The track record for others adapting Tarantino’s early screenplays isn’t so hot – the prosecution offers Natural Born Killers and From Dusk till Dawn – but Tony Scott’s envisioning of True Romance, made before the director went stratospheric with Pulp Fiction and after Quentin politely turned Tony down when he made it known how much he’d like to direct Reservoir Dogs himself, is nigh on perfect. Scott ironed the director’s tricksy structure into something linear and brought with it an upbeat ending, because he knew that, if you’re onboard with Clarence (Christian Slater) and Alabama (Patricia Arquette), you don’t need bells and whistles and foisted tragedy. And he managed to make a classic as a result, the best film of his career.
Tarantino is winningly unguarded on the commentary track he volunteered for the DVD release (he says he’s 36 on it, so it must have been recorded around ’99). It doubtless helps that he’s a gushing fan of the director – with his eclectic tastes, he cites Days of Thunder as a great movie, which is… generous – but he sounds entirely genuine in his admission that Scott’s decisions were perfect for the picture (“I gotta say I think Tony’s ending is better for the movie Tony made”), and he also hones in on just why that was, which is revealing of his own strengths and limitations as a purveyor of a self-styled oeuvre.
Tarantino recognises the idea that “the movie hadn’t earned a tragic ending” (in which Clarence dies; this can be seen on the Blu-Ray extras) and that under Scott “it became much more of a romantic fairy tale” than he had envisaged. And it’s true. True Romance is hopelessly romantic, cued as such by Hans Zimmer’s gorgeous, enchanting re-envisioning of Carl Orff’s Gassenhauer – used in Badlands by Terrence Malick and informed there by Sissy Spacek’s narration, both devices an inspiration here – and capped by Alabama’s sunset bliss in Mexico with an eyepatched Clarence and their young son Elvis.
Purportedly, Harvey Weinstein was kicked off the picture for suggesting Slater was too good-looking for Clarence (an altercation that led to the Weinstein-Tarantino-Miramax legacy). Which he is, but the casting serves to underline the fairy-tale element; we don’t have to pretend this is legitimately a real world where Slater actually is a nerd who goes to see back-to-back Sonny Chiba movies, who marries a hooker – I mean, call girl – procured as a birthday present on only her fourth client (because that means she retains her relative purity), who is manly and confident enough, despite being a nerd, to stand up to her pimp and blow him away, and then engage in a high-stakes drug deal. It’s a fully-formed Tarantino fantasy of himself (he admits Clarence is him, and Clarence comments “I’m basically a pretty resourceful guy”), the guy who is self-aware but also self-aggrandising. Who will bitch slap someone to prove his masculinity, and shut interviewers butts down when they disrespect him.
You have to be on board with the contradictions to love True Romance. Clarence, who wears a Travis Bickle jacket during the Detroit sequence, was told by Scott to watch Taxi Driver to get Clarence’s attitude right… And Scott wanted a romantic ending? Perhaps he didn’t think Bickle was a sociopath? Or perhaps he was doing the only thing that could legitimately be done with such material – buying into the all-things-to-all element.
That Clarence, with his ghost-of-Elvis (Val Kilmer) guidance figure, could be a protagonist who wouldn’t bat an eye at killing someone (even a Drexl), leaving a trail of destruction wherever he goes in pursuit of his selfish desires (did his father, Elliot Blitzer, or even Lee Donowitz really deserve to die?) AND you should like him for it all, and want him to win out (as Alabama says when he comes back from Drexl’s, “I think what you did was so romantic”). Uma Thurman suggested to Tarantino, of Pitt’s stoner, “Floyd is telling us how to enjoy this movie” (not taking it all that seriously and just absorbing whatever appears), and that sounds about right.
Slater and Arquette are perfect (they “make a really cute couple”), it should be emphasised. The former still hasn’t come close to this and Heathers since (and indeed, aspects of his life have been decidedly cautionary, of the do not take Clarence’s ethos into the real-world aspect). The latter meanwhile, is supremely sympathetic and hilarious, with the caveat that, by dint of what this movie is, she is a wish-fulfilment fantasy on the writer’s part, Arquette managing to bring something more to the lack of substance and objectification that brings.
Her standoff with James Gandolfini’s hitman Virgil remains the dramatic high point of the movie, an expertly structured sequence in which Alabama is battered and beaten but emerges triumphant through using her wits (rather than – and I know I said this was a fantasy, but I also said it’s also all things to all – foisted movie brute strength). The most triumphant element of True Romance is that it gets the leads so right, but then it also has the extraordinary supporting cast to feast upon.
I’ve mentioned Gandolfini’s hitman, curiously sensitive as he explains to Alabama how one gradually becomes desensitised to killing. Then there’s Oldman, the dreadlocked pimp who thinks he’s black (“He must have thought it was white boy day”), the briefest of Samuel L Jackson cameos (memorably talking about eating pussy, pussy dialogue, of course, being an early period Tarantino mainstay), Kilmer as an Elvis whose face you never quite see, and Brad Pitt as stoner Floyd, watching Freejack and doing his level best to ensure, through completely zonked dimness, that Blue Lou Boyle’s goons catch up with Clarence.
Michael Rapaport is endearingly unaffected as Dick Ritchie, cluelessly aspirant actor (a part in TJ Hooker beckons) and best friend to Clarence. Bronson Pinchot’s priceless as Elliot, gopher to Saul Rubinek’s apoplectic Joel Silver riff Lee Donowitz (“Don’t give me the finger! I’ll fucking have you killed!” he screams at a passing motorist: also, “I’ve got more taste in my penis”). Chris Penn and Tom Sizemore are narc cops having a really good time providing a running commentary on their sting operation (“Get a hold of yourself, you fucking cissy!” screams Sizemore of Elliot, while professing how much he admires Clarence).
Best of all, though, and the scene of the movie, is the conversational standoff between Dennis Hopper as Clarence’s dad and Walken as Blue Lou’s consigliere Vincenzo Coccotti. Hopper knows from the moment Walken walkens in that’s it for him, so takes the opportunity to indulge a racist anecdote about the origins of Sicilians, much to Vincenzo’s simultaneous amusement and ire. It’s a perfect scene, and remains possibly the best thing Tarantino has ever written, so proficient is it with competing emotions, tensions and pathos (“If that’s a fact, tell me, am I lying?”) As Tarantino (modestly) observes, it’s almost too good for the movie, as any other picture would subsequently collapse by being unable to compete.
It’s also to Tarantino’s credit that, even if Clarence has unbelievable beginner’s luck, much of the plotting is based on amateurs failing to get the better of professionals, yet sometimes sidling on by them despite themselves. After dad is killed, in a moment worthy of Midnight Run, one of Coccotti’s henchmen finds Clarence’s contact details on the fridge. After beating Alabama to within an inch of her life, Virgil finds the suitcase of drugs under the bed. Floyd, as mentioned, is an unguarded font of information on their whereabouts. Elliot manages to put a sign around his neck saying “coke fiend, arrest me”. And the grand climax finds flying bullets between professionals who won’t back down a great leveller on both sides of the law.
That scene has the transcendent image of the shot Wurlitzer (Michael Beach) collapsing on a sofa of enveloping feathers, and throughout, Scott and DP Jeffrey L Kimball (a veteran of three Tony movies) conjure gorgeous visuals of colour and pop and fizz. It’s there in the costumes of Clarence and Alabama, and the contrast of the shift from frosty Detroit to fiery LA. It also bears noting, given the Coens-esque call to fidelity of a Tarantino script, how much improv was said to have been allowed, including several lines in the Sicilians scene, the repartee between Penn and Sizemore, and also ideas from Pitt and Pinchot. Elsewhere, Scott came up with the rollercoaster setting (rather than a zoo). The changes aren’t all great, though: the song choices just aren’t in the same league as Quentin’s typical hit picks.
Tarantino confesses this didn’t all come from nothing, but it was rather the first screenplay he had finished, culled from the mammoth The Open Road that incorporated Natural Born Killers (it sounds like Roger Avery should have got more credit for his involvement, but Quentin’s never backwards in coming forward). Thus, there are riffs from fallen projects (My Best Friend’s Birthday), and the movie-centric elements that encompass everything from Badlands – in one account of The Open Road plot, True Romance is the Hollywood version a screenwriter completes while trying to evade Micky and Mallory, which gives it an almost Black Freighter sounding quality – to Play it Again Sam (the Elvis/Bogart mentor). As with the director’s best work, though, the homage elements coalesce to form their own distinctive, polished gem.
True Romance is probably the Tarantino picture I’ve revisited more than any other, so it may say something about my lack of true acolyte status since it’s one he didn’t direct himself. Plus, it leaves me with the lingering feeling that his subsequent career may, at times, have benefited from removing himself from the equation a little more. What Scott brings to the material, and Slater and Arquette, is – ironically given Tony’s soulless Simpson/ Bruckheimer rep at the time – heart, meat on the bones of what could easily have been little more than a trite adolescent action fantasy.