True Romance is an objectively bad film that just so happens to have one of the best casts ever assembled. Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, Samuel L. Jackson, Brad Pitt, Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, James Gandolfini, and Michael Rapaport. Written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Tony Scott, the dialogue roughly sounds like what future Tarantino projects would become so famous for, but Scott lacks the talent to turn Tarantino’s cheesy dialogue into something cool.
Christian Slater, cast perfectly for an imperfect role, plays a comic book clerk who has to run from the mob after killing the pimp of his bride. Just as that description suggests, the film bounces from one cliché to the next, never really attempting to make sense or convince the audience that any of this is real. That works for most Tarantino films because he immerses us in so many audio-visual details that the suspension of disbelief never becomes a real factor. That’s not the case here.
Only an exceptionally talented director can transform a Tarantino script into something cool. Oliver Stone did it with Natural Born Killers, but he did so by transforming the film into a satire contrary to its original intent (this is probably why Tarantino hated it—Stone intentionally made a parody of the script). Tarantino scripts are much like Eminem lyrics: if you take the time to actually read them, you realize how ridiculous they are. But somehow, through the course of production, these artists are able to dress up absurdities as things the audience takes seriously. Unlike Stone, Scott sticks to the script, but without Tarantino’s visual guidance the emperor has no clothes.
The relationship between Clarence (Slater) and Alabama (Arquette) initiates the plot and holds it together, but it fails to ever ring true. It starts off badly, with Arquette playing the hooker with a heart of gold, and just gets worse as the attraction between Clarence and Alabama is never explained or fleshed out. Alabama reads like a stupid caricature, but the film gives us the distinct impression that this was unintentional. We know all about Clarence’s life and interests. Alabama, on the other hand, has been a prostitute for four days and falls in love with Clarence on their first date. She is a mere fantasy for the type of character we know Clarence to be. Indeed, the entire film consists of the types of adventures a guy like Clarence would dream about while working at his comic book shop.
If Clarence the comic book clerk from the first ten minutes didn’t seem to be so believable—a stark contrast to the collection of clichés trotted out throughout the rest of the film—then it wouldn’t have so completely ruined what little suspension of disbelief is established beforehand. While Slater plays both parts equally well, there’s no way for the audience to logically reconcile the two. Like many bad action movies, Clarence only experiences fear when faced with imminent danger. He doesn’t express remorse for his actions, nor does the weight of them seem to impact his psyche. In fact, as Clarence increasingly finds himself in more dangerous situations, he becomes more blase and reckless.
If there’s one saving grace in this film it’s the actors. All of these horrible clichés are taken seriously by actors who are absolutely terrific. Hopper as the former cop dad who disapproves of his son’s criminality but becomes convinced that he “did the right thing.” Walken as a sadistic mafia boss. Brad Pitt fully invests in his bit role as a stoner roommate whose obliviousness could not be more stereotypical or unrealistic. James Gandolfini provides a preview of Tony Soprano in his role as a mafia enforcer. But the cherry on top—and reason enough to see this film—is Gary Oldman’s portrayal of a pimp who never says or does a single realistic thing. The cast was handed lemons and they made lemonade.
The cast and their performance makes True Romance watchable, but for all the wrong reasons. It’s a curiosity highlighting early performances (and writing) from characters who have become household names (and a few that already were at the time). As such, I recommend watching True Romance, but I would be remiss to call it a good film.