30 Years Ago, Tony Scott Elevated Quentin Tarantino in a True Romance

Movies Features Quentin Tarantino
30 Years Ago, Tony Scott Elevated Quentin Tarantino in a True Romance

Quentin Tarantino is the rare movie director who may be better-known for his screenwriting than his visual signatures, even as the latter are scribbled all over his work. For a brief period in the 1990s, it even seemed like we might get a steady stream of projects written by Tarantino but directed by others, remnants from his pre-Pulp Fiction years, re-interpreted by enterprising others. His lovers-on-the-run script for Natural Born Killers became a story-by credit on an incendiary Oliver Stone screed; his brothers-on-the-run script for From Dusk Till Dawn became a collaboration with his buddy Robert Rodriguez, perhaps one of the only directors who would allow Tarantino himself to co-star; and his other lovers-on-the-run script, True Romance, became a Tony Scott movie. Among the script-only Tarantino movies, it was first out of the gate in September 1993, preceded only by Reservoir Dogs. It flopped. 30 years later, with both its director and its writer enjoying a sizable fandom, True Romance is better-known and better-regarded – though in its way, it’s also become the most 1990s movie Tarantino ever wrote.

Maybe this seems counterintuitive, given the sheer number of dorm-wall acreage taken up by Pulp Fiction posters in the ’90s. But as heavily identified with that period as Pulp Fiction is, Tarantino’s attachment to his ’70s upbringing (refracted further by the movie’s iconically fake ’50s diner, a tribute to the premature nostalgia of another time) gives the movie a certain alternate-universe timelessness. The same is true, in a lower key, of his 1997 follow-up Jackie Brown. No, if you want a really ’90s Tarantino movie, look to True Romance; if Pulp Fiction takes place in an alternate universe, Tony Scott’s movie takes place in an alternate to that alternate, a sensational fantasy that feels like Tarantino’s dreams somehow transposed into Scott’s brain.

That’s a fancy way of saying that True Romance has a hilariously shameless level of fantastical self-insert in the character of Clarence Worley (Christian Slater), a gabby Elvis-worshipping retro-loner who works in a comic book store and spends his birthday taking in a Sonny Chiba triple feature. In a crucial distinction from real-life nerds everywhere, probably including Tarantino, Clarence near-instantly wins the love of a beautiful woman without needing to be a famous film director first (though he does have the very early-’90s charm of Christian Slater at his disposal). Granted, Alabama (Patricia Arquette) has been paid to bump into Clarence at his birthday kung-fu marathon (what age he’s turning goes unmentioned; Slater was 24 when the movie came out) by his boss who, we’re later told, also lends him money from time to time. But even these feel like fantasies of indulgence – wow, Clarence’s boss must really love him! – as does, of course, the fact that Alabama falls for Clarence, and fast. After a single night together, she’s ready to renounce her four-day-old career in sex work and run away with her new love.

This would play pretty unbearable (and for the committed Tarantino anti-fans, might anyway) if not for the combination of distance and affection provided by Tony Scott. Though Clarence reads as an obvious Tarantino stand-in – employment at a cult-y business, passionate about film, an Elvis man, kind of a bullshitter – Scott’s overlay of dark-fairy-tale style, replete with a tinkling xylophone theme imitating “Gassenhauer” (used in Terence Malick’s lovers-on-the-run debut Badlands) washes away the self-glorification. Clarence becomes half-naif, half-loser, or maybe 60-40 in favor of naif; Scott is just that generous. Slater is perfectly cast, in part because of his rep as a “cool” young actor biting some mannerisms and deliveries from Jack Nicholson. He’s a misfit-poseur, a perfect match for the starry-eyed but resilient Alabama, who fulfills a broader fantasy than just “pretty girl interested in goony guy.” Who wouldn’t pine for a partner capable of looking at us at our loneliest and geekiest and coming to the conclusion that we are, in fact, really cool? Clarence, meanwhile, at least has the good sense to scarcely believe his good luck, and marries her as soon as possible.

That’s not to say Tarantino himself lacks the self-awareness to recognize the insecurities behind Clarence attempting to boast about a job where he gets to read comics all day. (He’s been accused of self-glorification for casting himself in his own movies, ignoring how often he’s cast himself as the most annoying guy in the frame, or a loser who winds up dead, or both.) But what Scott teases out of the movie, and what’s hard to picture Tarantino vibing with as a director, is the cracked empowerment of true love. Clarence’s love for Alabama convinces him that he can confront her pimp Drexl (Gary Oldman), and somehow he turns out to be right, surviving a violent encounter that should not have gone his way. Later, when he realizes the suitcase he took from Drexl’s lair holds not Alabama’s possessions but a ton of cocaine, he believes that, naturally, he can sell it at a discount and abscond with his new wife, whose support of this scheme never wavers. The power of love.

All of this may be part of Tarantino’s screenplay, but Scott seems to recognize the strange sweetness behind it. Clarence becomes cool because Alabama thinks he is; she and Scott both lovingly accept the cockamamie as a kind of truth. Scott’s typically stylish direction has a glow of warmth not exactly visible in, say, The Last Boy Scout (which directly precedes this one in his filmography). True Romance benefits enormously from this glow, because it’s arguable that even (or especially) with some memory-searing moments, it’s more a series of grabby scenes than a coherent movie.

Its two grabbiest are provocations that now play like Tarantino caricature. Early on, Clarence’s salt-of-the-earth ex-cop father Clifford (Dennis Hopper) faces off against a mob boss (Christopher Walken) looking for Clarence and Alabama. Knowing that he won’t give up his own son and that he’ll likely be killed for it, Clifford launches into a slur-laden monologue about the racial origins of Sicilians, intending to get a rise out of his interrogator. So in-movie it’s a provocation, too, and if it’s hard to stomach racial slurs played for edgelord laughs 30 years later, boy, do Hopper and Walken attempt to elevate it, both consummate movie madmen skillfully underplaying here. As if mashing the other big DO NOT PRESS button on the board, Tarantino later moves on to a scene where another gangster (James Gandolfini) beats the hell out of Alabama – who, like Clifford, refuses to give up Clarence, even when his whereabouts are barely concealed. It’s a nasty sequence, especially in the director’s cut (which is the version more widely circulated on disc), despite Alabama’s satisfying turning of the tables on her attacker. The anti-Tarantino crowd will note that both scenes recuse Tarantino stand-in Clarence from the carnage; hell, the fervently pro-Tarantino crowd might notice that, too.

Clarence’s wispy effect on the movie’s most indelible scenes feels like evidence of True Romance searching for authorial balance, with Scott acting as a guiding, steadying hand in its more famous co-creator’s stead. (Self-aware or not, it’s probably not a coincidence that Tarantino’s “real” movies lack such an obvious front-and-center stand-in for their creator.) In the specific context of 1993, Scott’s movie almost looks visionary: It’s the only Tarantino movie to really capture the seamy world of crime-flick knock-offs that appeared in Pulp Fiction’s wake, as if Scott anticipated what the likes of Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead or 2 Days in the Valley would be missing.

Fittingly, many of its actors would go on to star in later Tarantino projects, as well as myriad terrible Tarantino knockoffs later in the decade, nearly all inferior to this one. True Romance features a single scene from Walken, who would go on to do another single memorable scene in Pulp Fiction; a bit part for Samuel L. Jackson, who would subsequently appear or be heard in almost all of Tarantino’s films; a scene-stealing supporting role for Brad Pitt, who would win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…; Patricia Arquette, whose sister Rosanna would appear in Pulp; Tom Sizemore, a sort of alternate Michael Madsen who also appeared in Natural Born Killers; and Chris Penn, who had already done Reservoir Dogs. Gary Oldman, Val Kilmer and James Gandolfini, meanwhile, merely feel like they should have appeared in other Tarantino projects. Instead, later Tarantino-directed films would resurrect stars of the past (John Travolta, Pam Grier, Robert Forster), draw on his established faves (Jackson, Uma Thurman) or simply attract the biggest stars his talent could entice (Pitt, DiCaprio, Margot Robbie), leaving True Romance to feel well and truly of its time.

Scott’s altering of the movie’s original ending, too, wherein Clarence was supposed to die in the movie’s final all-in stand-off-and-shoot-out, sounds like an era-appropriate betrayal, like the happier ending affixed to the same year’s American remake of The Vanishing or any number of movies softened for mainstream palatability. Yet Scott’s happier ending (which Tarantino himself eventually came around on) fits the slickness of the production, and rescues the movie from senseless nihilism, upgrading to Gen-X insouciance. There’s a faint note of ’80s triumphalism in the fuck-it-they’re-fine resolution (which, in more ’90s-crime fashion, leaves most of the other characters bullet-riddled and lifeless on a hotel floor), just one more note that’s not sounded in the more fate-minded Pulp Fiction or the reflective Jackie Brown. True Romance isn’t as great as those movies, but it’s a hell of a lot better than most of Scott’s ’80s megahits, and though it doesn’t have much in common with his best movies that followed (which tended to star Denzel Washington), in retrospect it feels like a point where Scott’s directorial flashiness became his substance. Tarantino gave him some juicy scenes to work with, but Scott knew to undercut the punk-rock gestures with unlikely true love.

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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