A clip from a John Woo film. (I’m guessing Chow Yun Fat in The Killer). A reference to an obscure martial arts star (Sonny Chiba). Retro rock on the soundtrack (“Chantilly Lace” by The Big Bopper, ” Little Bitty Tear” by Burl Ives). Dark, witty dialogue, liberally laced with profanity. A deceptively fragile blonde beauty that goes all Warrior Woman on a bad guy’s butt. Lots of blood splashed on everything and everybody.
Sounds like something Quentin Tarantino would write.
Matter of fact, he did write it (or at least some of it) while he was still working as a clerk in a Southern California video store.
The difference here is that he didn’t direct it.
1993’s True Romance came out about a year after Reservoir Dogs made Tarantino the hot new flavor in Hollywood. Young Turks were scrambling to make another flick just like it and Tony Scott, perhaps hoping to prove he could lens something hipper and edgier than high gloss hits like Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop II, latched onto this early script by the budding auteur.
Or at least that’s how I felt when I first saw the flick in the multiplex shortly after its theatrical release. (Like many viewers I was both mesmerized and repelled by Reservoir Dogs. I know I’ll never be able to listen to “Stuck in the Middle With You” on an oldies station without thinking of the infamous scene in Dogs with Michael Madsen’s character and a hapless cop.)
Watching True Romance again recently on crackle.com was like listening to a pianist who knows all the right notes but lacks the necessary feeling to animate a concerto from a flawlessly performed piece of classical music to a deeply felt personal experience.
Maybe it’s the audacious creative energy that fueled Reservoir Dogs. Perhaps Mr. Scott just lacked Mr. T’s unique sense of style. Whatever. It feels as if something vital is missing.
Basically, the film revolves around two lovers, Clarence and Alabama (played by Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette) who hightail it from Detroit to L.A. with a stolen suitcase of cocaine and the mob in hot pursuit. Christian Slater is, well, Christian Slater. (Now there’s a star who could use a Tarantino-style career rejuvenation a la John Travolta – following his role in Pulp Fiction – and Pam Grier, whose career was jumpstarted after her performance in Jackie Brown.)
Ms. Arquette is a revelation, especially in a scene where she tangles with a leaner, meaner version of James Gandolfini. (You get the sense that, unlike Tony Soprano, his character here has never been conflicted about how he made his money.)
I also thought Gary Oldman as a dreadlocked drug dealer was pretty cool.
Future megastar Brad Pitt has a small role as Michael Rapaport’s stoner roommate. (Mr. Rapaport plays an aspiring actor.)
There is a famous set piece with Christopher Walken, as a slickly dressed Mafia don, trying to squeeze information out of Clarence’s bemused father (Dennis Hopper), an ex-policeman turned security cop who lives in a trailer. The actors no doubt enjoyed the opportunity to size each other up but there is a undertow of tension between the two characters they play. Walken’s Mafioso wants to know Clarence’s wherabouts. Dad refuses to tell him.There are several ways this piece could be written. The way in which it plays out is just one example of the manner in which Tarantino the screenwriter can take an ordinary scene and make it memorable.
Even in this early screenplay Tarantino’s distinctive style is taking shape. The man loves to feed films and film genres into his own personal blender and come up with scripts that are at once familiar and yet push the envelope. (In this case, I can hear echoes of Wild at Heart and Badlands, to name just two). There are also snatches of ironic dialogue as when Clarence orders “two double chili cheeseburgers, two chili fries (short pause) and two large Diet Cokes.” (Irony, for better or for worse, would come to be associated with Tarantino’s films.)
And in case you didn’t get it, Reservoir Dogs‘ Chris Penn is cast as a cop.
I still think the late Mr. Scott (who passed away in 2012) may have been the wrong director for this material but you gotta hand it to Crackle: True Romance, with its eclectic cast of colorful characters, is still a (shotgun) blast from the past. Cheeseburgers, anyone?