Every time I watch True Romance, I can’t help but wonder, “What if Quentin Tarantino directed it?” What would its legacy be? Would it be held in the same esteem as Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction? The story goes that Quentin Tarantino penned two scripts, Reservoir Dogs and True Romance and gave them to Tony Scott, who had previously directed Top Gun. Scott read them both, told Tarantino he wanted to make both and Tarantino told Scott he can make True Romance but he was saving Reservoir Dogs for himself. Scott got True Romance, and he made a very good film, but I can’t help but feel like under Tarantino’s direction, it could have been legendary. Tony Scott is a very respectable filmmaker, but he’s no Tarantino.
The script is fabulous and has very witty dialogue, as you would expect from Tarantino. The heavy involvement of Elvis in the script, even from the opening sequence is just more evidence supporting Tarantino’s obsession with pop music, which I touched upon here. Tarantino describes the protagonist, Clarence, as his stand-in but he has mentioned that Scott’s vision of Clarence was much “cooler” than Tarantino envisioned. Christian Slater plays Clarence, and he plays it pretty well, capturing a little bit of the oddball character Tarantino was going for. Patricia Arquette plays Alabama, the hooker with a heart of gold although Tony Scott really wanted Drew Barrymore for the role, which I think would have been perfect, but she was unavailable. Slater and Arquette have unbelievable chemistry together which really aided the film, as I was truly convinced of their love.
Gary Oldman portrays Drexl, Alabama’s white pimp who thinks he’s black. It’s is a bit of a weird role to see him in, given his recent turns as the good guy, playing Jim Gordon in the recent Batman movies and George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Solider Spy. Samuel L. Jackson played a bit role, appearing in less than a minute of the film, but he continued his trend of featuring in almost all of Tarantino’s work. Even he had the good sense to avoid Death Proof though.
Christopher Walken plays mafioso Vincenzo Coccotti in a role portrayed so well and so powerfully that Empire Magazine named him 85th greatest character in movie history despite only featuring in the film for one scene. The late Dennis Hopper plays Clarence’s father, a recovering alcoholic and Walken and Hopper combine for what is without a doubt my favorite scene in movie history. Controversial due to the racially charged nature of the dialogue, the scene features Walken pseudo-interrogating Hopper wabout the whereabouts of his son. Long before his iconic role as Tony Soprano, James Gandolfini played one of Walken’s henchman. Of the scene, Gandolfini says, “I was glad to just be observing Hopper and Walken. We were crowded into this little trailer when Hopper gets shot, so everyone was offered earplugs. I remember Walken didn’t ask for any, so, being very cool, I didn’t ask for any either. I couldn’t hear for three goddamn days.”
Michael Rappaport plays Dick Ritchie, a struggling actor and Clarence’s friend in Los Angeles. A young Brad Pitt plays his stoner roommate. With Reservoir Dogs just coming out, Tarantino was becoming a commodity in Hollywood. Pitt, who had just appeared in Thelma and Louise, called Scott and asked to play the role. Regarding the dynamics on the set, Gandolfini remarked, “Everybody was young and nuts. Brad Pitt was around, too. I don’t think he was “Brad Pitt” then, but he was great. I just had to watch him and say, “What a fuckin’ flake.” He improvised a lot.” Val Kilmer had initially wanted to play Clarence but Scott was not keen on the idea so Kilmer ended up playing Elvis.
Tarantino had actually written the great scene at the amusement park to be at a zoo but Scott changed it, thinking an amusement park would be more exciting. Rappaport and Bronson Pinchot, who plays Elliott, are both actually scared of roller coasters in real life, and Rappaport needed to take Quaaludes to get through the scene. The late Chris Penn and Tom Sizemore, before all his legal troubles, play two cops and are very effective in their roles.
One of the most violent scenes of the movie is Gandolfini’s character beating the hell out of Alabama (full scene below). The dialogue in this scene was particularly good, with Gandolfini recalling his transition into a killer in a menacing and incredibly believable way. Of the scene, Gandolfini said, “It was a little rough. There was a lot of throwing. You didn’t see that often with a man and woman. I ended up doing it a lot on The Sopranos for some reason.”
In the original script, Tarantino had Clarence die at the end and the innocent characters, Alabama and Dick Ritchie remain alive. Scott, who had fallen in the love characters, decided Clarence should live at the end. Tarantino later remarked, “I tried like hell to convince Tony to let Clarence die, because that’s what I wrote and it wasn’t open for conjecture. I made this big dramatic plea: “You’re losing your balls. You’re trying to make it Hollywood shit. Why are you doing this?” He listened to the whole thing and then convinced me 100 percent that he wasn’t doing it for commercial reasons.”
True Romance actually flopped at the box office but in the last decade it has achieved cult status. Saul Rubinek, who played Hollywood producer Lee Donowitz, had said, “The movie bombed. I don’t think the studio knew how to market this kind of movie. If they released it today, it would be a hit,” while Dennis Hopper remarked, “I was surprised. The movie had no theatrical life—it came and went in a week. Were people expecting a traditional love story?” Bob Dole, who ran against Clinton in the 1996 Presidential election, lambasted the film and regarded it as an example of a movie that “revel[s] in mindless violence and loveless sex.” After hearing Bob Dole’s comments, Tarantino said, “I knew Dole hadn’t seen True Romance or Natural Born Killers. I couldn’t believe that a guy running for president of the United States, the land of the free and the home of the brave, was condemning art he hadn’t even seen. You fucking asshole, you’d say anything to get elected.”
Don’t be confused by the title, this isn’t some sappy love story. It is a love story, but a different type of love story, a Tarantino love story. A love story disguised with tremendous violence, action, and profanity. I mentioned at the beginning that I thought it was only “very good” but over the course of writing this, I’ve convinced myself otherwise. It’s a great movie, but just not quite legendary. Tarantino later declared, “True Romance and Reservoir Dogs were the growing pains for Pulp Fiction’s success. Audiences were seeing something they hadn’t seen before—comedy and violence switching on a dime. They’d be horrified one second and laughing the next.”