It may come as a surprise to some people to hear of a movie about true love that features prostitutes as birthday presents, Sonny Chiba, dead pimps, bags full of cocaine, racist soliloquies about genetic history, corrupt movie producers, and the mafia. But these things won’t surprise anybody who has heard about Quentin Tarantino and his pop culture-driven, drug-fueled, violent, flashy, amoral tale that’s the closest thing to a love story a guy like him is ever gonna write. Ladies and gentlemen, behold: True Romance.
The story involves a Detroit comic book store clerk Clarence Worley, who is approached by a lovely young lady named Alabama on his birthday, while he watches old chopsocky movies at the local cinema. The two have sex and later, Alabama reveals she is really a call girl hired by Clarence’s boss to show him a good time. But Alabama and Clarence have improbably fallen in love at first sight, and so Clarence heads off to free her from her vicious pimp, Drexl. That all ends with a dead pimp, a beaten-up Clarence and a bag full of stolen cocaine that Clarence confused for Alabama’s personal effects. The pair flee to California to sell the dope and use the proceeds to build a new life for each other, but that ain’t so easy when the mafia wants its drugs back and selling a bag full of coke simply trades one predatory environment for another. Clarence and Alabama might be in the sunny climes of SoCal, but their lives are just as dangerous, grimy and uncertain as they ever were in Detroit. But they’ve got something all of the haters, killers and thieves on their trail lack. And it’s what’ll give them the edge. They’ve got true romance.
Released in 1992, True Romance is a bit of a lost Tarantino movie, as he wrote it before he began directing movies himself, and the direction was handled by Tony Scott, who was just starting to get into the hyper-freneticism that defined his later career. Featuring an all-star cast that is almost too big to be listed, True Romance fused the peculiar sensibilities of Tarantino’s love for taboo subject matter and anachronistic pop culture with an up-to-the-second MTV treatment that made a weird kind of sense in the early 90s, and could never have worked any other time. The end result is something that seems to draw on energies from a hundred different directions at once, all coming together in that kind of special mix that will either self-destruct dramatically, or work sublimely. True Romance works sublimely. The many imitators it would spawn do not, which just goes to show how difficult it really is to pull off a movie like this.
To understand, we must first give a nod to the fact that this movie somehow contains Christian Slater, Roseanna Arquette, Val Kilmer (as the ghost of Elvis, no less), Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Samuel L. Jackson and Gary Oldman, and doesn’t explode into a thousand glorious other movies. Writers, take note: that is some quantum string-level connective tissue, right there. We must further understand that this movie walks a very fine line between mining the topics and tone that make Tarantino such a compelling writer, and such a repugnant human being. The infamous “Sicilian monologue” that Dennis Hopper delivers to Christopher Walken is both hilarious and painful, making us wonder to what degree is Tarantino dropping N-bombs within an uncomfortable narrative context, and to what degree he’s just enjoying the same shock value a kid feels the first time he gets away with swearing in front of adults? We probably don’t want to find out. Tarantino’s the kind of guy who the more you know about him, the less happy you feel about it.
Likewise, a scene in which Alabama endures an absolutely brutal fistfight with a mob underboss ticks off a bunch of Tarantino boxes—including violence towards women—all at once. Sure, Alabama prevails, but the scene is gratuitous to a fault, and repeated viewings deliver a pretty steep sense of diminishing returns that at the very least will make people feel uncomfortable the next time they need to lift the lid off their toilet’s water tank. And yet, Scott’s direction of it feels one step removed from what we imagine Tarantino had in mind. Here, as in the climactic shootout and a bunch of other scenes, we’re grateful not just for Scott’s style-over-substance direction, but its role as a moderating influence on the writing. Tarantino is a guy who is most definitely best when taken through somebody else’s filter. That’s why he and Scott, put together, deliver a movie that feels like it should offend us more than it probably should, but there is such a well-executed exterior that we can somehow disassociate ourselves from what must have been some pretty ugly mojo that made this movie possible. That is the real magic of True Romance: that we can enjoy it at all, and that we do so damned much. Few movies will make its watchers more eager to quote it with their friends, and then at some point feel a little dirty for doing so.
But hey, it’s not all moral badwrongfun. Where this movie shines brightest is when its characters are simply being themselves, tearing into Tarantino’s outstanding dialogue and tapping into a vibe between the era of excess and the era of navel-gazing to produce a bunch of weirdos, misfits, killers and clowns who all, in their own way, demand that we adore them. Perhaps that’s why the moment of truth is when Alabama reveals those three magical words she kept thinking as she and Clarence escape the movie’s final bloodbath. We think they’re supposed to be “I love you,” but in this universe, they play second fiddle to the three words we all really want to hear: “You’re so cool. You’re so cool. You’re so cool.”