This Distracted Globe random header image

True Romance (1993)

October 27th, 2008 · 3 Comments

When his exhaustive knowledge of Elvis Presley fails to convince a woman he meets a bar to watch a triple feature of Sonny Chiba movies with him, Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) goes to the theater alone. There he meets Alabama Whitman (Patricia Arquette) when she spills popcorn on him. Taking a seat next to Clarence, Alabama not only makes it through all three kung-fu movies, but actually seems impressed when Clarence takes her to his workplace, a comic book store. They go to bed, after which Alabama confides that Clarence’s boss hired her to keep him company for his birthday. Conflicted because she’s fallen in love with Clarence, Alabama quits her new job as a call girl and elopes with him.

Clarence goes to see Alabama’s vile pimp Drexl (Gary Oldman) to settle his wife’s accounts. During the melee that ensues, Clarence grabs a suitcase filled with cocaine instead of Alabama’s clothes. He visits his estranged father Cliff (Dennis Hopper) to find out if Detroit PD is on to him. Cliff notifies his son that Drexl was an associate of gangsters and the cops assume his death was gang related. Clarence and Alabama depart for their honeymoon, but Cliff receives a visit from Vincent Coccotti (Christopher Walken), the rightful owner of the narcotics. Rather than be forced to give up his son, Cliff uses his knowledge of Sicilian history to infuriate the gangster into shooting him.

Clarence and Alabama arrive in L.A., where Clarence’s friend Dick Ritchie (Michael Rapaport) – an aspiring actor up for a role on T.J. Hooker – lives with his stoner roommate Floyd (Brad Pitt). Clarence hopes his buddy can find a buyer for the cocaine. The only possibility Dick can think of Elliot (Bronson Pinchot), a guy he knows from his acting class who’s an assistant to a big movie producer named Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek). They set up a meet, but Coccotti’s enforcer Virgil (James Gandolfini) intercepts Alabama at her motel room. Only one of them makes it out alive.

Meanwhile, Elliott is pulled over for speeding and is caught wearing a bag of Clarence’s cocaine all over him. Two narcs (Tom Sizemore and Chris Penn) pressure Elliott into wearing a wire for the business meet. Arriving at the Beverly Ambassador Hotel, Clarence – who’s been receiving guidance from the spirit of Elvis Presley (Val Kilmer) – makes a good impression on the movie producer. But before he can complete the drug deal, the LAPD and the Sicilians and the producer’s own gunmen find themselves in a Mexican standoff.

Production history
In 1985, an employee at Video Archives in Manhattan Beach named Roger Avary started a screenplay called The Open Road. The script was about an uptight businessman who encounters a wild hitchhiker and travels with her to a bizarre town in the Midwest. Avary ran out of gas after eighty pages. Moving on to other projects, he gave his buddy and fellow video store clerk Quentin Tarantino the okay to rewrite The Open Road using his own sensibility. Tarantino came back with close to five hundred handwritten pages.

Avary helped Tarantino hone the epic manuscript to a presentable length. The result was True Romance, the first screenplay Tarantino ever finished. Over the next five years, his manager Cathryn James beat down doors trying to sell it. Meanwhile, Tarantino used his magnum opus as the genesis for his second script, Natural Born Killers. Buyers weren’t interested in that title either. Many were put off by its profanity, while others felt that Tarantino’s writing style – which featured fractured timelines and lengthy monologues – was the sign of an amateur.

Craig Hamann, a friend of Tarantino’s and co-writer of a home movie the pair were trying to finish called My Best Friend’s Birthday recalled, “Cathryn James took calls all around from people in the industry who were just livid at that script. They absolutely didn’t like it at all. One person who’s very prominent in the film industry sent the script back to Cathryn and said, ‘I will seriously consider reading anything else that you send me again if this is the quality.’ I mean that kind of hostile thing was going on and I’m not sure even Quentin understands that completely, but then after Reservoir Dogs everybody was, ‘Oh we really like this film.’”

Finally, a B-movie company called CineTel optioned True Romance. Their plan was to have William Lustig of Maniac Cop 2 fame direct. The company gave Tarantino his first professional writing job, doing dialogue polishes on scripts they had in development. CineTel executive Catalaine Knell took Tarantino under her wing. Knell had been an assistant to director Tony Scott, and introduced her protégé to her former boss. Tarantino gave Scott a copy of True Romance and a script he’d just finished titled Reservoir Dogs.

Scott wrapped The Last Boy Scout in June 1991 and was on a flight to Italy when he read the scripts. When he landed, Scott called Tarantino and said that he wanted both of them. Tarantino wanted to direct Reservoir Dogs, but told Scott he was welcome to True Romance. Scott recalled, “I’m not a good reader but I read it in one sitting and I thought it was brilliant. I thought it was very fresh and very different and totally character based. My love of the piece was based on how much I fell in love with the characters, so therefore it’s an actor-based movie and it’s the first time I’ve had one of those. After Top Gun, the movies that I was offered were, for better or worse, what you’d call hardware action movies.”

Scott commenced shooting in June 1992 in Los Angeles on a $12.5 million budget. Other than structuring the action in chronological order, the only change Scott made to the script was the ending. Tarantino had Clarence perishing in the climactic gun battle, but Scott had become so enamored by the couple that he brought in Roger Avary to write a happier ending. Tarantino recalled, “At first, I was really distraught about it. In fact, I was talking about taking my name off the film. I had a lot of faith in Tony Scott – I’m a big fan of his work, especially Revenge – but where I was coming from, you just couldn’t change my ending, you know?”

Released September 1993 in the U.S., even critics who liked the movie seemed embarrassed to admit it. On Siskel & Ebert, Roger Ebert stated, “True Romance is like a case study of the inflamed fantasies of violent, stupid, amoral, gun loving, sexually obsessed teenagers, and on that level – which is an admittedly low level – it is well made and very entertaining. It tells the kind of story that a lot of teenage boys think they would like to live through, before they grow up and begin to develop average intelligence, of course.” Gene Siskel simply retorted, “It’s kind of sloppy and dumb and not fun.”

True Romance was ignored at the box office, where it grossed only $12.2 million in the U.S. Interviewed in 2003, Scott commented, “Unfortunately, the film wasn’t successful. It bombed, really. I think maybe it’s too violent. But if you ask me to make a choice and state which of my films is my favorite, I think I would say True Romance, because it invaded my life so easily, because it was so well written. The characters were so well drawn. Every day, I went to the set and had an amazing smorgasbord of the best actors around.”

When viewed as the sum of its parts, True Romance is a classic because it has scenes that rank among the most spectacular in film history when it comes to the written word. By far the most memorable is the showdown between Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper; the 11-minute scene features two of the greatest actors of their generation chewing up two of the most enthralling monologues a writer has ever crafted. The muscular confrontation between Patricia Arquette and James Gandolfini is a blue ribbon award winner as well. Gary Oldman in bananas as the dreadlocked white pimp who believes he’s black. The same goes for Brad Pitt, who is the epitome of the completely useless roommate.

The conceit of a pop culture geek taking down pimps and cold blooded killers may be the stuff of science fiction, and it’s hard to believe that if Tarantino had chosen to direct this, Christian Slater would have appeared on his list to play Clarence (Val Kilmer desperately wanted the role.) Some of the casting and almost all of the music is completely generic Hollywood, while Tony Scott – director of Beverly Hills Cop II and Days of Thunder – gets mixed results filming a down and dirty exploitation flick like it was a cologne commercial. But for the most part, the cast is one of the finest ever assembled, while Scott remains true to the spirit of Tarantino’s text, which is both uncompromising in its brutality and invigorating in its repartee.

Colin Jacobson at DVD Movie Guide writes, “In the end, Romance feels like an odd piece. The script seems unusually thin and sketchy for something from Quentin Tarantino, but since it was his first finished work, that makes sense; he clearly hadn’t quite found his voice just yet. Had Tarantino taken on the project himself and made it as a low-budget indie production, it could have worked, but unfortunately, it went the other way and became a glossy piece of Hollywood fluff. Romance enjoys a few decent moments, but overall it falls short of its goals.”

David Medsker at writes, “True Romance was a pioneer action movie in many respects, in that it placed an equal influence on the dialogue and characters as it did on the action. It may not have reinvented the genre entirely, but the action movies that soon followed (The Professional, Con Air, Grosse Pointe Blank) were far more enjoyable than their predecessors (again, The Last Boy Scout). Sonny Chiba and Elvis would certainly approve.”

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Black comedy · Cult favorite · Dreams and visions · Famous line · Gangsters and hoodlums · Hitman · Interrogation · Master and pupil · Prostitute · Road trip · Shootout · Unconventional romance · Woman in jeopardy

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Moviezzz // Oct 28, 2008 at 6:57 am

    I’m always surprised to read that this was a box office failure. I saw it twice theatrically. I had the movie poster hanging up for most of the 90’s.

    I think it may also be my favorite Tarantino film.

  • 2 Mrs. Thuro's Mom // Oct 29, 2008 at 10:57 pm

    My daughter is a complete and total Tarantino freak (she wants to name my granddaughter “Mia”, after Uma Thurman’s character in Pulp Fiction). We saw this movie long before she became a Tarantino fan, and we both enjoyed it. You definitely get caught up in these characters so that the movie is not just another mindless action picture. Brad Pitt was so funny. He has such a flare for comedy!

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Oct 30, 2008 at 7:26 pm

    Moviezzz: Surprisingly, Pulp Fiction has been the only movie Tarantino has had anything to do with that’s been a hit at the box office, even though everybody seems to end up watching his films sooner or later. I remember seeing True Romance in a theater though and realizing during the Walken-Hopper scene that I was witnessing something special.

    Mrs. Thuro’s Mom: I like the name Mia. You merely have to get the overdose scene out of your mind and concentrate on Mia Wallace’s snappy repartee and dance moves. Or you can just pretend she’s really being named for Mia Farrow.

Leave a Comment