Quentin Tarantino is, rightfully, one of the most loved and respected writer/directors of the last couple of decades. Most of his films, such as Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and Kill Bill, have been declared essential viewing within film fan circles. Although his work is often highly controversial and divisive, with accusations of everything from gratuitous violence and profanity to slow, meandering plotlines, it can’t be denied that his films get people talking, and have left a permanent mark (or should that be bloodstain?) on the history of cinema.
However, a few of his films haven’t quite had the huge cult success of the rest. You’re far less likely to see a Jackie Brown, Death Proof, or True Romance poster on the walls of a student dorm as you are that familiar, iconic image of Uma Thurman smoking on her bed, or the black-and-white suited gangsters of Reservoir Dogs strolling down the street. In the case of True Romance, you could suggest a clear reason for this: Quentin Tarantino did not direct this film, only write the script (which was his second feature-length screenplay, after Reservoir Dogs in 1992). The film was directed by the late Tony Scott, of Top Gun fame. Despite this, I would definitely describe it as a “Tarantino film”, and confidently name it as one of my favourite films by Tarantino, and, for that matter, by anyone else.
True Romance, like many of Tarantino’s scripts, is a crime drama, with moments of both humour and extreme violence. Christian Slater plays Clarence Worley, a downtrodden geek who lives alone in Detroit, wishes he was Elvis, and spends his nights trying and failing to pick up women with his encyclopaedic knowledge of kung fu movies. What makes Clarence such a likeable guy is his almost childlike enthusiasm for things, despite his humble and lonely life circumstances. In this role, Slater invents a new blend of ultra-nerdy charisma. He is everything a typical action hero isn’t and proud of it, which makes him one of the coolest protagonists in film history.
Enter Alabama Whitman, the classic hooker with a heart of gold, played by Patricia Arquette. Alabama is hired secretly (initially unbeknownst to Clarence) to get Clarence laid on his birthday. She’s vulnerable, innocent, and lost in the world, and just about the nicest, most honest character you’ll ever see (demonstrated notably by her genuinely excited reaction to Clarence’s comic book collection). But like almost any woman in a Tarantino film, we’ll see that she can be tough as nails when times call for it, which of course they do on more than one occasion.
After one night together, a tearful confession from Alabama, and then a spontaneous wedding, our two protagonists are jolted out of their previous existences. No more working for abusive pimps for Alabama, no more sitting alone in movie theaters and recycling the same pick-up line about Elvis for Clarence. In true naïve, idealistic fashion, Clarence follows the example of his movie action heroes (as well as a hallucinatory Elvis that gives him guidance throughout the film) and enacts bloody revenge on his new bride’s violent pimp Drexl, played loathsomely (and brilliantly) by Gary Oldman. When our two unlikely heroes mistakenly end up with a suitcase containing half a million dollars’ worth of cocaine, they end up on a Bonnie-and-Clyde-esque road trip to LA to sell their ill-gotten gains and make a new life for themselves, while being hunted down by both the law and the murderous Sicilian mob. Who said romance was dead?
Besides the two leads, the film boasts a cast chock full of appearances from more great actors than you can shake a loaded .38 at: Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Samuel L. Jackson, Brad Pitt, and James Gandolfini all make appearances. One dramatic encounter between Arquette and the young, pre-Sopranos Gandolfini is one of the most brutal, memorable, and subversive fight scenes in cinema, and shows the phenomenal dramatic capabilities of both actors.
The score by Hans Zimmer also marvellously fits the film’s tone. The pretty, twinkling xylophone melody (inspired by the theme from 1973’s Badlands, another lovers-on-the-run crime flick) seems at first more fitting to a twee indie rom-com than a blood-spattered crime thriller, but in fact it suits Clarence and Alabama down to a tee: their simple, honest, goodness (or as close to it as you’ll find in a Tarantino film) at odds with the cruelty and double-crossing of the American society they’ve wound up in.
As usual for a Tarantino script, the dialogue is razor-sharp: stylish, funny, and frequently almost unbearably tense. If you enjoyed any other Tarantino film, you’ll know just what to expect. Tony Scott’s directing adds the perfect counterpoint to the script: neon-lit bars, sun-drenched California strips, smooth soul ballads on the soundtrack. Scott’s idealised, Hollywood vision of America is juxtaposed with Tarantino’s trademark black humour and ultraviolence, which ultimately reflects the film’s celebration of romance and hope in a ruthless, corrupt world.
Clarence and Alabama are one of the greatest onscreen couples of all time: their declarations of love a day after meeting, their impulsive wedding, and their matching tattoos seeming not only perfectly natural and reasonable, but vital and essential. These romantic clichés that would be (and usually are) nauseating in the hands of lesser writers, directors and actors are instead heroic, capable of melting the ice from the most cynical hearts.
“I kept asking Clarence why our world seemed to be collapsing and everything seemed so shitty. And he’d say: “That’s the way it goes. But don’t forget, it goes the other way too.” That’s the way romance is.”