Ask any heterosexual American female and she’ll verify the following: for whatever reason, the majority of men in the United States actively resist romance films. Sure, the more cerebral male viewer will defend this by questioning the merits of the genre (while simultaneously having zero objections to viewing whatever macho crapfest Stallone or Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson has in theaters that week), but this is merely an attempt to obscure the truth. In the U.S., it isn’t considered manly or “cool” to watch romance films. (We could also do a deep dive here as to why it’s considered less-than-masculine to listen to female singers or love songs by people who aren’t either haggard beer-swilling country singers or badass black guys producing “baby-making music,” as well, but those are subjects better suited to a 12,000-page essay on the countless problematic issues regarding the contemporary cisgender American male, so instead we’ll simply acknowledge the laughable male disregard for an entire genre and tradition of storytelling as being a thing that exists and is prevalent in this society.) With this in mind, you might ask if there’s a middle ground; is there a qualitative love story (beyond something like Field of Dreams, which is about a different kind of love altogether) that’s better suited for consumption by an American male audience? And the answer is a resounding yes. Several, in fact. At the top of that heap is the seriously underrated 1993 Tony Scott/Quentin Tarantino collaboration True Romance, which has and abundance of coolness and masculinity. Having no equal, it is without doubt the definitive badass love story.
Obviously True Romance isn’t a “romance” film in the sense that we now acknowledge the term, but it is about a romance and it is at its core a love story. The love aspect sometimes takes a backseat to the violence and gorgeously stylized hyper-macho dialogue, but the relationship between the protagonists is central and is the very foundation upon which everything else is built. True Romance was Tarantino’s first script sale, although it wouldn’t be released for a year and eight days after he’d made his writing and directorial debut with Reservoir Dogs. (It should be noted that Tarantino had done some minor script work previously, having made a few uncredited contributions to the 1992 Rutger Hauer-starring thriller Past Midnight.)
Sold for a meager (in terms of screenplay sales) $50,000, Tarantino’s script (brought to life by the late helmer Tony Scott) contained all the touchstones of Tarantino’s early period. Today it’s less discussed than the actual Tarantino-directed Tarantino projects, but it’s easily one of his finest screenplays. A Badlands homage heavily inspired by the writing of novelist Elmore Leonard, True Romance is a tremendous piece of writing in almost every way. This is not to minimize the contributions of Tony Scott, but the truth is that the best things about True Romance come directly from its script. The film looks dated visually (as a lot of Scott’s films now do, if one is being honest) in a way that Tarantino’s do not. Also, Scott makes a few questionable choices regarding the music selection in the film, which contribute to its feeling a bit dated. And while the cast is filled with such luminaries as Brad Pitt, Val Kilmer, Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Samuel L. Jackson, and James Gandolfini, I would submit that the male lead, Christian Slater, effective as he is, could have been better cast. It’s difficult to imagine that Tarantino would have cast Slater. Again, Slater is actually quite good in the role, but he ranks about fifty-second in things that come to mind when one thinks about the positives of the film. For whatever reason, Slater lacks the impossible to describe je ne sais quoi possessed by every other actor I just mentioned, and yet he is inexplicably the lead in a film featuring all of them.
True Romance is the single most badass, sexy, testosterone-fueled love story ever committed to celluloid with only Out of Sight and Natural Born Killers contending.
Tarantino’s work cannot be discussed without the obligatory mention of his always-exquisite dialogue. Many screenwriters have attempted to recreate Tarantino-speak (Boondock Saints, Lucky Number Slevin, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, etc.), but none manage to effectively capture the cadence or street poetry of his finest work. (While Tarantino is often credited as a successor to such dialogue dynamos as David Mamet or Shane Black, both known for heightened, stylized dialogue, his writing owes more to the aforementioned Leonard than anyone else. But in truth, the talent is Tarantino’s alone; the dialogue bears passing similarities to those writers, at least in terms of style, but it’s uniquely his.) Tarantino’s gift of gab is undeniable. He does many things exceedingly well, but his dialogue is the one thing that places him securely in a league of his own. It’s his dialogue first and foremost that changed indie filmmaking in the nineties, spawning legions of imitators.
True Romance is about a nerdy-but-cool everyman named Clarence Worley (played by Slater). (Is it possible to simultaneously be nerdy and cool? A lot of us like to think we pull that off, including Clarence, who, cool or not, cannot possibly be as cool as he believes he is.) It’s no secret that Clarence is modeled in some ways after Tarantino himself as a guy who loved movies and was at the time of its writing making minimum wage toiling in a Manhattan Beach video store. Clarence possesses the same loves and interests as 1980s Tarantino, which include chop-socky flicks, blaxploitation films like The Mack, the work of Brian De Palma, and the rockabilly stylings of Elvis Presley. (Credited as Mentor for legal reasons, Presley, played by Kilmer, also makes an appearance in the film à la Jerry Lacy’s Humphrey Bogart character in Play It Again, Sam.) Tarantino’s idealized alter-ego Clarence’s occupation is also changed slightly; rather than being a movie buff employed at a video store, Clarence is a comic book aficionado working in a comic shop. Patterning Clarence largely after Tarantino himself lends the character an unquestionable authenticity, which immediately causes the viewer to get behind him in his efforts to find and then rescue his one “true romance.”
For his birthday, Clarence goes to a Detroit movie house to screen a Sonny Chiba triple feature consisting of Street Fighter, Return of the Streetfighter, and Sister Streetfighter. (If you are unaware of who Sonny Chiba is, he’s a legendary, arguably unequaled martial arts actor and, per Clarence, “bad motherfucker.” He would later make an appearance playing sword-maker Hattori Hanzo in Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 2). At the screening Clarence encounters the girl of his dreams, Alabama (named after Pam Grier’s character from Women in Cages and played by Patricia Arquette) Whitman. The two get to know one other over karate films, slices of after-movie pie, and Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos comics, and begin to develop feelings for one another. Alabama eventually confesses that she’s actually a call girl paid by Clarence’s boss Lance (who shares the name of Tarantino’s Video Archives boss Lance Lawson) to “accidentally” meet Clarence and show him a good time. Alabama reveals that she’s in love with Clarence, who then reciprocates the sentiment, and the real story begins.
After Alabama explains that she’s basically the property of a pimp with the unlikely name of Drexl Spivey, a troubled Clarence decides to pay him a visit in an attempt to free her. There is no doubt this scenario was inspired by Taxi Driver, with Drexl standing in for Harvey Keitel’s white pimp Sport. When Clarence confronts Drexl, a deliciously unexpected turn from the always-great Gary Oldman, we now see a different side of Clarence than what we’ve seen previously. Imitating (and embodying) the badass characters he’s observed in Sonny Chiba flicks and blaxploitation pictures, Clarence mocks and defies the pimp in a casual manner that leads to an explosive and bloody showdown. (I won’t explicitly say who wins, but one of the two primary combatants is the protagonist and this occurs about a third of the way into the film, so…)
After the two lovebirds escape, inadvertently finding themselves in possession of a suitcase filled with uncut cocaine, True Romance transforms into a story about lovers on the run à la Terrence Malick’s Badlands. (The script is very much a Badlands homage, and director Tony Scott attempted to play this up even further, going so far as to hire composer Hans Zimmer to produce a score that directly mirrors George Tipton’s from the aforementioned film.) Scott once told me, “True Romance was a tribute to Badlands, and I didn’t try to disguise the fact. I loved the script for True Romance, and I loved Badlands, and I thought, “Here is a way to pay tribute.”) In the way that Tarantino blatantly incorporates elements of other films such as Badlands and Taxi Driver, True Romance is a primary example of the one thing that most aggravates Tarantino’s critics—his recycling, or “stealing” (Tarantino famously stated, “Great artists steal,” and he was right) from previously existing properties. (Tarantino even cannibalizes elements of his earlier short film My Best Friend’s Birthday.) But in doing this, he displays a unique ability to rework familiar themes and ideas, almost always improving upon them, or at least improving elements of them, and creating something that is fresh, exciting, and inexplicably unique. As I state in my forthcoming book My Best Friend’s Birthday: The Making of a Quentin Tarantino Film, Tarantino is an artist is every sense of the word, and whether or not one acknowledges that does not change its being true.
Even if True Romance isn’t the Nicholas Sparks fluff we’ve become accustomed to associating with the term “romance film,” there’s no denying that it’s a love story at heart.
The ending of Scott’s film was a happy one for audiences (spoiler alert: the protagonists live), but an unhappy one for its screenwriter. In Tarantino’s original script, Clarence is shot in the eye and dies, making for a powerful and stunning moment of loss, which is an earmark of many of the finest and most iconic love stories. But Scott altered the ending, creating one in which Clarence survives and the two lovers end up happy on a beach somewhere with a child named Elvis. When Tarantino balked and refused to write the new happier, crappier cinematic ending Scott desired, (then-) frequent Tarantino collaborator Roger Avary was brought in to draft a new ending. Avary did fine work within the confines of the limited closing he was asked to produce. Both endings work, but Tarantino is correct in asserting the more naturalistic, downbeat ending would have been more effective. In fact, I would contend it would have been haunting and memorably iconic, whereas Scott’s closing is rather generic and forgettable.
Even if True Romance isn’t the Nicholas Sparks fluff we’ve become accustomed to associating with the term “romance film,” there’s no denying that it’s a love story at heart. Sure, it’s a (beautifully) profane, ultra-violent love story, but it’s a love story nonetheless. When I told Tarantino I was planing to write this essay for Valentine’s Day, he laughed and said something to the effect of, “Now that’s a fucking badass romance movie!” On its face that may sound like arrogance or hyperbole, but it’s neither; it’s an objective assessment. True Romance is the single most badass, sexy, testosterone-fueled love story ever committed to celluloid, with only Out of Sight and Natural Born Killers (another film based on an early Tarantino script) even close to contending.