Friday, March 25, 2016
Director: Tony Scott
Writers: Quentin Tarantino, Roger Avary
Photography: Jeffrey L. Kimball
Music: Hans Zimmer
Editors: Michael Tronick, Christian Wagner
Cast: Patricia Arquette, Christian Slater, Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, James Gandolfini, Bronson Pinchot, Saul Rubinek, Val Kilmer, Brad Pitt, Samuel L. Jackson, Conchata Ferrell, Michael Rapaport, Chris Penn, Tom Sizemore
As a matter of pure coincidence, I happened to run across a listicle on the Internet this morning when I sat down to write, The 15 Best Movies About Lovers on the Run. It not only put True Romance at the tippy-toppest of the heap but also included most of the other titles I'd thought to jot down while looking at it again recently: Badlands, Bonnie and Clyde, Something Wild, Wild at Heart. The only one from my notes not on that writer's list was After Hours, which after all is not so much lovers on the run as man in over his head. A man in over his head is often a natural feature of lovers-on-the-run movies, including True Romance. A man in over his head, but in this case a man rising to the occasion, and in more than easy comical ways.
The listicle writer was also extremely positive about Quentin Tarantino's script, calling it "the purest, coolest, and most honest thing Tarantino has ever written." After Jackie Brown, which I think wins even just on those three specifics, I'm inclined to agree. True Romance is a beautiful underclass Elvis and Marilyn story about a girl from Tallahassee, Florida, and a comic book store clerk from Detroit whose faith in love carries the day. Already Tarantino's greatest strengths are on display, in the way the dialogue rolls, in the way the characters intermesh, and yes, in the way the violence explodes.
I like it a lot myself, but I was surprised to find it ranked so high on that list, because one important element in the very spine of the story has so badly dated. I'm talking about the mock ironic deification of Elvis Presley, approximately peaking in 1993, if you will recall. Here Val Kilmer has the honors and the device is thankfully brief, used only twice, but it is extremely painful both times. Perhaps that too shall pass. The reason it reminded me of Wild at Heart, after all, was not the lovers-on-the-run thing, but the Elvis thing, which in 2016 has either ended or been so thoroughly absorbed that the degree of Elvis found in any one person has become infinitesimal, divided across 7 billion people and counting (and with the polar icecaps melting).
Christian Slater is adequate but a little puny for the part, cutting a dweeby figure not so far from Michael J. Fox. But Clarence Worley is an interesting character, obsessed with Elvis in variously charming ways, most of which come down to shtick. It gets worse when he appears to believe it, but that thread is thankfully slender, as I say, and the movie is otherwise packed with head-spinning levels of performance: Gary Oldman (especially), Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, Bronson Pinchot, Saul Rubinek, and James Gandolfini all take stellar turns here. Patricia Arquette too, of course, bearing a heavy load at once gracefully and gratingly. Everybody else is pretty much at least very good.
I've already made the mistake of focusing on Tarantino, because director Tony Scott certainly must get lion's share of the credit. It's one of the best Tarantino movies, I suspect, exactly because Tarantino doesn't direct it. Tony Scott (Unstoppable, Man on Fire, Top Gun) spent a career showing how action thrillers are done (spoiler alert: with economy) and this is just one of the better examples. The structure of the story is essentially an escalating series of epic confrontations. Some of them, such as the one between Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper, are famous now. You don't even have to know about the characters or story to enjoy how it goes down, and they all have their surprises. Others, such as the one between Clarence's wife Alabama (Arquette) and henchman Virgil (Gandolfini, utterly chilling, a more menacing presence even than Tony Soprano, if only because he's younger), are deeply specific to characters and story.
The first epic confrontation comes early, the showdown between Clarence and Alabama's pimp, Drexl (Oldman). While Alabama allows Drexl might have some Apache in him, she says he is more a white man who thinks he's black. As a matter of masculinist honor, Clarence goes back to Drexl's place to get Alabama's things. This sequence is well accompanied by techno music. Gary Oldman's Drexl is hilariously and unnervingly weird—as advertised, a white man who appears to believe he's black. You can't take your eyes off of or quite get your head around him. The last epic confrontation in True Romance is the biggest and most epic, of course, with three separate gangs of heavily armed personnel and other loose players rolling around a high-end suite in a Beverly Hills hotel. But Scott's efficiencies, his clarity and sense of timing, particularly in the scenes of violence, are a clinic in how it's done—very impressive.
Still, I think it's fair to say it works best as a romance, truly. You have to accept Slater's unreconstructed Elvisism and you have to accept Arquette's defensive giggling, a sound that can work like the proverbial nails on chalkboard in a few scenes (deliberately, I'm sure). And then otherwise it just bops along, with heart and good humor and dialogue and decent soundtrack, at least as far as song selection (there's also a Hans Zimmer marimba theme going that dates it somewhat), punctuated by explosive scenes of violence where you care a lot who's going to prevail. There are some good people here. There are some bad people too. It's all mixed up nice, with just perhaps a little too much Elvis.