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“True Romance:” Still So Cool, 30 Years Later

Cinema in 1993 was undoubtedly defined by the spectacle of dinosaurs once more walking the earth. But the early 90s were also seismic for one filmmaker who would become one of the most important of his generation. 1992 saw the arrival of his debut feature and 1993, the script he sold to Tony Scott made it to screens.

It was on set of The Last Boy Scout that a fledgling Quentin Tarantino thrust two scripts at Scott: True Romance and Reservoir Dogs. He could buy one: Scott chose True Romance and left Tarantino with his eventual directorial debut. Making True Romance wasn’t without its challenges and the final film deviated from Tarantino’s script in not insignificant ways – Scott made it linear and changed the third-act fate of Clarence. But the Tony Scott effect also, vitally, saw the film pumped fat with bubblegum sweetness, frenetic visuals and inescapable, unmistakable heart.

Ostensibly the story of two outcast lovers on the run, True Romance’s ‘Clyde’ is Clarence (Christian Slater): a pop-culture obsessive who works in a comic book store. Not for the money, but for the company (comic books) and the perks (more comic books). So far, so Tarantino. Into this familiar picture bursts its ‘Bonnie’, Alabama Worley (Patricia Arquette), a leopard-print-drenched blonde with the heart of a lion, who has been paid to go on a birthday date with Clarence. She’s a call-girl – and has been for “exactly four days” – with innocence and sweetness in every cell (she “tastes like a peach”). Alabama is determined, loyal, full to the very top with fight. Her sweetness, her optimism-come-naivety isn’t weakness. It’s testament to the resilience of her beauty and spirit in the face of everything and anything.

The two fall in love in that night and it’s a love that is pure, one that will fundamentally remain untouched by the ugliness around them. They are two jagged souls who smooth out each other’s sharpest parts. The chemistry between Slater and Arquette is electric – their rhythmic repartee flying over their post-movie diner pie.

This isn’t just a two-hander though. True Romance is buoyed by performances from greats – any one of them could be another film’s scene-stealer. Gary Oldman in one of his most brilliantly deranged turns as Alabama’s pimp Drexl. Christopher Walken, cold and cruel, as the mob boss trying to track down Clarence and his stolen cocaine. Dennis Hopper sparring for his son’s life as Clarence’s father. Brad Pitt as the eternally-stoned Floyd.

Most memorable is James Gandolfini as Virgil, the mob enforcer who finally catches up, not with Clarence, but Alabama. The motel showdown scene that follows is brutal and bloody but sewn together with poetry. It delivers one of the greatest monologues on losing your soul (“Now the first time you kill somebody, that’s the hardest. I don’t give a shit if you’re fucking Wyatt Earp or Jack the Ripper”) and the film’s most iconic image: Alabama, firing a shotgun at the ceiling, drenched in blood and sweat, screaming with fury. In that moment, she is screaming for every woman who had been abused, violated and traumatized. And we screamed with her.

Is True Romance a perfect film? Hell, no. The liberal use of the n-word, the over-homage to Badlands, the aesthetic which slips and slides into soft-focused and sentimental (don’t make me go into detail on Clarence and Alabama’s power ballad-soundtracked sex scene) attest to that. Fundamentally though, it’s the film’s swollen, pink heart that still compels audiences, compels me. And still has the words, “You’re so cool, you’re so cool, you’re so cool” slipping from the lips of lovers, trying to articulate the wild and crazy love that defines True Romance, Clarence and Alabama and, if we’re lucky, just for a moment as Alabama’s opening monologue starts, us too. And that might be even more miraculous than dinosaurs walking the earth once more.