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Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #157: True Romance

True Romance (1993) is probably as close as we are ever going to get to a comic book movie from Quentin Tarantino. Directed by the late great Tony Scott and based on the first script Tarantino wrote for a major motion picture, it is set in the real world with real human beings, but everything they do and accomplish seems to be straight out of comic book panels. The protagonist starts off as an ordinary young man with a love of Elvis Presley and martial arts movies, and ends up being the hero of his own blood-soaked tale of improbable romance, drug deals, and greed in Hollywood. Also, the movie is pretty damn romantic in its own way.  

Oddly enough I sort of read this movie before actually seeing it. Back in 2005 I went on a school trip from Quebec City to New York City by bus and while in the Big Apple I of course got a few souvenirs. Some people buy postcards or snowglobes, I bought a book called Quintessential Tarantino by Edwin Page, which chronicles Tarantino’s work from his early days to Kill Bill. It goes into some pretty thorough details about everything he has written and directed and there is of course a chapter on True Romance. Unfortunately it gives away the whole plot, so the story was spoiled by the time I got the DVD, but it is one thing to read this story and see it acted out. Case in point: the Sicilian scene between Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper.

Tarantino has said this is his most auto-biographical movie and I believe that up to the point when the bullets start to fly. Christian Slater channels him as Clarence Worley, a young man who can talk his heart out as long as the subject matters are either comic books, movies, or Elvis Presley. Clarence loves the King so much there are scenes throughout the movie where Val Kilmer shows up as Elvis to give Clarence some life advice. Unfortunately Clarence’s love of Kung Fu movies and the fact he makes very little money working at a comic book store in cold Detroit does not bode well for his financial or romantic future.

Enter Patricia Arquette as Alabama, a prostitute who has been hired by Clarence’s boss to give him a good time on his birthday. Surprisingly she is not putting on an act when she says she is having a good time with him, which is plausible: women can like Kung Fu movies and comics too. The moment this story veers into fantasyland is when she tells Clarence what she does for a living, says she has fallen in love with him, and they decide to get married. These things all happen in the span of one night. A giant car sign in the background clearly sets the movie’s tone with the words “Don’t let the dust settle.”

Wishing to prove himself as a man and make sure Alabama is out of prostitution for good Clarence decides to visit her pimp to let him know she is now happily married. The pimp is question, Drexl Spivey (Gary Oldman), is not only a violent guy, but also one of those white guys who likes to grow dreadlocks and pretend he’s black. In real life Drexl would beat up Clarence and drag Alabama kicking and screaming back into his business, yet in this movie Clarence gets the drop on him in a tension-filled confrontation.

The rest of the action is put into motion after Clarence walks out of Drexl’s place with a device commonly used in Tarantino films: a container filled with valuables. In Reservoir Dogs it was a bag of diamonds, in Pulp Fiction a suitcase filled with a shiny light, and in Jackie Brown a bag filled with dollar bills. Clarence believes he has a suitcase filled with Alabama’s clothes. What he has taken from Drexl is actually a fortune’s worth of cocaine.

Having heard movie stars love to pay big money for white powder, Clarence and Alabama decide to head to sunny Hollywood and sell the whole case in one big sale before jetting off to the tropics. Despite the fact Clarence has no idea of how to sell cocaine, he proves very adept at talking in codes with a big-shot producer (Saul Rubinek) and setting up the deal of a lifetime. In a matter of days the geeky boy with no girlfriend has morphed into a gun-toting badass, with villains armed to the teeth chasing him. All that, and no bite from a radioactive spider.

In addition to the delicious dialogue from Tarantino and the expert direction from Tony Scott, the film is filled with actors at the top of their game. In fact there are so many good actors in True Romance some of them have almost nothing to do. Samuel L. Jackson shows up just to get shot in a scene that introduces Drexl, and Brad Pitt mostly sits on a couch getting high while people ask him where to find Clarence and Alabama. Then there is James Gandolfini, years before The Sopranos, as a mob enforcer who gets into a very bloody confrontation with Alabama in a hotel room.

From the moment the movie’s couple get together everything becomes highly improbable, but you just don’t care. Slater and Arquette have such great chemistry that you can’t help but root for them, no matter how many bodies they leave in their path. This may very well be the ultimate male fantasy for every music, film, or comic book geek out there. It doesn’t hurt that it is loads of fun, and yes, romantic.  


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