VHS Revival checks-in with Tony Scott’s explosive pop culture fairy tale
By 1993 actors and directors were queuing up to work with a young prodigy by the name of Quentin Tarantino.
A year prior he had given us the star-studded heist flick Reservoir Dogs, a near scene-for-scene remake of the 1985 Hong Kong action film City on Fire, which although veiled with western pop culture references inspired cries of plagiarism from those critics who knew better.
Nevertheless, there was no doubting QT’s talent and potential, and with 1994‘s Pulp Fiction he gave us a near perfect movie, one which redefined the way screenwriters approached their work. Gone were the mundane interactions and clunky exposition designed to move the plot forward, replaced instead by quirky characters, unique interactions, and the kind of irresistible dialogue that would drastically alter cinema during the next decade – for better and for worse.
When not directing, Tarantino would produce screenplays for other directors, most notably friend and colleague Robert Rodriguez, but a year before Pulp Fiction’s brand of stylized cinema took the industry by storm, he would produce a screenplay of similar punch for full-throttle action director Tony Scott, who was perhaps most famous for adrenaline-pumped Tom Cruise vehicle Top Gun. Known for his extended dialogue scenes and atypical sense of music, it may seem strange for a filmmaker like Tarantino to team up with Scott, whose frenetic camera style and use of grandiose power ballads seemed at odds with his collaborator, but in its own inimitable way the movie works quite wonderfully.
Clarence Worley – I always said, if I had to fuck a guy… I mean had to, if my life depended on it… I’d fuck Elvis.
True Romance is by no means perfect, but it packs enough of a punch to become an instant cult classic, and is perhaps one of the most fondly remembered gangster flicks of the decade. This may in some part be attested to the Tarantino fever of the mid-nineties, but as a pop culture smash it hits all the right notes, which is by-and-large the movie’s goal. The characters and events in True Romance have little to do with reality, and all attempts to analyse the movie on a serious level prove futile, but that is precisely the point. The movie has its own reality governed by its own rules, a fact which is hammered home by the fairy tale narration that bookends the film’s events.
The fact is, Tarantino’s ‘Bonny and Clyde’ leads are perfect for Scott’s skewed camera style, particularly Christian Slater’s Clarence, a repressed generation Xer who possesses the kind of social imbalance that leaves him a milkshake away from all-out rampage. Comic books and Kung-fu movies are enough to keep those urges at bay until love interest Alabama comes along, a naive call girl with a whimsical personality which sees the two married and getting his and hers tattoos in a matter of hours. The fact that she is a call girl who was paid to encounter Clarence is of peripheral importance to him. One minute he is exhausting Elvis-led chat-up lines in a dingy bar, the next he is taking orders from ‘The King’ himself, a glitzy figment stalking the recesses of his mind with self-assurances that slaughtering Alabama’s pimp is the next logical step.
Mentor (Elvis Apparition) – I like you, Clarence. Always have. Always will.
Although Clarence is the obvious lead here, it is perhaps Patricia Arquette’s Alabama who proves to be the movie’s true hero. Alabama is a part of QT’s infamous shared universe, a call girl previously mentioned by Mr. White in Reservoir Dogs, and it is she who we find ourselves rooting for. Clarence may be the wild card, but Alabama is the one with the most heart, a fact that is confirmed during an excruciating scene with the late James Gandolfini, whose emotionally corrupt gangster beats her to a bloody pulp before succumbing to her tenacious will for survival. Arquette is endearingly gullible, but she is also selfless and loyal. Like Tarantino’s most memorable leads she is idiosyncratic, a contradiction of strength and fragility, of trailer park sleaze and high moral fibre.
Many of the characters in True Romance, although quirky and irregular, are very much one-dimensional, but their screen time is sparse enough to justify such lean characterization, and the movie is elevated by a plethora of first rate, big name cameos by actors lining up to take part in the Tarantino revolution. Perhaps the two most notable are a delightfully malevolent Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper, who threaten to steal the show with a vocal stand-off in a desolate trailer. Walken plays Vincenzo Coccotti, a serpent-eyed mafioso on the trail of our runaway couple after they accidentally stumble upon a suitcase full of cocaine and set about selling it for a life in paradise. Hopper plays Clarence’s father, an ex-cop and alcoholic who refuses to expose their whereabouts. Once the preliminary torture begins, he knows his time is up, and exploits his killer’s expertise as a human lie detector in order to insult his Sicilian heritage, drawing on some rather offensive historical facts. Keeping in line with the movies fantastical approach, those facts are spurious at best, but the dialogue is spellbinding, and two of Hollywood’s finest deliver perhaps the most engrossing scene in the entire movie.
Coccotti – I haven’t killed anybody since 1984. Goddamn his soul to burn for eternity in fucking hell for making me get my hands dirty. Go over to this comedian’s son’s apartment, come back with something that tells me where that asshole went, so I can wipe this egg off my face and finish this fucked-up family for good.
There are several other performances which help to elevate the movie’s overall appeal. British veteran Gary Oldman is almost unrecognizable as the heavily scarred Drexl, a dreadlocked pimp with black delusions. There is also comic relief in the form of Hollywood producer Lee Donowitz and his lickspittle Elliot Blitzer, a timid fool who sets up a once in a lifetime coke deal with the enigmatic Clarence. The grossly underrated Saul Rubinek is typically wonderful as the decadent Donowitz, a man who is one cynical quip away from a heart attack, and the immensely talented Bronson Pinchot hams it up as the effeminate Blitzer, his comical misfortune with a sample bag of yeyo landing them in the middle of a deftly orchestrated shootout involving the mafia, a parasitic police force, and a couple of heavily armed guards who consider themselves above the law. This is Hollywood satire at its most obvious, but its lack of restraint proves its biggest attraction.
There are other notable cameos of decreasing relevance: a pre-Sopranos Gandolfini putting in an admirable audition for what would become his most famous role. There is also a young Brad Pitt making the most of his limited screen time as a hopeless stoner breezing through a selection of absurd confrontations. Scott is a director synonymous with overblown blockbusters, and the characters in True Romance are perfect for his shallow brand of feverish action, but he is also a director of admirable skill, and amongst a series of tightly wound set-pieces there are moments of subtle poignancy which elevate his work above the majority of action fare, a scene in which a cop sits down and dies in a pile of feathers just one example of his keen eye for the distinctly cinematic.
Elliot – Hi. How are you? My name’s Elliot, and I’m with the Cub Scouts of America. We’re… we’re selling uncut cocaine to get to the jamboree.
Upon its release, the movie received rave reviews, but the overabundance of Tarantino clones which followed have perhaps diluted its potency, as has the passing of time, and in hindsight it is not the minor masterpiece that many had it figured for. Still, it is a movie of great style and energy, of charming comic book performances and memorable dialogue, and judged on the basis of its own fantastical universe it is certainly a movie to revisit, living up to its reputation as one of the most fondly remembered cult experiences of the decade.