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Every so often a gutsy screenwriter crashes on the scene and takes Hollywood by storm -- John Milius, Joe Eszterhas. They tend to offer a signature style and a flair for brash publicity: I remember John Milius getting nationwide press by stating that he gets to keep all the guns used in his films, and if any animals are to be killed on-screen, he gets to pull the trigger. Quentin Tarantino is both more extreme and more talented, and his style is so unique that his work can easily be identified, even after fifteen years of imitators ... pardon me, make that slavish imitators.
1993's True Romance, a violent crime thriller written by Tarantino but directed by Tony Scott, shows how individually recognizable is Tarantino's handiwork even when somebody else is calling the shots. The episodic script, a crime spree for fun and profit, is basically an autobiographical wish-fulfillment fantasy. Back east, the lowly but ultra-cool comic book store clerk Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) drives a big car and spends his nights in grindhouse theaters watching Kung Fu triple bills. Switch out the comic books for a video rental store and it's Mr. QT to a tee.
Instead of gaining weight and turning into an obsessive fan troll, Clarence's dreams come true almost immediately. He meets Alabama Whitman (Patricia Arquette), a tyro hooker. Romance blooms over popcorn and Sonny Chiba as they enter into a Bonnie & Clyde love pact. Marrying immediately, Clarence naturally sets out to murder Alabama's pimp, as sort of a wedding gift: the comic book clerk leaps into the role of Travis Bickle avenger without breaking step.
True Romance exhibits all the Tarantino hallmarks. Thugs, pimps, mob bosses and cops all have one thing in common: they are incredibly articulate conversationalists. The key QT dialogue paradigm is here in full flower: lowlife goons engaged in horrific, cold-blooded acts spout incredibly clever small talk on subjects that can be ironic-mundane or ironic-profound: hamburgers or Biblical philosophy in Pulp Fiction, for instance. Parable-like personal stories come out of nowhere, along with impassioned discourses on the meaning of comic superheroes or 70s trash exploitation filmmaking. Make that a lot of gab about 70s trash exploitation filmmaking, Quentin Tarantino's life's love.
A good example of QT-lite dialogue occurs in Get Shorty, when some thugs in a barbershop debate the proper usage of "i.e." and "e.g." (this writer knows he misuses the terms constantly). The chat is obviously cute filler. When Quentin Tarantino uses this kind of patter, it always seems absolutely vital to the show at that particular moment -- even if the speakers are debating something completely, hilariously obscene.
In True Romance we get one of QT's best dialogue riffs, and a particularly good one for Dennis Hopper, whose gravitas was weakening long before he started doing investment planning commercials for TV. Captured by Christopher Walken's ruthless Sicilian mobster, Hopper uses his last few minutes on earth to wind Walken's clock with an outrageously insulting speech about Sicilans being descended from African blacks (in less polite terms). It's like telling Attilla the Hun that he's a pansy, while being suspended over a pit of spikes. Quentin Tarantino uses elaborate speeches to take the place of genre clichés: Hopper is telling Walken to go f___ himself in such a ballsy way that Walken can't help but be dazzled with his nerve. I can't wait to find out if a Jewish commando in Inglorious Basterds tells his Nazi captors to go fly a kite. No doubt QT will surprise us.
Tony Scott shoots True Romance in a more picturesque manner than Tarantino would, as the film isn't as minimalist as Reservoir Dogs or as experimental as some of QT's later pulp epics. Clarence and Alabama head to L.A. to sell a suitcase of stolen white powder to a pompous movie producer, setting up the deal at, of all places, Six Flags Magic Mountain. The script stays two hops ahead of the obvious, and Clarence stays half a hop ahead of both the bad guys and audience expectations. The lovers endure beatings, double-crosses but are repeatedly spared by wild coincidences and dumb luck; the conclusion brings together two gangs and a pack of narcs in a three-way shoot out.
The Hollywood scenes are clearly the second half of Quentin Tarantino's personal success fantasy; Clarence conquers the land of cocaine and honey the way QT hopes to storm Hollywood (which he did, and how). Scenes are funny-scary, scary-gross, and just plain hilarious. We see Brad Pitt's elongated cameo as a ditzy slacker houseguest and know that nothing will touch him, even when the worst of the worst gangsters arrive from back east. Bronson Pinchot is perfect as a producer's flunky stupid enough to attract a traffic cop while carrying contraband. Other roles are played by some of the best tough guys in 90s pictures -- Samuel L. Jackson, James Gandolfini. Gary Oldman makes a terrific appearance as Alabama's loathsome pimp, and Val Kilmer waltzes in and out as Clarence's phantom advisor, a rock 'n' roll idol from the past.
Rough up some of True Romance's smooth edges, add a few narrative jolts and stylistic surprises, and it could be a Tarantino-directed project. The ultimate insider schmoozer Tarantino launched his career by proving that his fan enthusiasm was backed up with real talent and energy. I'm personally waiting to see if his obsession with the basest of grindhouse subject matter is his final cinematic destination. No offense, but the guy could be making something a little more worthwhile. Or is that statement just indicative of aesthetic snobbery on my part?
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray of True Romance pops in HD, making Tony Scott's carefully massaged visuals spring to life on a large screen. The eclectic soundtrack isn't quite as freakish as a Tarantino original, but it does have ace cue choices like Burl Ives singing, "A Little Bitty Tear Let Me Down".
The extras are numerous, to say the least. The disc is overloaded with commentaries. Slater and Arquette speak on one track while Tony Scott and Quentin Tarantino take on tracks of their own. Shorter, selective scene commentaries are provided by actors Hopper, Kilmer, Pitt and Rappaport. New and original 1993 making-of featurettes are on board, along with the usual photo and trailer galleries. More interesting are deleted scenes and an unused ending with optional commentary by Tony Scott. The alternate ending has a separate Tarantino commentary as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
True Romance Blu-ray rates:
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.