Tony Scott‘s True Romance is probably one of my top ten all-time favorite movies, which is kind of weird since Badlands is one of my top five all-time favorite films. Or maybe it’s appropriate that this is the case. I’m sure that one of the reasons I fell in love with this movie is because of how directly it’s inspired by and references the earlier Terrence Malick film.
Notice I make the distinction between movies and films. Scott made movies, Malick makes films. Scott also made a movie I like that directly references another of my all-time favorite films (Enemy of the State –> The Conversation). I was sad when Scott died particularly because I was hoping he’d eventually cover all my top shelf titles (just imagine what he could have done with Duck Soup!). Then again, maybe he’d have just redone himself, the way he did with Domino, which is like a bad remake of True Romance.
Anyway, True Romance turns 20 years old this week. Warner Bros. released the movie on September 10, 1993, and it came in at #3 for its opening weekend, behind reigning champ The Fugitive and fellow newcomer Undercover Blues (uh?). In honor of the anniversary, let’s take a look at some scenes we love. It was hard to narrow down, of course, so we went with major character moments.
From the start you can tell this is a movie written by Quentin Tarantino. Actually, it seems like this is a movie written about Quentin Tarantino. And maybe could have starred Quentin Tarantino. It’s easy to see him in the role of Clarence if you’ve seen My Best Friend’s Birthday — where he plays a guy named Clarence! I don’t know if I always buy Christian Slater as a geek for comic books and Sonny Chiba, but he long ago grew on me. He does make the part his own. And I can believe that he’d fuck Elvis and not be good with women. So, it’s a worthy introduction to our first main character, albeit one that apparently wasn’t played to Scott’s liking (see our post about the TR DVD commentary).
How on Earth are there not more (any?) baby girls given the name Alabama? Is it because she was a call girl for a day or because she’s ultimately a cop killer? It’s still a great name, was great as just an offhand mention in Reservoir Dogs, too. I’ll be honest again that I’m not that into Patricia Arquette and I often don’t buy her in this role, either. It’s funny how it’s the case that I love this movie so much and yet I don’t really care for the leads or their characters or their actions. I do really love Alabama’s speech on the billboard/balcony, though. And I think Arquette’s whiny Southern accent works just right here and in the voiceover. According to the DVD commentary, Scott would slap the actress to get her to the emotional state needed for scenes like this one.
Samuel L. Jackson‘s first Tarantino movie. It’s a special occasion, isn’t it? Sadly, he’s not in the movie for very long. And sadly for all women that Big Don might have been with had he not been killed, as he was a true lover, if not also a true romantic. He ate every damn thing. Except maybe pork?
We saw how ruthless Drexl the Pimp can be in the Big Don scene. But this is his real character moment, and it just so happens to be his death moment, too (not seen in the clip below, however). Gary Oldman has played some incredibly badass dudes. What really makes the actor special, though, is how distinct he is with each one. He’s not so much a chameleon that you don’t know that’s Oldman, yet he can also throw on some dreadlocks and gold teeth and act like he thinks he’s black and blend into the role without seeming too ridiculous. I mean, the character himself is ridiculous, but Oldman’s portrayal is not. In the continuation of this scene, Drexl is quite right: it’s not white boy day. But he’s the white boy in the situation.
Some might label this scene “Vincenzo,” as it’s Christopher Walken‘s only part in the movie and he is in fact the more memorable of the main performers in this moment. But it’s Dennis Hopper‘s scene, not just because it’s he who gives the quotable (well…) monologue about the origin of Sicilians. Clifford is sort of the most normal character in True Romance, a lot more innocent and peripheral than some of the other supporting players who wind mixed up in the plot. And Hopper, of all people, therefore gives one of the more normal, simple, subdued performances in the whole thing. I love that he gets so under Vincenzo’s skin, it’s almost an honor to die as he does.
How do you have a movie in which an insignificant stoner character who is the roommate of an already fairly minor character becomes as iconic as Floyd? Is it because Brad Pitt plays him? Is it because Tarantino wrote him? Is it because stoner characters are always so beloved by stoner movie geeks? Is it the Honey Bear bong (Scott’s conception)? Is it because he enjoys Freejack? I think he works mostly because he’s such a contrasting figure in scenes when the gangsters come by.
After the previous two scenes gave us a glimpse of young Tony Soprano, er, James Gandolfini, we finally get his big moment here. His name is Virgil, which is so awesomely ill-fitting of a ruthless gangster. Virgil is a poet, or a chimpanzee who knows sign language. Yes, I’m just writing nonsense because I’m procrastinating addressing how this is a great scene in spite of how it consists of a women being beaten nearly to death. I guess the fact that Alabama comes out on top redeems it all.
Even with memorable characters seen in Risky Business, Beverly Hills Cop and After Hours — not to mention Second Sight and Blame It On the Bellboy — in 1993 Bronson Pinchot was still just Balki Bartokomous for me (he’d later be the cousin of my first girlfriend, but that’s another thing for me entirely). And it had to have been a breath of fresh air for the actor, getting to do coke (as a character I mean) and be pretty much the slimiest weasel of a dude since Harry Ellis in Die Hard. It’s hard for me to believe this is the same guy from Perfect Strangers. How did he not continue going up after this? Of all his scenes, I picked the driving bit, because narratively it’s really just a connective scene to show why he winds up having to be a snitch and rat. But most scenes of the sort aren’t also this wonderful at character building.
How underrated is Saul Rubinek as an actor? He’s another one I should be seeing more often. But without his role in True Romance, he might have remained just a “that guy” character actor whose name I never bothered to learn. I’m so happy that this character has been more immortalized through Inglourious Basterds (Eli Roth plays Donny Donowitz, who Tarantino says is Lee’s father). I do wish the entire scene could be found somewhere, as I kind of want to honor the stuff with just Lee as movie producer and not Lee as drug buyer who’s just been set up by his assistant and then one of many in the greatest shootout of all movie shootouts. It is the greatest shootout of all movie shootouts, though, with its triangular standoff, so we love it every which way.
Because True Romance doesn’t have enough characters already by this point, and because it’s just barely on the edge of being a movie we believe could be taking place in our world, it goes and brings Elvis actually into the picture. And he’s played by Val Kilmer of all people (the actor originally wanted to play the lead). Sure, he’s a figment of Clarence’s imagination but it’s still a fantastically bizarre moment. It is better than just having Clarence talking to himself, though, right? And it gives us the line “Clarence, I like ya. Always have, always will,” which was also on t-shirts for the movie back in the day (yes, I had one).
Hans Zimmer does not play a character in the movie. He’s the composer of the score. And I couldn’t end a post sharing favorite parts of True Romance without including some part of his Badlands-homage of a theme, which redoes Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauer.” It’s so cool in spite of being so derivative.