Minding the Gap: True Romance

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August 23, 2012 by abbyo

I’m not the biggest Tony Scott fan.

His movies are fast, highly-polished, and tend not to resemble films so much as flashy music videos. But, as I read tribute after tribute in the wake of the director’s death on Sunday, I started thinking that perhaps I hadn’t given the guy a fair chance. Granted, I’m not going to start singing the praises of “Domino” just because of Scott’s shocking, tragic suicide. But as I read the list of his achievements, I realized I had written Scott off only having seen his more recent work, and none of his films that people seem to really love.

So, in my attempt to better understand the work of Tony Scott, I checked out “True Romance,” arguably one of the director’s most popular movies, for this week’s post. I went into this movie sure that I was going to love it more for Quentin Tarantino’s script than for Scott’s directing. But I found myself pleasantly surprised. “True Romance,” it turns out, is a textbook example of good collaborative filmmaking. The reason this movie works so well isn’t just the script, or the acting, or the way it looks. It’s all three. And when that happens, you can bet it’s because of a capable director.

The best example of how this works in the movie is one specific scene, about halfway through the proceedings. The story so far is this: Clarence (Christian Slater) and Alabama (Patricia Arquette) are shotgun newlyweds. Shortly after their marriage, Clarence shot and killed Alabama’s pimp, and snagged a suitcase full of cocaine from his brothel. The two lovers have just arrived in L.A., where they are trying to unload their illicit stash on a wealthy movie producer. They meet with the producer’s assistant, Elliot (Bronson Pinchot), at an amusement park, where Clarence seals the deal by making everyone take a ride on a roller coaster. The rest is in the first minute of the video below.

(apologies for the length—this is literally the only online form of this scene I could find)

The wildly different reactions of the two men, coupled with the thrilling shots of the coaster in action, tell you everything you need to know about those two characters. Clarence is a thrill-seeking kid who acts like a tough guy, but has no idea of the danger he’s really in. Elliot, on the other hand, is hyper-aware of the consequences (especially where he’s concerned), and that makes him perpetually nervous. You get the feeling he tattled a lot as a child.

“True Romance” is loads of fun, and you can see the early hallmarks of Tarantino’s style: heavy referencing of his favorite things, rapid-fire dialogue, and a plot that seems crafted from the writer’s greatest personal fantasies. But it took a talented person to read that script, and see what it needed to look and sound like. Tony Scott wasn’t Quentin Tarantino, but you can tell by how well the style and script match up that they were men cut from similar cloth.

Scott also had the great fortune on this film to have access to actors who were all at the top of their respective games in the early 90s. In addition to Slater and Arquette, we get Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken, who in 1993 were both at a point in their careers where they were crazy enough to be compelling, but composed enough to still stay on target. Gary Oldman is nothing short of magical as Alabama’s pimp, the dreadlocked wannabe gangster Drexl. He’s only on screen for about five minutes, but for that brief period, you can’t take your eyes off him.

As a piece of entertainment, “True Romance” delivers in the way of the best movies of its kind. It’s funny, exciting, and sweet. As a piece of filmmaking, the movie may not be high art, but it’s impressive in the way it shows the fundamentals of what makes a good movie. You can see how the script, direction and performances fit together like finely-tuned clockwork by how effortless the whole enterprise seems. It was one of the few times things would work out that well for Tony Scott. The director might have left behind a less-than-stellar body of work, but the fact that it included a movie this good has definitely made me respect him more.

Random Observations:

-It should be noted that Hans Zimmer’s score for this movie borrows heavily from Carl Orff’s “Gassenhauser,” which was used in the soundtrack for “Badlands”. While it’s possible to claim that Zimmer was just being lazy, I like to think that, given the composer’s penchant for patterns, it had something to do with the thematic similarities between the two movies–both are about lawbreaking couples on the run.

-Clarence and Alabama have what I consider the coolest first date ever. They meet in a movie theater at a Sonny Chiba triple-feature, then head to a diner for pie and coffee, and end the night hanging out at the comic book shop where Clarence works. You guys, it doesn’t get better than that.

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