With its amorously-inclined moniker, True Romance is obviously a love story, although not of the kind expected. Its departure from the realm of Hollywood rom-coms becomes evident as every aspect of its production and premise is revealed, yet still the affectionate, enchanting undercurrent is present. That the film stems from the director of Top Gun and the writer of Reservoir Dogs provides a potent indication of its unusual handling of the material, as does the references to overwrought early comics that inform its title. However, again both also intimate the unusually ardent tale at its centre, packaged within action and crime confines.
Though known for the theatrics of the 1986 naval aviation feature, former painter and ad man Tony Scott had established his ability to blend genres in preceding and subsequent works. From the erotic horror of The Hunger to the stunt comedy of Beverly Hills Cop II, and including adultery thriller Revenge, racing romance Days of Thunder and exploitative mystery The Last Boy Scout, he earned ample credentials in assembling a diverse array of cinematic content. Within all of his films, energy pulsated in his narratives and aesthetics, as did his penchant for desire, violence and humour. True Romance would prove the ultimate combination of all three of his trademark elements, pitched with his usual vivid, visceral visuals.
As influential as Scott’s inimitable style was to the finished feature, the tawdry yet tender love story hinged on the work of one man, not yet known for his passionate proclivities but destined for international stardom. Indeed, the film comprised Quentin Tarantino’s first script sale, taken from his 1987 effort My Best Friend’s Birthday. In the intervening period, the filmmaker would use his earnings to fund his breakout hit, with True Romance releasing the year afterwards. His wise, witty and apparently semi-autobiographical words worked in combination with Scott’s robust telling of the tale, with the film emanating heart and hilarity with wild, wacky and almost whimsical abandon.
A heist film, gangster flick, drug drama, chase picture, movie industry satire and more, the irreverent, unrelenting True Romance reimagined the idea of star-crossed lovers for the end of the twentieth century. As resolute in their emotions as Romeo and Juliet, yet as reckless in their aggressive actions as Bonnie and Clyde, the film’s frantic protagonists were designed in the mould of Badlands’ kill or be killed partners. That one proves a comic store loner and the other a naïve call girl only adds to their unlikely air of intrigue. The cascading circumstances that lead to their pairing soon seem to pale in comparison to the stark scenarios that threaten their love and longevity.
Clarence Worley (Christian Slater, Pump Up the Volume) and Alabama Whitman (Patricia Arquette, Ed Wood) meet on the former’s birthday, with the latter paid to rendezvous with the celebrating but solitary bachelor at a marathon screening of Sonny Chiba films. Spilled popcorn turns to shared post-movie pie, and longing glances to a lustful, libidinous embrace. In the cold light of the encroaching dawn, Alabama confesses the truth of their not-so-surprise meeting to an astonishingly calm Clarence, as well as revealing the extent of her unexpected feelings. A quick courthouse ceremony cements their union, however the new husband is haunted by his wife’s former profession.
Killing Alabama’s pimp appears the only option to secure their stress-free future, a proposition Clarence pursues. Alas, the tough-talking, drug dealing Drexl Spivey (Gary Oldman, Bram Stoker’s Dracula) refuses to be an easy victim, with a blood-soaked brothel massacre ensuing. In the mania of murder, Clarence collects a suitcase supposedly belonging to his paramour, but instead filled with cocaine in mass quantities. Crazed yet confident of overcoming more obstacles – a police investigation and the inevitable mobster hunt for the missing narcotics among them – the couple seek advice from Clarence’s cop turned security guard father (Dennis Hopper, Blue Velvet) before heading to Los Angeles.
Their plan seems simple, even if it proves otherwise, as they endeavour to make a profit from their illicit haul. Calling upon the assistance of Clarence’s childhood pal and aspiring actor Dick Ritchie (Michael Rapaport, Higher Learning), they attempt to peddle their wares to a successful Hollywood film producer (Saul Rubinek, Unforgiven) through his bumbling assistant (Bronson Pinchot, TV’s Perfect Strangers). Of course, the true owners of their stash remain on their trail (A View to a Kill’s Christopher Walken and Money for Nothing’s James Gandolfini included), whilst a pair of local cops (Short Cuts’ Chris Penn and Passenger 57’s Tom Sizemore) follow suit. Then, there’s the innocent interference of Dick’s stoner roommate Floyd (Brad Pitt, Thelma and Louise), with his loose lips almost getting his friends killed.
A brash, bold and beautiful sense of amusing anarchy infuses the feature with its iridescent excitement and enthusiasm, as the story lurches through its series of eclectic yet poetic encounters. Clichés abound, but so do surprises, even with a happy ending never in question. The ensemble cast, a line-up that any filmmaker would envy then or now, shine as they bounce their sharp dialogue off each other in quick, quirky exchanges. Indeed, even with Slater and Arquette thrust into the spotlight as the glamorous central pair, each is given a monologue-heavy meaningful moment, including Val Kilmer (The Doors) as the enigmatic, mentoring spectre of one of the century’s biggest rock stars.
However, in bringing the dynamic film’s account of improbable, adrenaline-fuelled fondness to the fore, the late Scott earns his credentials as one of the most astute mainstream directors of his time. Even Tarantino reportedly agreed with the changes made to his original screenplay, with the finished product comprising the perfect pulpy balance of action, comedy and romance. For many, the film the director made as a way to break free of the blockbuster mould ranks among his best, even as bigger box office hits among his subsequent features – including Crimson Tide, The Fan, Enemy of the State, Spy Game, Man on Fire, Domino, Déjà Vu, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and Unstoppable – followed. Slick, striking and stylish for a fast-paced, fast-talking cult classic crime film, as well as for a mid-career foray into uncharted territory for a prosperous helmer, True Romance is Tony Scott at his sweetest and most sublime.