Monday, August 20, 2012

True Romance

For Tony Scott, may he rest in peace...

Way back in 1993, I had never even heard the name Quentin Tarantino. It was a dark time, before the bright, shining light that is the wealth of information known as the internet. Growing up in a small town, I had to rely on television, magazines, and the trailers that were included on vhs tapes I rented, to keep up with my favorite actors, actresses, directors, etc. Kids, it wasn’t as easy back then as it is today. True Romance showed up on my radar in absolutely no way due to it being written by Quentin Tarantino. Hell, I had never even heard of Reservoir Dogs. No, it was because of Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette that I knew I had to see it. I of course first discovered Patricia in Dream Warriors, like most of the rest of us did. To this day I have a crush on her. Christian Slater I knew from Gleaming the Cube, in which he made me want to be a skater, then Heathers which pretty much made up my young mind that I liked this guy, and would watch anything he was in. Other than those two, and of course a few other familiar faces I was almost completely clueless as to the rest of the cast. Looking back now, I can honestly say that I’m embarrassed at how little I knew then.

True Romance at it’s core is a love story, about two characters named Clarence and Alabama. Clarence is a lonely guy who doesn’t have a lot of luck with the ladies. He works at a comic book store, and doesn’t get out much. He loves Elvis, Sonny Chiba movies, and hamburgers. Basically, aside from the Elvis thing, this is a guy I can relate to. Every year on his birthday, he takes himself out to a movie. For this particular birthday, he’s taking in a Street Fighter triple feature, when a blonde stranger stumbles into the theater, spilling her popcorn all over him. She sits down beside him, they begin to talk, and she introduces herself as Alabama. After the movies, she invites Clarence out for pie, and he of course agrees. He then takes her and shows her the comic book store where he works, which seems to impress her greatly. Now, we all know at this point that something isn’t exactly right here because there are no women on this planet who go to Sonny Chiba triple features by themselves, let alone do so and start talking with random strangers they see in the theater, then proceed to have pie, and then follow said stranger to the comic book store he works at, and actually think all of this is cool. Clarence seems oblivious to all this though, and invites her home for the night.

The next morning Clarence wakes up, and finds Alabama sitting by herself on the roof outside his apartment window. Obviously upset, when Clarence approaches, she decides to come clean with him. Alabama is a call girl, hired by Clarence’s boss. Apparently he knew Clarence was a bit of an introvert, and he just wanted him to get laid on his birthday. What none of them saw coming was it being love at first sight between Clarence and Alabama. The call girl thing doesn’t appear to bother him in the least, especially being that it’s only her fourth day on the job, and the two of them profess their love for each other, running off and getting married that same day. After they leave the courthouse, Clarence learns of the existence of Drexl, Alabama’s pimp. Knowing he would be a bit of an issue, he decides to pay him a visit to let him know that Alabama was now spoken for and to collect her things. When he arrives, Clarence offers Drexl an envelope containing what he was willing to pay for his “peace of mind”, relieving Alabama from her services to him. The envelope is empty.  Being that you don’t typically get to just walk into a pimp’s home, with an empty envelope, and proceed to tell him that you’ve married one of his “workers” and that she won’t be employed with him any longer, of course a fight breaks out, which leads to Clarence killing Drexl and a few of his associates. Before leaving, he orders one of the other call girls to put Alabama’s belongings into a suitcase, which he collects and leaves.

When he returns to the apartment, he hands Alabama the suitcase, which she opens looking for clean clothes. Instead she finds a half-million dollars worth of uncut cocaine. Now, while most of us would view this as a problem, Clarence views this as an opportunity for he and his beautiful bride to make enough money to hop on a plane to a small island and live the rest of their lives on. He stops in to visit his father, whom he hasn’t seen in 3 years, to ask a quick favor. Turns out his dad is a former police officer, who still has friends on the force, and can check and see if the police have any leads on who murdered Drexl. When he’s confident they’re in the clear, he and Alabama leave for Los Angeles, where he plans to meet up with an old friend of his named Dick Richie, who he hopes can help him sell the coke.

Again, what most of us would probably stop and consider, but Clarence never does, is that a small-time pimp doesn’t exactly just tend to have a half million dollars worth of uncut cocaine lying around. That shit probably belongs to somebody. A somebody who is way bigger, way more dangerous, and is probably going to miss it. Sure enough, a Sicilian enforcer for a big time drug lord soon visits Clarence’s father, and discovers where Clarence is headed. Meanwhile, Clarence and Alabama have already arrived in L.A., and Dick, through a mutual friend has hooked them up with a potential buyer for the cocaine, a big time movie producer named Lee Donowitz. Dick’s friend Eliot works for Lee as an assistant, and has to do some convincing before Lee will even agree to meet with Clarence, as he’s highly suspicious of someone he doesn’t know being in possession of half a mill in coke that he’s offering to part with for only 200k. Really, who wouldn’t be suspicious?  He finally does set the meet though, but tells Clarence he will need a sample bag of the coke before things can proceed. Of course, Eliot takes the coke himself and proceeds to get busted for reckless driving, speeding in his Porsche while getting head from a prostitute.

Enter the police into this equation. Eliot, being the sniveling little bitch that he is, falls victim completely to the classic “bad cop, worse cop” routine when he’s taken in. He is eventually scared into wearing a wire to the deal, which is taking place in Lee’s hotel room. Clarence, Alabama, Dick, and Eliot arrive, and introductions are made, pleasantries are exchanged, and everything seems to be going along smoothly. It’s when Lee decides it’s time to talk business that things go to shit, and quickly. The police bust in first, with guns drawn, ordering everyone to get on the ground. Lee’s bodyguards, with guns of their own, refuse to comply. During the shouting, the Sicilians arrive to the party, and suddenly we have ourselves a three way standoff between the cops, Lee’s bodyguards, and a drug cartel. At the time, Clarence was oblivious to it all, in the bathroom having a heart to heart with his imaginary friend, Elvis. Things continue to escalate, and the movie culminates in an explosion of gunfire, blood, foul language, and gratuitous violence, or as I’ve now come to expect, the only way a movie written by Quentin Tarantino can end.

For as much as I spoiled in that “way more detailed than I normally do” movie synopsis there, I don’t want to spoil the ending. I will say that the first time I watched it, I was genuinely surprised at the ending though. It wasn’t exactly what I expected, given the situation and how things had played out until then. I absolutely fell in love with this movie the first time I watched it though, and I swear I love it even more every time I see it. While he didn’t direct it himself, this movie has Tarantino’s signature all over it. Say what you will about Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, or any of his other work, all are great, but for my money this is as good as Quentin’s ever been. True Romance is also a great indication as to how good of a director Tony Scott is. For as much as I love Top Gun, and enjoyed Days of Thunder, Crimson Tide, Man on Fire, and even The Last Boyscout (what?), this is by far my favorite of his films.

No movie, no matter how well written, can achieve this level of excellence without a good cast. In True Romance’s case, it’s one hell of an amazing cast. Let’s do the list, Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Tom Sizemore, Chris Penn, Dennis Hopper, Kevin Corrigan, Michael Beach, Samuel L. Jackson, Val Kilmer, Bronson Pinchot (Balki!), Michael Rappaport, and of course, Patricia Arquette and Christian Slater. Sure, a lot of those names are now synonymous with Quentin Tarantino movies, but at the time? Not so much, and this is an incredible ensemble. Some are only bit parts, but almost everybody brought their “A” game to True Romance. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my personal favorite standout performances though. First, Gary Oldman. What can I say about the man that hasn’t been said before, in much better ways than I’m capable of? He’s absolutely a master of his craft, and absolutely genius as Alabama’s pimp, Drexl. I honestly still listen to him speak in this movie and can’t believe it’s Gary Oldman. I’m not exactly a big Brad Pitt fan, but he’s absolutely hilarious as Dick’s burnout roommate Floyd. He only has three scenes, and he never leaves the couch, but if you can watch him, using an empty bear-shaped honey container as a bong, attempt to give a room full of gun holding, Sicilian drug cartel members directions to a hotel, and not laugh, then perhaps your sense of humor is broken. Christopher Walken is at his Christopher Walkeney best as Vincenzo Coccotti. His scene opposite Dennis Hopper (as Clarence’s dad) is one of the best in the movie in my opinion. Tom Sizemore and Chris Penn don’t enter the movie until late, as the aforementioned “bad cop, worse cop” duo, but I don’t know if I’ve ever liked either of them more than I do in this film. They play off each other so well that I wish they had only done movies as a duo from this point on. I particularly enjoy the scene just prior to the standoff in the hotel, when they’re listening to Clarence and Eliot’s exchange in the elevator on the way up to the room. The only two times Val Kilmer’s even been cooler than he is as Clarence’s imaginary friend Elvis in True Romance is when he played Iceman in Top Gun, and Doc Holiday in Tombstone. He only appears a couple of times, but his dialog is fantastic. You can’t help but fall in love with Alabama from the very first time she’s on screen, and that’s all because of Patricia Arquette. She’s not only beautiful, but she never breaks character as this sweet, innocent girl that you can’t help but care for, even though she’s a prostitute, who is taking part in a major drug deal. It’s easy to see why Clarence fell in love so quickly with her. Even when she’s forced into situations where she ends up being a total badass, she pulls off sweet and innocent. This character was going to make or break the movie in my opinion, and Patricia ends up turning in the best performance of her career.

Finally, the reason we’re all here for Slaterocalypse, the man of the hour himself, Christian Slater. As mentioned earlier, it was in Gleaming the Cube that I discovered him, and Heathers that made me a fan. I’ve followed his career ever since. Friend, you are reading the words of a man who saw Kuffs in a theater. On purpose, and not because it’s what a date wanted to see. Is he always great? Not necessarily. Is he always entertaining? You bet your ass. Mobsters, Pump Up the Volume, Robin Hood, Young Guns 2, Murder in the First, The Wizard, and the list goes on. For as much as I love some of those, they all pale in comparison to his portrayal of Clarence in True Romance. Clarence is a quirky weirdo, with an Elvis obsession and an unhealthy addiction to hamburgers. Slater brings all of it to life perfectly, and his delivery of Tarantino’s trademark dialog is spot-on. Sadly, for me his career peaked with this film. I’ve stuck with him through almost everything he’s done since, even the near career suicide that was Uwe Boll’s “Alone in the Dark”. It looked as though he was going to get a much deserved bit of resurgence when he got the lead in Breaking In, which I thought was a great show, unfortunately it aired on Fox, and as with all great shows on Fox, it was cancelled halfway through the first season. Still, he has several projects in the works, and you can bet I’ll be watching all of them.

I literally recommend True Romance to anybody who likes movies, and I’ve never had anybody come back and tell me “well, that sucked”. At its heart, it’s a love story, it just so happens to be a love story penned by Tarantino, and as such is filled with foul language, lots of cocaine, and lots of violence. It never feels like a “mean” film though. Of course, it’s not light-hearted in the least either. It falls nicely somewhere in the vastness that exists between the two. If you like action, it’s in there, if you like comedy, it’s in there, if you like a love story, it’s in there, and hell, even if you like blacksploitation, it’s in there, and every single bit of it is well written, well shot, and well acted.

This is a re-post of the True Romance review I did for Back Online, Back On Duty during the Slaterocalypse. I normally would never do a re-post, but I wanted to do something to honor the memory of a director who's films I grew up watching and were a large part of my childhood, and to be perfectly honest went a long way toward creating my love of film in the first place. Tony Scott was a gifted director and storyteller. He will be missed.

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