollywood movie being a guy who collected comic books and spent his birthday sitting through a triple feature alone in the theater was, at that time, revolutionary to some of us. We felt like we were Clarence, which made watching the transition from his "real" life to his "movie" life all the more thrilling; we were sitting in a theater wishing we were a guy in a movie who was sitting in a theater wishing he was a character in another movie. If it were made today, True Romance would be called "meta" -- a kind of Inception or Mulholland Dr.-style mind fuck movie in which reality gives way to fantasy without any textual clues that such a thing is happening. What I love about True Romance is that it plays everything totally straight. Clarence isn't fantasizing. This is his life. Even the title of the movie is free from irony. It's not winking at us, like "Hey, we know she's a hooker and he kills a pimp and they steal drugs and get involved with the cops and the mob and AIN'T LOVE GRAND??" True Romance is genuinely romantic because it means it.
Consider also the insanely deep bench of great character actors that fill out the supporting cast: Christopher Walken, Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper, Brad Pitt, Val Kilmer, Samuel L. Jackon, Michael Rapaport, Saul Rubinek, Chris Penn, Tom Sizemore, James Gandolfini, Ed Lauter, Paul Ben-Victor, Kevin Corrigan, Bronson Pinchot. Every single one of those actors (save maybe for Kevin Corrigan, who is basically an extra, and Samuel L. Jackson) gets something great to do, too. A great scene. A memorable speech. A good piece of business. Everyone in the movie registers. Everyone comes off great. True Romance has one of the best -- and best-used -- casts of any movie of the 1990s.

Howard Hawks had a formula for a good movie: three good scenes, no bad ones. True Romance has no bad scenes, and a shit ton of scenes that aren't just good, they're great. Christian Slater's opening speech about fucking Elvis. Gandolfini's monologue about the first time he killed a guy. Hell, the entire Gandolfini sequence. Clarence goes to see Drexl. Clarence and Alabama sitting on the couch. The rollercoaster. The shootout. Floyd. And, most famously, there's the Dennis Hopper/Christopher Walken scene, which is often called one of the best scenes in any movie ever, even by people who don't like True Romance.

We at F This Movie! often talk about how our relationships with our favorite movies are intensely personal, because no duh. While there are a ton of people who love and admire Citizen Kane (it is, after all, the SECOND BEST movie of all time), I don't often hear people talk about it in terms of being a "favorite." Second best? Sure. Favorite? Not really. I know that True Romance isn't really a "great" movie, objectively speaking. Subjectively? Fucking A. My relationship with it is more personal than almost any movie I've ever seen. After that first night, I tried and tried to get more people to come with me so I could see it again. (Side note: my friends at the time instead insisted on seeing The Real McCoy, and we are not friends anymore.) If it comes on TV, I have to stop whatever I'm doing and watch it. If I happen to catch it at the end, I'm sad that it will be over so soon. I love it so much.

So Tony Scott is gone, and it's sad because it's sad when people go away and because he had a family that loved him and lost him. He made a lot of movies that meant a lot to a lot of people -- movies like Top Gun and Man on Fire, because nobody's perfect. But if he never made another movie that I liked, he will always be important in my life because he brought Clarence and Alabama's love story to the screen. For a guy whose body of work consisted mainly of movies aimed at our balls and our guts, he should also be remembered as someone capable of making a movie like True Romance -- a movie aimed straight at my heart.


  1. Beautifully written.
    I, too, saw "True Romance" on its opening night--but I didn't like it all that much (at first). I thought the acting was great, but I felt the style was way over the top. It made me appreciate "Reservoir Dogs" even more. I thought, "Well, that's just like Taxi Driver. Another Mexican standoff?" Of course, it did not help that the motel beat down scene was heavily cut nd that it wasn't Alabama who shot Chris Penn at the end of the theatrical cut. Once it hit VHS in the Director's Cut though, everything clicked for me. Any complaints I once had--completely vanished. I now hold this movie in the highest regard.
    Another Tony Scott film I love is "Crimson Tide," partly because I thought it would be boring like "The Hunt for Red October" and it wasn't. Anything but. Of course with Tarantino doing the rewrite, we got another variation of the Hopper/Walken scene in it.
    You like to talk about ambitious failures on your show. I think "Domino" is a prime example.

    1. Thanks, Cameron. It's interesting that the Director's Cut made that much of a difference for you. I've always felt like the changes were less about altering the actual movie than they were about the MPAA being very uncomfortable with scenes of women and violence. All of the objections involved Alabama.

      I like Crimson Tide, but I rarely feel compelled to revisit it. Maybe I'll have to watch it again and see if I feel differently about it.

      Good call on Domino. That movie's a MESS, but I still kind of like it. We did a podcast on it a long time ago. I don't remember what I said about it, but it was probably something to that effect.

    2. I think my reaction changed when it came to video because I could sit back on the couch and watch it (especially on the widescreen LD). Seeing it theatrically, in the third row, was a little too much. I never watched another Tony Scott film that close again. LOL.

  2. Well written Patrick. You summed how I feel about that movie. It would be in my top 5 favorite movies. Have you done a F this movie podcast about True Romance? I would like to hear that.

    1. Thanks, Tony! We've never done a podcast on it, because I was afraid it would just be the Chris Farley show (which is what this column pretty much was in print form). Maybe we'll revisit it soon.

  3. "True Romance" does nothing for me as a movie, narrative-wise but I can appreciate it means so much to someone like Patrick (like my favorite movies mean so much to me and nobody else). As a compilation reel of some great actors doing a minute or two of some of their best/most memorable work it's a freaking masterpiece. If you're bored watching it (so sue me, Alabama and Clarence are dull and unintiresting characters to me, though the actors do have romantic chemistry) just wait 5 or less minutes and a cool actor will have a great one-liner or a great scene (not just the Hopper/Walken talk, which is epic) which is a great way to get to the end with a guaranteed amount of fun. And the ending (Tarantino's script throwing an obvious nod to Terrence Malick's "Badlands") is actually kind-of sweet.

    The last time I saw it (a lifetime ago) I was struck to hear James Gandolfini speak with his normal voice since I've gotten so used him with his Jersey accent from "The Sopranos." :D

  4. There are 2 types of people. Those who love True Romance. And idiots. Yes. I went there. It's a fantastic film. It's incredibly romantic, and if you read interviews with the cast you could feel there was a special spark between Slater and Arquette that can't be duplicated. It's an all-star cast for a reason. Hell,---and entire film (Pineapple Express) was made just from the idea of Floyd, the burn out pot smoking roommate. Thank you to this blog for the photo of Elliott (fondly remembered as Balky from Perfect Strangers) with a gun to his head. Yes, I used that as my background now on twitter. Tony Scott, (may he rest in peace) Direction is that of someone who gets story. Uses camera motion to move the story along. There are so many great scenes in that film, it's hard to pick a favorite. There are so many great characters, again--it's hard to pick a favorite. I agree for sure on the Christian Slater comment. Heathers was his other great performance. Thanks for reminding people why this movie is my favorite movie of all time.

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