Murder, relentless profanity, graphic depictions of drug-taking, woman-beating and torture, scenes of racial abuse and sexual harassment – hardly your regular recipe for a romantic weepy, admittedly, but True Romance, while ostensibly an elaborately plotted, popcorn action-thriller, isn’t really about any of those things.
It’s about the sweet uncomplicated love between two deeply flawed, hopeful characters, and how that love – despite leading them down a beleaguered path of screw-up and misadventure – is implicit, unbreakable and utterly worth it.
It’s a love story for the hedonistic ’90s, engineered for a de-sensitised audience that craves guns, drugs, tits, and so much violence that things get blown out of corpses you can’t even identify.
Yet it has a marvellous vitality, it is gorgeous to look at, the plot swings and tilts like a video game, the characters are charming and magnetic even when they’re killing people, and it’s savagely funny.
Much of the obvious glamour must be credited to the two protagonists – Clarence (Christian Slater), an under-achiever who sells comic books, and Alabama (Patricia Arquette), a cheerful but inexperienced hooker who has only been on the job a few days.
They meet at a kung fu movie, discover they have a lot in common (they dig pot, Elvis, and slushy pop-rock tunes) and after one night in the sack, they know their dreary lives will never be the same – and neither will the bed.
The next morning they get married, Clarence ices Alabama’s pimp, Drexl (a wonderfully sinister Gary Oldman), and returns with a suitcase full of cocaine which the newlyweds haul from Detroit all the way to LA, pursued by an army of bloodthirsty wackos in search of the kind of happy ending you don’t find in the Yellow Pages.
Before the fat lady sings, the lovers invade the world of Hollywood film producers, assistant film producers, and assistant assistants of every description.
There are no good guys to root for here. Everyone is a villain. The romantic leads are cold-blooded killers but you find yourself rooting for them.
The violence is abhorrent, but it’s choreographed with so much humour you don’t know whether to take it seriously or consider it as sketch material for David Letterman.
Christopher Walken, doing his sleazoid bit as a Sicilian drug king so evil his right eye twitches with pent-up rage when he says hello, blasts one of his victims to ground sirloin and chuckles, “I haven’t killed anybody since 1984.”
The movie seems to be spoofing violence as much as raising it to a new genre level.
In the film’s most awesome scene, the cops in the middle of busting a Hollywood producer stop to discuss the merits of his last picture before opening fire.
And movie references permeate every scene: Dennis Hopper’s cameo bit as Clarence’s nutty father, an ex-cop who lives in a trailer, recalls psycho flicks like Blue Velvet (1986), and Elvis Presley himself rises from the dead to give Clarence courage in the bathroom before a particularly bloody shootout between the police, the hoods, and the Hollywood junkies.
It’s a labyrinthian tale, multi-layered with an army of characters, all of whom remain relentlessly merry throughout the mayhem.
Written (but not directed) by Quentin Tarantino, True Romance may well be his most personal film.
How could you dislike two killers on the run who actually take the time out of a busy agenda to have sex in a phone booth while the Big Bopper performs Chantilly Lace?
The dubious point is that crime not only pays but pays handsomely, and if love is strong enough, you can survive anything, including getaway cars from Rent-a-Wreck.
Samuel L Jackson
Mary Louise Ravencroft