IT COMES AS little surprise that Tony Scott’s ‘True Romance’ was originally part of a longer screenplay by Quentin Tarantino that also included ‘Natural Born Killers’. ‘True Romance’ predates Oliver Stone’s ‘Natural…’ as well as Tarantino’s own ‘Pulp Fiction’ by a year and in many ways is a template for both: run and gun vigilantism, sociopaths around every bend, retro chic meets modern gratuity, a star-studded ensemble, and even the dialogue. To a degree, that is—‘Pulp’s “Does he look like a bitch?” being much snappier than this film’s “Do I look like a beautiful blonde with big tits and an ass that tastes like French vanilla ice cream?” But where those later (and more celebrated, if not always greater) episodes hearken to an Elmore Leonard kind of debauched criminal underbelly, ‘True Romance’ attempts to position itself in more of the ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ mold, wherein two young loves have nothing to lose and by breaking the law somehow win our affection.
A fine idea, but it doesn’t quite work. Despite being founded on a wholly unironic ‘true romance’, the film spends very little time establishing this connection between Clarence (Christian Slater) and Alabama (Patricia Arquette) beyond their whirlwind first date, which turns out to have been a birthday present setup with a half-hearted prostitute. Thus we have virtually nothing invested in the couple before the guns come out and they’re on the lam with a half-mil in cola. Aside from hazy scruples what the two have most in common is their desperate need for love and to escape. He idolizes her sweetness, she his coolness, and neither seems interested in looking deeper than the façade each has built for the other.
In a typical action flick this is to be expected. And judged on those grounds, ‘True Romance’ is quite a trip, essentially consisting of a series of showdowns that become progressively more physical: Clarence vs. Drexl (Gary Oldman); Christopher Walken vs. Dennis Hopper (their characters being merely excuses for the two actors to meet); Alabama vs. Tony Soprano Virgil (James Gandolfini); everybody else vs. everyone who’s left. Given the waning gravitas of the actors involved, this transition is well-chosen. In the first clash, Gary Oldman is electric as a white Jamaican drug dealer, his face crisscrossed with scars, his teeth mottled, one eye milky. Slater holds his own, but only because of some ballsy dialogue—Oldman is the gale that picks up Slater’s ember and fans it into flame. The next meeting, a 10-minute sit-down between Walken and Hopper, is the film’s raison d’être—a perfectly hypnotizing exchange between two masters for whom a tightening around the eyes or faint nod communicates far more than the orgiastic gunfire and eruption of down pillows in the film’s climax. In that earlier scene, Jeffrey Kimball’s camerawork wisely slows down, favoring wider angles, fewer cuts, and more static shots. The dramatic drop lighting and passive observers in the background impart a theatrical quality that is far removed from the rest of the film, where tight, provocative angles and quick cuts are common. On a related note, Alabama’s battle with Virgil is also quite affecting, but mostly for its bestial shock value—choreography trumping content.
And that is ‘True Romance’ in brief. Some flashy affectations to a depth beyond its stature that ultimately diminish its actual nature. If Tony Scott and Quentin Tarantino would cease protesting (pretending?) that violence is secondary to the film’s “bittersweet” core, the little romance that exists here would feel more true.
TL;DR: Deeper than ‘Natural Born Killers’, but how much is that really saying?