In 1993, Terrence Malick was a fable, a ghost, a legend in hiding who had disappeared from the public-facing film landscape after dropping two of the greatest films of all time (Badlands, Days of Heaven). There was buzz of his eventual return, hopeful but unconvincing, as he was reported to have been working on several projects early in the decade. Malick was a director whose status of untouchable film royalty was informed and preserved by the same reclusive antics to which he still adheres.
I imagine cinephiles in attendance for True Romance’s premiere must have watched with both eyebrows raised during the film’s opening minutes. Hans Zimmer’s “You’re So Cool,” which plays over Tony Scott’s opening credits, is a clean cover of Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauer,” a piece of music whose marriage to Badlands is as distinct a pairing as any movie and score. And when Patricia Arquette’s voice0ver begins, the film points a second brazen finger at Malick’s iconic 1973 arrival. Alabama’s voiceover narration is dreamlike and regionally specific; it might as well have been Spacek’s daughter giving that monologue. It’s as if Tony Scott strutted like a rogue rebel into the hollow halls of the Malick Museum, removed two keystone exhibits, and announced “I’m going to use these.” It’s hard to say if this one-two tribute punch is self-assured or stupid, given Scott’s strict genre resume (before 1993, his most popular films were Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, and Days of Thunder), but damned if the courage doesn’t pique an immediate interest.
The straight punk rock, don’t-give-a-fuck rebellion of True Romance‘s opening sequence is the first of many justifications for my loving this film. I am enamored with True Romance. My love for this movie is wholly unique from my love for any other. True Romance premiered twenty-one years ago today. If the film were a person, I could finally buy it a drink or two before I unavoidably ended up confessing my longstanding affection in the dark corner of a bar. I can’t do that, but I can write about it, and so I’m going to list twenty more reasons, until I have one for each year of its existence, for why I fall in love every time I watch True Romance.
1.) That terrible title. True Romance, applied in reference to the cheesy, vapid titles of old romantic comic books, with names like Heated Love and A Serious Tryst, lends to a very difficult recommendation. “You’ve got to see this movie True Romance,” sounds like a less appealing recommendation than “You should watch The Notebook,” but I can’t imagine it being a deterrent that was unforeseeable to Scott and the studio. And yet, the title stuck, lending to the exclusivity shared within a culture of cult fans, and it provides the perfect guise for men less fortunate than I who have to sneak this movie into date night.
2.) And the film’s opening is in no hurry to shake off the expectation of cheesiness. From its opening chapter like a poor man’s Pretty Woman, to that saccharine song in the cafe, all the way to the straight-from-the-80’s blue silhouette lovemaking, there is no rush to correct uninformed viewers’ misconceptions about the film’s ultimate direction.
3.) But ultimately, this is a Quentin Tarantino script, and at a certain point (right around, say, “He’s my pimp!”) the film takes off as Tarantino’s later films would have you expect it to.
4.) First telling sign of Tarantino’s involvement? The movie’s love for other movies. From the Sonny Chiba triple feature to The Mack playing in the background of the brothel, this movie doesn’t wear its influences on its sleeve, but advertises them on its cheap bicep tattoo.
5.) Placing Quentin Tarantino’s trademark razor dialogue into the traditional cinematic hands of Tony Scott somehow permits dialogue exchanges that are, at times, raucously witty, other times surprisingly stirring, and always strangely organic.
6.) Where it preserves everything I admire about Quentin Tarantino’s best films, it avoids the common QT missteps that often drive me up the wall. I think of True Romance as Quentin Tarantino’s best film. For instance, I’ve never had a taste for Tarantino’s use of violence as film novelty, or his use of violence to bail out the narrative corners he paints himself into with his script. Tony Scott avoids both of those applications, displaying instead violence that is real and consequential, painful and upsetting.
7) The cameo list for this movie — Brad Pitt, peak Val Kilmer, Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, James Gandolfini, etc.– would, on its own, make for a more interesting cast than is offered by any other 90’s film. Go ahead. Try to challenge it.
8.) Gary Oldman of his old days, the unhinged lunatic who would eventually retire into the position of Batman’s moral compass. The old Oldman was one of the best unhinged villains available, and the ethnically confused Drexel is one of my favorite iterations of that bottled madness.
9.) Gandolfini’s ruthless and brooding assassin. We’ll get more on that later.
10.) Brad Pitt as Floyd, stoner roommate on the couch, who occupies just enough screen time to avoid becoming a cartoon weedhead; by a long measure, the first of many eccentric roles eventually taken by Pitt, but perhaps the most funny, accentuated by its placement against his contemporary leading Hollywood hunk status.
11. & 12.) Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken step into what might be the first and second best cameo performances of all time, certainly of the 90s (arguably the lowliest of the film decades). I don’t have to dissect the scene if you’ve seen this film. And if you haven’t seen this film, watch it for this scene, if nothing else. Mark the transfer of power in facial expressions, light distribution, filtering smoke, and vocal emphasis. Note who’s winning at each point and why. This singular scene stands as one of the great power struggles in all of film, not just for its brevity, but for its confession of the role that loss of hope plays in attaining absolute power.
13. ) I remember Christian Slater being a Hollywood hearthrob, someone who graced the covers of countless teen magazines with his awkwardly predatory and sleek handsomeness. But this is the only great movie in which I remember him starring and the only great performance I remember him giving (apologies to Heathers fans; not my cup of tea).
14.) But dammit if Christian Slater doesn’t create a flawed protagonist worthy of our unfiltered affection with Clarence. There’s an uneasiness to Clarence. His knee jerk reactions and un-thought motivations could just as easily paint him as the bad guy in another movie. But he has our commitment, even when he channels his inner Pacino in the elevator scene in his paranoid suspicion that his makeshift business partner is wearing a wire. This chaotic energy, we know, has been in Clarence all along, and at his most dangerous moment, it’s odd to find out that it makes us love him even more. But even so, this isn’t his film…
15.) I saw Boyhood this year and loved it, but let me put this on the record: True Romance still documents Patricia Arquette’s best performance. It is nuanced and mysterious, gut-wrenching and subtle, a role so superbly occupied, it must be recognized as two separate entities: actress and character.
16.) Oh, Alabama. You know: I still don’t know the difference between a “whore” and a “call girl?” I don’t. But I believe Alabama every time she tells me that there is a difference. And I believe when she tells Clarence she’s loyal, in spite of her circumstances. Tarantino, to his credit, can write strong female characters, but I think of Alabama as the great feminist hero of modern film. She possesses admirable personality qualities that any person should try to possess in real life (passion, humor, fearlessness, commitment) and, when called upon, she can fight harder and better than the strongest opponent (in one case, the strongest opponent is a very, very large man). Consider how, even in appearance, her femininity is never compromised. For example, where The Bride of Kill Bill is rendered less female in both literal and symbolic measure (her yellow jumpsuit is borrowed from a recognizable male character and restricts her female shape into a more masculine form), Alabama spits and crawls to victory in a fight against Tony fucking Soprano and, the very next day, heads to a top floor drug deal in a sun dress.
17.) It’s well known that Tarantino’s original script called for Clarence to die in the final showdown and Tony Scott’s affection for the characters lead him to rewrite the ending. These two had to live because they’re so cool, and they’re so in love.
18.) Let’s talk about how in cool they are. This film hasn’t aged well aesthetically. Maybe no 90’s film feels older than this one (or maybe Singles does). Clarence’s Goodwill jacket, Drexel’s dated stereotype pimp emulation, the streets of Detroit, Elliot’s box-shaped convertible sports car– True Romance did itself no long term favors by nailing itself so much into its own contemporary moment. Every concrete, observable detail in this movie feels aged. But the sense of “cool” absolutely does not. There is something mind-blowing about how cool this movie manages to be even in modern viewings.
19.) Now let’s talk about how in love they are. Numbers 1 and 2 were misleading. This is very much a romance film, but an honest one. It acknowledges that all love – even love-at-first-popcorn-spill – requires hard work and it hurts. True Romance is Pulp Fiction meets Blue Valentine. In fact, next to the tramp and his flower vendor, Clarence and Alabama are my absolute favorite movie romance. They are naive, ideal, sweet, loyal, and so in love with one another that they prove over and over that they will tear apart anyone who stands between them. No cinematic devices are employed to anesthetize the pain that Alabama endures when Gandolfini’s character shows up in her room. Every blow is felt. But she fights where the audiences give up because her husband has promised to return with Steve’s double chili cheeseburger, and she’s not finished loving him.
20.) “You’re so cool” is the single greatest statement of affection in all of movies, and perhaps in the English language.