No 157 – True Romance
Director – Tony Scott
I think that Quentin Tarantino is a better writer than he is a director. I love his visual language; I love the ideas he has for cinematography and angles. However, it seems to me that he becomes too obsessed with individual scenes or shots and less with the film as a whole.
Look at films like Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction or Basterds and you’ll see that they’re made up out of a series of vignettes, each one unique and stylistically different from the rest in the film.
However, he does have a gift for words. Especially casual, pop culture referencing, conversation. It is for this reason that I find Tarantino’s work a lot more interesting when taken out of his hands.
Saying that, True Romance begins with almost a cliché of what has become standard in Tarantino films. The ‘trailer trash’ man sits in a bar with his thick accent and waxes lyrical about pop culture references. Usually they are wilfully obscure or incredibly cult.
So we begin with Clarence, superbly played by Christian Bale, waxing lyrical about Elvis’ acting career and about the films of Sonny Cheba.
It is at a triple bill of Sonny Cheba films that Clarence meets Patricia Arquette’s Alabama. Can I just say that for all her positive points, she is my idea of cinema hell on Earth. She talks, she fidgets, and she rustles. She would drive me mad! However, she doesn’t drive Clarence mad, and as the film develops you see a very adorable side to her character. As the title implies, the couple fall in love. However, as it is a Tarantino film all sorts of chaos has to ensue.
It is impressive that this film feels so zingy and refreshing when it is built around two very hackneyed cinematic clichés.
1) Person A (in this case Alabama) is hired to pretend to fall in love with person B (in this case Clarence) and during the pretence, the two fall in love for real.
2) The protagonists are rapidly pushed out of their depth when they accidentally get embroiled with criminal activity – whether through mistaken identity, or (as in this case) by unluckily taking the wrong bag/maguffin.
In this case, Clarence accidentally picks up a bag with approx half a million dollars worth of Coke and decides (probably quite foolishly) to sell it.
During this journey he meets an array of characters. Most of them from the criminal fraternity.
Two such criminals spring to mind. Firstly, Drexl, played by Gary Oldman. Alabama’s pimp, the man who Clarence accidentally robs of his coke and the most terrifying ‘joke’ character ever. He is the ultimate white man who wishes he was black. He has dreads, he has the attitude and he speaks with a glorious West Indian accent. He is also savage, violent and bat shit insane.
He, however, is nothing when compared with Christopher Walken’s Vincenzo Concotti, working on behalf of the owners of the Coke (who are very much supposed to be the Mafia). He appears briefly, sharing a scene with Dennis Hopper, who plays Clarence’s father. The scene is amazing. An almost unbearable level of tension and emotion is played out between these two characters. What makes it most impressive is that all of this happens with two characters who are trying not to be emotive. Hopper’s Clifford doesn’t want to help Vincenzo in anyway. Whilst Walken’s Vincenzo is a steely gazed robot with the cold dead eyes of a shark. Even his laugh feels forced, unnatural and masking the violence which courses so predominantly through him. This scene is probably the best example I have seen in any film of two master actors upping each others game. It is as close to perfection as two men sat in a caravan could ever be.
The mafia close in and there are some horrific scenes of violence (which I’ll discuss momentarily) but they provide an odd antidote to the naivety of the film. For all the bloodshed and cruelty, this is a very sweet almost fairy tale film.
The good guys are beautifully naïve. Clarence and Alabama are just intoxicated with love and just want to be happy. Dick Richie, their friend, is naively hoping he can become an actor and Dick’s housemate Floyd (an amazing cameo from Brad Pitt, just sat on a sofa smoking bongs) is too stoned to feel anything other than love to everyone.
Even the Hollywood wankers have their nice side. They just want to get high.
The fantasy element is probably played up more in this than any other Tarantino film (well…. Except Dusk till Dawn) Clarence even has a guardian angel guiding him through life as Elvis swoops down to visit him (though his advice is probably questionable at best).
But between these moments we get the jaded mobsters and the equally jaded cops. See, the tragedy on James Gandolfini’s face as he explains his relationship with death. How the first time he killed ripped him to shreds but now “I do it just to watch their fucking expressions change”.
It is the savagery of the bad guys that ups the tragedy of the piece. The pursuers with their dogged destructive streak and the pursued with their hopeful persistence. Clarence and Alabama are in the honeymoon period. Both literally and metaphorically. They are madly in love and madly in lust and each moment is just a blur of passion, it seems that they barely notice the pain and violence and destruction around them. Which is what makes it so sad, the fact that occasionally the jaded violence catches up with them.
Each fight scene is brutal and messy and unglamorous. There is nothing glorious about it, nothing romantic. This isn’t like Tarantino’s later self directed work, glamorising and relishing in the pain. Here it is a short messy burst.
Until the end. When it all gets ridiculous.
I love Mexican Stand-Offs. Tarantino loves Mexican Stand-Offs and this one is a doozey. As bullets and feathers fly, as blood spurts and as people fall we’re left with a realisation that this is the end. That no one would survive.
But of course, two figures walk out of the carnage. Well limp out. Carrying a suitcase with $200,000.
Because, the real message is that true love conquers all – be it pimps, police, coke deals or even the ruddy mafia!