Before Vincent Vega, before the foot fetish, Jackie Brown, The Bride, the Basterds and Django, and all the (admittedly genius) non-linear storylines, there stood, in this humble critic’s opinion, the greatest Tarantino hero of them all, an Elvis fanatic with a hard-on for Sonny Chiba by the name of Clarence Worley. Played by Christian Slater before his career went to absolute shit, Clarence was a fanboy before fanboys were cool, a guy who was the apotheosis of what so many of us wanted to be: A gun-wielding, miscreant version High Fidelity’s Rob Gordon, who won the prostitute’s heart not with an abundance of money and charm — as Richard Gere did in Pretty Woman— but with a divine appreciation of kung-fu cinema and pie. Indeed, for many of us, Clarence — Quentin Tarantino’s own adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasy come to cinematic life— was an idealized version of ourselves, and his call-girl wife, Alabama Whitman (Patricia Arquette), was the woman we all wanted to fuck on top of a stack of phonebooks in a telephone booth on the side of the freeway.
True Romance is Tarantino’s singular contribution to love stories, one of the few romantic films you’ll ever see that features a Mexican stand-off, the Mafia, a pimp, and a suitcase full of drugs. Originally written non-linearly and in three acts, Tony Scott brilliantly took Quentin Tarantino’s script and straightened it out, starting it in a bar, where Clarence gives one of those Tarantinoesque speeches about what a “pretty man” Elvis was, how all Elvis wanted to do was “live fast, die young, and leave a good looking corpse.” “I always said,” Clarence exclaims, “if I had to fuck a guy, I’d fuck Elvis.”
After a blonde rejects Clarence’s offer to spend the evening watching a kung-fu triple feature, Clarence goes off by himself, where he meets Alabama, who sits down behind him. Afterwards, she makes one of the most romantic propositions in American cinema: “Would you like to go get some pie with me?” The two quickly move from a diner to Clarence’s bedroom, and by the next morning, Alabama comes clean, confessing that she has been a call-girl for four days and that she was paid to meet him in the theater, but that she’s madly in love with Clarence. Marriage and tattoos soon follow, and a lifetime of bliss seems all but inevitable.
The catch? Alabama has to extract herself from her pimp, Drexl (Gary Oldman), an abusive thug who thinks he’s black (“I know I’m pretty; but I ain’t as pretty as a couple of titties.”) The Elvis of Clarence’s imagination (Val Kilmer) convinces Clarence to kill Drexl, and during the melee of blood, breasts, bullets, and exploding testicles (“You must have thought it was White-Boy Day”) Clarence inadvertently walks away with the Mafia’s suitcase full of cocaine.
A living hell, in the form of a Detroit mob, follows the happy couple to L.A., where Clarence tries to unload his drugs onto a Hollywood producer popular for his Vietnam film, Coming Home In a Body Bag. After the hanger-on assistant (Bronson Pinchot) gets caught with a face-full of cocaine, the cops get involved, and it all leads up to one of the coolest, whiz-bangiest standoffs ever put to celluloid: Fifteen odd men holding guns of various sizes and spraying bullets like they’re watering motherfucking plants. The bullet holes are plentiful, and so is the blood.
But beneath the graphic ultraviolence (Tony Soprano, in fact, is on both ends of one helluva savage beating, meeting his ultimate undoing in the form of a hairspray blowtorch), there are some ridiculously awesome characters, the coolest of which is Floyd (Brad Pitt, in a scene-stealing glorified cameo), a perpetually baked pothead who, when faced with a room full of guns, offers a bowl fashioned out of a plastic Honey Bear (“Don’t condescend me, man. I’ll fuckin’ kill ya.”) Michael Rappaport is great as a struggling actor hoping to break-through with a stint on a “T.J. Hooker” remake, while Tom Sizemore and Chris Penn, as cops, hilariously listen in on the wire, practically rooting for Clarence to take out their CI. Sam Jackson even has a small, but memorable role, as a butt-eating drug dealer. But, for fans of pure actressin’, the scene between Dennis Hopper (Clarence’s Dad) and Christopher Walken (the mob’s lawyer) rivals even the Pacino/DeNiro exchange in Heat — a deliciously tense sequence, climaxing when Walken unloads his pistol into Hopper and calmly utters, “I haven’t killed anybody since 1984.”
Tony Scott hasn’t always displayed the most talent behind the camera. He’s a meat-and-potatoes action-thriller director with a penchant for quick editing styles and a lot of camera movement. But for True Romance, that made him the almost perfect director, a director who can shoot an awesome action sequence but doesn’t step all over the source material. And, in my mind, that’s what’s so retro-refreshing about True Romance: It’s got both Tarantino’s brilliant dialogue and his exceptionally fun oddball characters (credit goes to Roger Avary, as well), but it’s not bogged down beneath his sometimes overly cute, ultra-referential directing style or his compulsion to show off. Tony Scott made a Tarantino film the masses could love. The film geek within me loves Tarantino, of course, but the part of me who just wants a balls-to-the-back-of-your-throat Saturday afternoon action pic centered on a killer love story appreciates Tony Scott for what he brought to True Romance.
In fact, though everyone involved denies it, it was probably studio self-interests that resulted in the ending we got, instead of the one that Tarantino originally wrote. It’s one of the few times that I’m actually happy commercial interests won out, because I don’t think I could’ve lived with Tarantino’s buzzkill romantic-tragedy conclusion. Above all else, True Romance was a love story, and the goddamn romantic in me wants a film — even one with as many deaths by gunshot as this one (there were 21, to be exact) — where true love wins out, and the couple lives happily ever after, on a beach, where pie is served round-the-clock. As Alabama says, “That’s the way romance is … Usually, that’s the way it goes, but every once in awhile, it goes the other way too.”
I’m just happy it didn’t go the other way, and the romantic in me will always be appreciative of the fact that Tony Scott was more interested in making a great film than showing off his pop-culture knowledge. Wherever Tony Scott is, I hope they serve a lot of pie there.
Of course, Tony Scott’s film is significant in another way, too: It’ll always remind us of Pajiba’s Queen Warrior, Alabama Pink.
This review was modified and republished in honor of the life of Tony Scott, who passed away following a suicide yesterday.