True Romance (1993)
Written by Quentin Tarantino
Directed by Tony Scott
While this is a James Gandolfini-centric film series, I acknowledge he has such a minuscule part in True Romance. However, that two-scene appearance managed to stand toe to toe with seasoned film veterans like Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, and others. The film itself has not aged well, in my opinion. There’s a tasteless trans joke and multiple uses of racial slurs. The worst part is that the protagonist is a complete male Mary Sue, able to pull off some of the riskiest maneuvers despite having zero credibility in the criminal element. It’s also a film with big names in minor roles, many of whom get a single scene or just a handful. The fact that Gandolfini could stand out in a movie like this is proof of what an acting talent he was and how he was capable of such great things.
Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) has his life changed when the vivacious Alabama Whitman (Patricia Arquette) comes into his life. After their first night together, she quickly admits that she is a sex worker hired by a co-worker who thought Clarence should get laid. However, she’s deeply in love with him at first sight (we’ll talk about this in a moment). Clarence becomes convinced by the ghost of Elvis (Val Kilmer) to kill Alabama’s pimp (Gary Oldman) so that he can guarantee she won’t be pulled back into that life. The murder happens, and Clarence leaves with what he thinks are Alabama’s belongings. However, it’s a suitcase full of cocaine. Knowing that hanging around in Detroit will lead to bad attention, the duo gets hitched and heads to Los Angeles, intending to unload the drugs and live happily ever after.
Tarantino had generated the first of his positive buzz with the previous year’s Reservoir Dogs. It would be another year before his real breakout Pulp Fiction hit cinema screens, so in the meantime, this script was fast-tracked and directed by Tony “Top Gun” Scott. I have never been a massive fan of Tarantino, rather a great appreciator of his work. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was the first Tarantino film I’d seen in the theater in sixteen years. I’ve never fawned over his work but found it good. True Romance is not one of his best. Yes, it’s stylized between Tarantino’s distinct voice for dialogue and Scott’s personal visual touches, but it is so grating at so many moments. Not the least of these is when Clarence and Alabama meet.
I hadn’t watched this film since my college days in the early 2000s, so I’d forgotten much of the details. In the light of 2022 and being 40 years old, watching Alabama’s awe-filled gaze at Clarence as he opines on comic books in the first act made me laugh out loud. The script is obviously a wish-fulfillment jerkoff on the part of Tarantino. It’s that eye-rolling incel-ish mindset that you need to find an unbelievably hot woman who is so enamored with your hobbies. I am lucky that my wife and I share interests; we struck up our first conversation over her carrying Watchmen in her purse at the time. Notice that this interaction was not centered on her sitting there doe-eyed, listening to me. It was a conversation about a *shared* interest. We learn nothing about Alabama beyond the fact she’s a sex worker. None of her hobbies, interests, or opinions are ever really shared. She just goes along with whatever Clarence wants to do.
Everything about True Romance is so incredibly self-conscious to the point of annoyance. Everyone seems to remark on how cool Clarence is. As Clarence is about to engage in the sale of his cocaine suitcase, police who have a wire on someone involved state, “I like this guy!” overhearing the movie/comic nerd threaten their man on the inside. He also accomplishes some ridiculous things for a person who hasn’t ever shot someone before. When he goes to kill Drexl the pimp, Clarence wears the same style of jacket Travis Bickle wore in Taxi Driver when attempting to rescue Jodie Foster. Finding the cocaine doesn’t even prove a stumbling block for our hero; he just so happens to have a friend in LA with connections. Oh yes, and when they arrive, his friend can’t help but talk about what a cool guy Clarence is.
Then there’s racial content. Gary Oldman plays a white pimp that drops the n-word and speaks in AAVE. Dennis Hopper delivers a monologue to Christopher Walken where the punchline is…the n-word, again. Thankfully, Gandolfini is not tainted by the racist content; his character’s views on Black people remain unknown. Instead, he gets to play Virgil, a charming hitman who confronts Alabama in her motel room while Clarence is away. I was worried the scene would become rape-y, but it thankfully doesn’t; Virgil becomes absolutely brutal, and Alabama eventually gets her revenge. Tony Scott delivers a very violent scene that makes you feel the brutality in a very unpleasant way. I think this is one of the few scenes in the movie that does not glorify violence until the end when Virgil gets the ax.
While True Romance is heavily flawed and definitely an artifact of a grosser time, Gandolfini stood out. He is incredibly memorable, and we hadn’t even seen a quarter of his full acting talent yet. He’d never have a very lucrative film career, but he is still one of our great acting talents. Even as Virgil, we can see the seeds of Tony from the predatory charm to the explosion of violence. These are the elements Gandolfini would refine and hone when he was cast in The Sopranos five years later. And this wasn’t the end of his movies; his next would be a bizarre production born out of the writing of actor John Turturro.