Looking back at Tony Scott’s True Romance

Director Tony Scott may have played with Tarantino's script, but True Romance is one of the great 90s thrillers, Glen writes...

Like many a film fan, I was deeply saddened by the death of Tony Scott. He’s a director whose work I grew up on and have consistently enjoyed over the years. Sure, there have been highs and lows, and many hold the opinion that he tailed off towards the end of his career, but I certainly don’t hold this opinion, and found much to enjoy in the likes of The Taking Of Pelham 123 and Unstoppable.

Whilst his films may not have always delivered complex narratives, they certainly managed to showcase his directorial flair and his ability to deliver moments of cinematic spectacle with great frequency – and seemingly, great ease. More than the director for hire many seemed to want to label him as, a glance at Scott’s filmography reveals a wealth of riches, and in addition to the number of quality films he made, their diversity is admirable. Sure, most lean towards the action thriller genre and are all quite macho, but the themes and topics explored show that he was a director constantly looking for new challenges, and it’s sad that we’ve lost such a fine British directorial talent.

Myself and a few of my fellow writers were asked to write about a particular Tony Scott film to celebrate his work now that some months passed since his death. I was asked to tackle True Romance which I was delighted with being as it was one of a few films that I consider incredibly important to me as my film tastes changed in my teenage years. I would have been just as happy writing about Beverly Hills Cop 2 or Days Of Thunder, too – two films I rewatched as part of a Tony Scott marathon towards the end of last year. 

Penned by Quentin Tarantino, True Romance is a simple love story at heart, but one with numerous layers. It focuses on the experiences of a comic book store worker named Clarence (Christian Slater) who’s treated to a date with a prostitute named Alabama (Patricia Arquette) on his birthday. Clarence is initially unaware that Alabama’s profession is the oldest one in the world, and the pair fall in love.

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Undeterred, Clarence looks to negotiate her release from the employ of her pimp, and when things don’t go according to plan, he makes off with a considerable amount of cocaine rather than her belongings, and the couple set out to offload the product – completely unaware that they have a band of ruthless gangsters on their tail.

Shortly after the passing of Scott, Quentin Tarantino and Richard Kelly attended a tribute of his work at the LA film school organised by Jeff Goldsmith. Here, Tarantino shared some thoughts on Scott and the film: “One of the things that’s actually been kind of gratifying about reading all of this internet stuff, where everyone’s talking about their favourite Tony Scott movie, is people were not saying that in 1990,” he said. “People used to [say] ‘Oh, he’s a commercial hack. His stuff is bullshit.’ And I loved his shit. I thought it was fantastic.” he continued by addressing Scott’s effect on True Romance: “Even when True Romance got good reviews, they wouldn’t give Tony the credit for the good reviews. They would actually say that he glossed up my script — that he made it too pretty. He made it too vivid.” 

Much has been made of the fact that Tarantino had originally intended to direct the film himself, but instead sold it along with Natural Born Killers following the success of Reservoir Dogs, and that initially he was displeased with Tony Scott’s decision to change both the narrative structure of the film and the ending. Tarantino has since said how he is happy with how the film turned out, and that Scott’s decision to let Clarence and Alabama live at the end gave it a classic Hollywood love story conclusion – something more appropriate to the way Scott had directed the film, whereas the bleaker ending of Tarantino’s original script would have been more faithful to his directorial style, as would the nonlinear method of storytelling.

Here’s what Tarantino had to say about the changes at the celebration mentioned earlier: “It was so easy to restructure that I think they just did it with a Xerox machine. From what I’ve heard, he tried my structure but went nuts with it — went far beyond what I did. So apparently there’s this really metaphysical avant-garde cut of True Romance floating around out there somewhere.”

Having read the original script a while back, I have to say that I’m with Scott on this one. As much as I love Tarantino, I feel that there’s a time and a place for nonlinear storytelling, as showcased wonderfully with the likes of Pulp Fiction, but having the film play out in the correct order allows you to go on a journey with the protagonists and see their relationship grow and solidify as they go through some rather incredible experiences. It makes their relationship and their love for one another much more tangible, and the tension experienced in the situations they face all the more effective. It was a master stroke, and a delicate touch from a director who is often associated, incorrectly, with being someone who was all style and no substance. That’s not to say that the style is absent from True Romance – far from it – but it is a case of Scott recognising the strength in the script and the characters, and showing restraint where appropriate. 

Pretty much all of Tarantino’s films, whether as writer or writer-director, feature a key scene between two parties where dialogue is the focus. The obvious highlight in True Romance is that between Christopher Walken’s Vincenzo Coccotti and Dennis Hopper’s Clifford Worley. It’s a phenomenally well-written, acted and directed scene; granted, there’s little for Scott to do here other than let the actors work with the great dialogue, but the choice to hold the shot at key moments really heightens the tension. It’s beautifully played out, and it’s understandable why this is the scene people reference when discussing the film. You know early on that Clifford’s situation is hopeless, but how he reacts is spectacular; rather than giving up his son and begging for his life, he instead decides to mess with Coccotti in a spectacular way, by mocking his Sicilian heritage.

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The aforementioned scene is obviously spectacular, but there are two other moments with similar set ups that deserve kudos, an early example being the confrontation between Clarence and Gary Oldman’s over-the-top pimp caricature, Drexl Spivey, which is shorter by some margin than the Hopper Walken showdown, but almost as memorable.

Another great example is Alabama’s confrontation in her hotel room with James Gandolfini’s Virgil. Her recognition of the situation is similar to that of Hopper’s in the earlier scene, but it plays out very differently. Realising that flirtation alone won’t get her out of the situation, Alabama still plays up her charm as she attempts to stall her presumed fate. She’s subjected to some incredibly brutal violence, but ultimately comes out on top. It’s a well-formed scene, and one that showcases Patricia Arquette’s range as an actress; it’s certainly one of the high points of her career (as is the film as a whole). It’s a shame that, for the most part, she hasn’t had the fortune of working with this kind of material for most of her career, as she certainly shows that she’s worthy of it. 

Tarantino wears his influences on his sleeve, but he manages to do so in a way that homages rather than rips off the sources inspire him. This stands as Tarantino’s most autobiographical work to date, and if you swapped the comic book store where Clarence works for the Video Archive where he famously worked, it would be much more apparent. There’s a clear sense of fantasy and wish-fulfilment to much of the story, where the end product seems to have been the result of a dream of his following a viewing of Badlands. The comparison to Terrence Malick’s classic are obvious, but where True Romance hits similar plot points, has a similar voiceover, and elements of the score match that of the 70s film, it’s hard to say that this is intended to be anything other than completely obvious.

Hans Zimmer’s theme here is quite clearly based on Carl Orff’s Gassenhauer, but just as the film itself is an update on Badlands, Zimmer balances the key elements of the theme, which makes it timeless, yet with a slight modern spin. It’s not an example of the composer stretching himself to his limit, and overtly dictating your emotions through bombastic themes as he is known for, but its simplicity carries the film, and gently tugs at your heart strings. The fact that the theme’s so versatile also helps. It can be a hugely optimistic and romantic piece, but with slight alterations, can become incredibly sinister.

As good as the theme is, however, the soundtrack lacks Tarantino’s typical panache. He’s obviously a master of compiling wonderful soundtracks that work magnificently with his films, and when listened to in isolation, they play out like a perfect mix tape. The same can’t be said here, however, which isn’t a problem when watching the film, and is really my only gripe.

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True Romance really is an incredible piece of work, a film that delivers on a visual front, as well as having an engaging narrative with flawed yet likeable protagonists who are easy to root for. It also features a host of memorable secondary characters who are fleshed out by a frankly outstanding cast.

One of the finest films of the 90s, True Romance is a highpoint of Tony Scott’s career as a director, and Tarantino as a writer.