If you were to sum up the 90s with a list of films that give a feeling for that decade then all three of Quentin Tarantino’s movies that he made in that garish, fun and convoluted decade would be on the list. He wrote and directed Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown between 1992 and 1997 but they weren’t the only films he scripted. The sale of his screenplay of Natural Born Killers to Oliver Stone let him finance Reservoir Dogs. His earliest film was My Best Friend’s Birthday, a cheaply shot black and white film that is partially lost but eventually became True Romance one of the defining films of the 1990s.
True Romance follows infatuated lovers call-girl Alabama (Patricia Arquette) and Elvis fanatic Clarence (Christian Slater) as they steal coke from Alabama’s former pimp Drexl (Gary Oldman) in Detroit and flee to LA to sell it. They are pursued by the Detroit mafia and the Los Angeles police who want the glory of a massive coke bust. The movie finds loads of time for its bit players from Drexl to Clarence’s sympathetic father (Dennis Hopper) to ferocious mob underboss Virgil (James Gandolfini) right up to an Elvis apparition (Val Kilmer).
It’s these bit players that really make the movie. Samuel L. Jackson has a 15 second role as a man called Big Don before Drexl blows him away. Gary Oldman might be an Oscar winner now but his true value lies in the visceral commitment he brought to playing the coked out villains like Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg in The Fifth Element and Norman Stansfield in Léon The Professional. He imbues Drexl with the same energy only this time his looks really fit the picture with his dreadlocks and scarred eye.
James Gandolfini’s presence dominates the little amount of screen time he has even when in the presence of old school heavyweights like Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper. His fight scene with Arquette is one for the ages. Brad Pitt plays agreeable stoner Floyd who manages to survive only by being so zonked out he can’t help but be helpful to the wrong people. Oh and Val Kilmer is probably the best onscreen Elvis this side of Michael Shannon.
So many 90s films set in Los Angeles would all look the same if they weren’t so individually iconic. From Get Shorty all the way back to Pulp Fiction and True Romance the city of LA is one of the most recognisable movie characters of the 1990s. There are even shades of it in Michael Mann’s Heat. No amount of blue lighting can keep such a bright city down. But all these films share similar traits. First of all they’re all crime movies and secondly, they’re all filled with a gallery of lovable rogues and frightening sadists. Thirdly, they all have more blood squibs than you can shake a mop at.
That’s Tarantino’s influence again though. Anyone that remembers the quick one-two punches of the violence of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction as well as the lingering effects of that violence will see the same but dialled up to eleven by director Tony Scott. Scott – whose 2012 death was a massive loss to action cinema and cinema in general – directed True Romance with the surety of a man who had mastered the action thriller. His style was as dynamic and fluid as his brother Ridley Scott’s was and occasionally still is. The quick fire dialogue is all Tarantino but the action is Scott’s and Scott’s alone.
The hotel shootout at the end of the film is a great example of the messy kind of action the 90s were famous for. A well-designed set is nice to look at but it’s more satisfying to see the absolute shit get shot out of it. Blood arcs, feathers puff out of settees and a suitcase of cocaine explode into a fine, valuable mist. Nearly everyone in the room dies but the first police officer is decimated in a hail of gunfire that’d make Robocop shiver. Hit by the spray from a machine gun and about three shotgun blasts Detective Cody Nicholson (Tom Sizemore, unfortunately) prances and pirouettes before finally pratfalling in one of the bloodiest deaths of the early 90s. What matters most though is that our heroes manage to live another day.
Is True Romance truly romantic? The truth is: kind of. It’s that kind of romance that’s been a part of cinema ever since the silent era. The man forcefully kisses the woman, the man yells at the woman about how much he loves her, the man occasionally hits or shakes the woman in a manly gesture of affection. The real romance is found in Hans Zimmer’s score. The theme that plays often in the film lets us know what our two heroes are feeling better than any saxophone-led sex scene or forceful shaking could. Still is there anything more romantic than Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper – two of the craziest motherfuckers in cinematic history – calling each other eggplants and cantaloupes before laughing like deranged hyenas? I don’t think so.