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The problem of ageing in True Romance

We’re well-versed in what to expect from a Quentin Tarantino film at this point in time. Back in 1993, that wasn’t so much the case. Pulp Fiction hadn’t hit cinemas yet, and Reservoir Dogs was really the only point of reference for who he even was. Tony Scott, on the other hand, was the name behind Top Gun and Days of Thunder, as well as being part of a new wave of British filmmakers making their way to the States. Along with Alan Parker, Hugh Hudson, Adrian Lynne, and his brother, Ridley, Scott was one of a crowd who were initially criticised for prioritising style over substance. 


With Tarantino writing and Scott directing, the easy assumption is that both of their wildest excesses would be encouraged by one another. But by Tarantino’s modern standards and expectations, a lot of them seem to have been tamed. At least on an aesthetic level. There aren’t any big shootouts, extended sequences centred around recently deceased corpses, or elaborate long takes. Even Scott’s own action-centric trademarks take a back seat to a more reserved visual style. The screenplay, though, is quite clearly an early, less polished effort of Tarantino’s. 


Featuring an ensemble cast with Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette in leading roles, True Romance tells the story of an Elvis-obsessed nerd (Clarence) who quickly falls in love with an early-career call girl (Alabama). All of Tarantino’s authorial signatures are here from the very beginning. Clarence in the first character we meet, as he’s sitting at a bar talking at length about the aspects of pop culture he enjoys the most. Elvis, obviously, but the work of Sonny Chiba too. He regards Sonny Chiba as one the greatest filmmakers of all time, actually. But that might just be because he’s excited that he’s on his way to watch a triple bill of the Street Fighter trilogy. 


Anyone who’s read Tarantino’s Cinema Speculation, or has watched an extended interview with him at any point, will recognise Clarence as an author insert. He loves the things Tarantino loves, and he expresses his love for them in the way that Tarantino does. The only thing that stops him from literally being Tarantino in these early scenes is that he doesn’t habitually exclaim his sentences by saying “Alright?”. 


When he meets Alabama at the cinema he can’t believe his luck. She’s a beautiful woman who loves the things he loves, and to Clarence those are the only two defining features he needs in a potential partner. That’s where True Romance begins to feel somewhat dated, and even misjudged. 


Alabama is quite clearly a woman who was written by a young man. Everything she does, and everything she is, is in service to Clarence’s story. She’s at the cinema to watch Street Fighter because that’s what Clarence loves, and she’s a call girl because that’s what gives Clarence some adversity to face at the news of an abusive pimp, Drexl. Drexl is played by Gary Oldman doing what Gary Oldman does best, and that’s performing a magic trick or some kind of hypnosis which makes us all entirely forget that he’s Gary Oldman. 


But Drexl is another character who’s perhaps a bit more problematic now than he would have seemed thirty years ago. When Alabama tells Clarence that she has a pimp, the first question Clarence asks is whether he’s Black. Clearly, this is a line that comes from Tarantino’s love for blaxploitation films. But Alabama answers by effectively saying no, but he pretends to be. When we meet Drexl for the first time, that’s exactly the image that’s portrayed. He’s got dreadlocks and a suspicious complexion, and his voice mimics a sort of greatest hits of 90s rappers. He’s little more than a satirical presentation of a white man trying to pass in a Black man’s world, which raises the issue of stereotyping influenced by misunderstanding blaxploitation films. The bigger problem, though, is that he also represents one of Tarantino’s typical excesses that isn’t at all tamed by Tony Scott in True Romance – an egregious overuse of the N-word. 


When Django Unchained first hit cinemas and became infamous for its repeated use of the word, Spike Lee accused Tarantino of being obsessed with it. It wasn’t the first time they’d clashed over it, either, with Lee questioning why it was so prominent in Jackie Brown in 1997 too. Since then, Samuel L. Jackson has come out in defence of Tarantino to say that he wouldn’t have worked with him if he believed he was racist. Still, racism is frequently a literary driver of Tarantino’s work, and the discussion around whether he should be the person to tell stories of that nature is a valid one. 


One of Tony Scott’s biggest changes to Tarantino’s screenplay is in its ending. Clarence and Alabama were both supposed to die in the closing sequences, but Scott admitted that through the making of True Romance, he became far too close to them both to see their stories end in such a sad way. Tarantino later agreed that the change was ultimately for the best. It’s easy to see where Scott was coming from because it’s difficult not to fall in love with the two of them ourselves. By the time the first act ends, Clarence’s personality is so relatable, and his feelings towards Alabama are so sweet, that it feels entirely natural to become swept up in what they’re experiencing together. It’s hard to say that True Romance’s flaws are superseded by how wonderful it is in that regard, but if nothing else, it’s a film that lives up to its purpose, while also living with its less savoury elements.


Generally regarded as one of Tarantino’s most autobiographical screenplays, it’s a wonder that he didn’t direct True Romance himself. Despite Tony Scott having more than just a hand in the making of the film himself, it’s so full of Tarantino’s signature style of writing, for better and for worse in almost equal measure, that it doesn’t register as anything other than a Tarantino movie in its own right. It’s just as interesting from an academic point of view as it is as a film of its own standing – as a snapshot of a young and inexperienced filmmaker who became one of the most successful to ever do it, as well as just being a heavily flawed but equally beautiful film about love.

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