Monday, April 26, 2021

True Romance (with additional drug references)

After David Lynch's Wild at Heart, this film probably had the most influence over me as a viewer and a future film writer. I had seen plenty of edge-y films by the time this rolled around thanks to both of my parents being Stephen King fans and my dad really digging Clint Eastwood. Of course I'd seen love stories like The Princess Bride, The Bodyguard, and Pretty Woman. But seeing a film like this (and Wild at Heart), an edge-y, violent love story was an entirely new experience and one that showed me that films weren't always just entertainment, they could be so much more. I watched True Romance, probably cried, and then decided these were the kinds of films I wanted to see, forever. Little did I know how much influence the writer of this film would eventually have on me, years later! 

True Romance, 1993 d. Tony Scott 

You're so cool!

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Michael Rapaport, Dennis Hopper, James Gandolfini, Christopher Walken, Brad Pitt, Bronson Pinchot, Gary Oldman, Christopher Penn, Tom Sizemore, Saul Rubinek, Val Kilmer

Summary: "In Detroit, a lonely pop culture geek marries a call girl, steals cocaine from her pimp, and tries to sell it in Hollywood. Meanwhile, the owners of the cocaine, the Mob, track them down in an attempt to reclaim it," (IMDB). 

What's better than a good drug deal story? Drugs always add such an exciting, naughty element. Is someone addicted (Less Than Zero)? Are they concealing the drugs inside other objects like coffee grounds (Beverly Hills Cop) or toy statues (Traffic) or hiding them in a baby's diaper (Three Men and a Baby)? In the 3D Friday the Thirteenth sequel (part three), they actually ate the drugs to get rid of the evidence. Yes I realize these examples are cheesy and there are many better ones, but  whatever, DRUGS! Here Clarence (Slater) obtains a suitcase of drugs while tendering his new wife Alabama's (Arquette) resignation from the world of prostitution and whoops, turns out the mafia wants that suitcase back. 

Clarence has an actor friend out in LA, Dick Ritchie (Rapaport) who thinks he might be able to sell the drugs, but whoops, the director he has in mind has an assistant who just got busted for possession himself and is eventually roped into wearing a wire in order to expose the drug deal. Things get . . . violent. Turns out no one has my sense of humor when it comes to drugs.

In terms of technique, think of the two most dissimilar places in America (such as Detroit, Michigan and Hollywood, California) and you'll have the basics of the contrasts at play in this film. And yes, these two locations are used as the settings for the story, so it's like, literal. The gray and gritty influences are Drexl (Oldman), Vincenzo (Walken) and his mafia henchmen which include a young Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini, and Clifford Worley, Clarence's father (Hopper) as well as the vehicles, run down apartments, and unpleasant weather. This Detroit and most who inhabit it are not living lives of optimism. 

In Hollywood, the mood, the colors, and the characters all shift radically: we get palm trees, neons, and big personalities all bathed in the California sunshine. The spaces are interesting---fancy hotels, old school drive-thu restaurants, and an amusement park. Even Dick Ritchie's apartment, made more appealing by the illustrious stoner, Floyd (Pitt), is exciting because of its location presumably among other would-be actors' pads and for the action it sees during the film. Also because drugs.

Transcending the lights and darks and haves/have-nots of the mise en scene, the pop music chosen shows Clarence's link to coolness (as Alabama will later write on her little napkin while Clarence "does business") and arguable mental instability in the secret Elvis communication that happens at crucial decision-making moments. The steel-drum/synthesizer light-hearted motif that comes and goes throughout the film seems to be pure Alabama, her optimism, her acceptance, and her childlike nature, assuring us that no matter how difficult things get it will all turn out fine in the end. In this way, Clarence and Alabama, through their personalities and their naivety, are the wild cards --contained by neither gritty Detroit nor sunny Los Angeles-- who are allowed to travel between places and ultimately outsmart the agents of both. 

The racial insults in Clifford's story to the Sicilians are difficult and upsetting to hear. There's more difficulty near the end when the two cops make rape jokes to Eliot (Pinchot) and added racial epitaphs during the fated hotel meeting with Donowitz (Rubinek). Tarantino writes about unsavory characters, after all, but these moments are still disturbing. Would that these criminals were not so problematic. And obviously it goes without saying that this film is not going to appeal to everyone for these and other reasons, but I still think it has a lot of heart under all its offensive moments. That said if this one gets under your skin, you definitely don't want to go any further in Tarantino's body of work. If you ask me, this story (Alabama in particular) is nothing more than what his answer would be if someone back in the early 90s asked him to describe his ideal date, and I get it. I like most of all this, too, I just don't want to actually GO there. 

Gotta love that wisdom ala Vivianne in Pretty Woman "she rescues him right back," ending, right? Wins like this for women weren't too common, even in the 90s. What a gal. Look for her reference in Reservoir Dogs soon after this film (Hell of a woman, good little thief!).