Ok, so everyone knows that True Romance is a brilliant movie; there is no doubt about that. But for whatever reason, I hadn’t seen the film for probably twenty years, after watching it a lot in the mid-late ’90s. I always admired Christian Slater, particularly after Heathers (and Gleaming the Cube, remember that?!), but Patricia Arquette was new to me; I just knew her then as Rosanna Arquette’s sister. There was also this big buzz around this new writer/director called Quentin Tarantino, who had made this super cool, super funny, super-violent film with the best dialogue and a fantastic soundtrack called Reservoir Dogs. Now he hadn’t directed this one; Tony Scott (Top Gun, The Last Boy Scout, Crimson Tide, brother of Ridley) had the honours, but Tarantino wrote it, and he has such a distinctive writing style that it feels like a Tarantino-directed film.
These were the days before the internet. I was a teenager; I got all my film knowledge from Empire Magazine, the local video store (not even a Blockbuster) and my older brothers and friends at school. The good stuff was found via hearsay, nothing like the overwhelming amount of choice we have these days. I think I liked it more then, to be honest — everyone enjoys a little crate dig.
Anyway, fast forward about 25 years, and the world has gone a bit wild at heart and weird on top really, hasn’t it? For me, strangely, not that much has changed; I was social distancing (mostly due to depression) for years. I did go to work, though (which was basically me by myself for three days every week), and now I don’t, and I miss it. I have less free time than ever because the schools are (rightly) closed. I’m a workaholic, so this forced ‘chill out’ for want of a better phrase is messing with my mind a little bit. But you know, things could be worse. While the NHS doctors and nurses are going through a silent hell, trying their best to prevent any more deaths, the ‘Karen’s’ of the world complain about needing a haircut. Be glad you can’t have that haircut Karen, it’s ridiculous.
What’s more, my social life is busier than it’s ever been! I’ve been watching live interviews with bands and actors I love on YouTube and Facebook, playing pub quizzes with friends on Zoom, danced like a complete idiot for days filming myself to (possibly) be in my favourite bands video. I’ve never had so much fun…and finally, I am getting to the point! Which is that the other great thing about lockdown is Film night. Some friends and I watch a film in unison, from different sides of the country and we chat about it while watching. (It only really works for movies you’ve already seen, as it would be a bit annoying to chat through something you haven’t seen before.)
“If you gave me a million years to ponder, I would never have guessed that true romance and Detroit would ever go together.” — Alabama Whitman
True Romance. A film universally loved by my film gang just arrived with perfect timing on Netflix (UK), so it was the perfect choice to watch together. So let’s get snuggled up on our distant sofa’s/beds and remind ourselves why this is not only one of the greatest crime thrillers of the 21st Century, but also the most beautiful love story ever written (alongside Wild at Heart which I will mention a lot in this article, due to some uncanny similarities — which are definitely not a bad thing).
Clarence Worley and Alabama Whitman are in love. Truly. Madly. Deeply. They just met. It’s Clarence’s birthday, and he always goes to the cinema alone to celebrate; this year is no different. A triple showing of Sonny Chiba movies is on the bill. Then into the theatre falls this blonde bombshell, poured into an amazing red velvet halterneck dress. She accidentally on-purpose spills her entire tub of popcorn over Clarence, and after that, the two get talking.
“Do you like to get pie after you see a good movie?” — Alabama Whitman
They go for pie and then back to his place, above the comic shop where he works. While he’s explaining something about comics to her, she realises she has fallen in love with him. It’s only been a few hours, but she knows it’s true love. Many would say it’s not possible; love like this only exists in movies, but they are wrong. True love can happen just like that; I know this to be true.
They have beautiful, passionate sex, fall asleep and then later Clarence wakes to find Alabama on the roof crying under a billboard — which subliminally tells us what will happen next. It reads, “Don’t wait for the dust to settle”. Alabama can’t keep the truth from him: she’s a call girl, hired by Clarence’s boss as a birthday present. She’s only been doing the job for four days, and she’s had three clients during that time. What’s great is that Clarence doesn’t care. In fact, he’s happy! Clarence is a man without judgment and doesn’t feel betrayed by Alabama or his boss. They’ve met each other now and they are in love, so what does it matter how it came to happen? The next day, they get married.
I love this with every part of my being, even if it seems crazy. The passion Clarence and Alabama have for each other is the most beautiful thing in the world, and it’s this complete devotion to each other that gets them through the rest of the story alive.
After the wedding, Alabama tells Clarence about her pimp, Drexl (Gary Oldman) and that she’s worried he won’t allow her out of her contract. We’ve already briefly met Drexl and learn he’s a bit of a nasty piece of work, despite how hilarious it is that he thinks he is black with his dreadlocks and Jamaican accent. Yet somehow, this just makes his character more sinister — he’s clearly a psychopath, and he’d probably shoot you if you told him he was white. His blinded eye and facial scars tell you he’s been in some pretty precarious situations before, but somehow you just know that these wouldn’t have fazed him one bit.
Samuel L. Jackson is in True Romance for so little time (22 seconds, I believe) that I had totally forgotten he was even in it. Yet his moment is memorable. For a start, he walks into a motel to do a drug deal with Drexl dressed like the Invisible Man. Then he owns one of the most quotable lines of the film, “I eat the pussy, I eat the butt, I eat every motherfuckin thang” delivering it in the way that only Samuel L. Jackson can, before being shot to death by Drexl.
Meanwhile, Clarence has a visit from his Guardian Angel, who just happens to be Mr Elvis Presley (Val Kilmer). Clarence is a huge fan of the star, so it is no surprise that he takes Elvis’ advice to visit Drexl, get Alabama’s belongings back and kill him.
Let’s tick some True Romance and Wild at Heart comparisons off the list so far:
– A couple so madly in love, they would do anything to be together. Check.
– She’s blonde, dresses gloriously trashy, and is a bit naive and dizzy but adorable. Check.
– He’s so in love with this girl that he would and does murder someone to protect her. Check.
– He has an Elvis obsession. Check.
– He has a Guardian Angel of sorts to guide him on the right path, who is an icon of pop culture (Elvis and the Good Witch from Wizard of Oz). Check.
– They have to go on the run in their roofless cars (a purple Cadillac and a black Ford Thunderbird). Check.
I love both of these films in equal measure, yet it’s been so long since I saw True Romance that I was pretty stunned, not just about the character and plot similarities, but some of the shots and even some of the dialogue feels like a homage to Wild at Heart. For example, Clarence tells his father, Clifford (the fantastic Dennis Hopper), that Alabama tastes like a peach, and Clifford later mumbles to himself, “son of a bitch was right, she tastes like a peach”. This is after Alabama kisses him goodbye in a completely inappropriate way to kiss your brand new father in law. I love her. In Wild at Heart, Sailor tells Lula — his beloved girlfriend — of his sexual escapades with another woman before Lula’s time, “She turns over, peels off them orange pants, spreads her legs real wide and says to me…take a bite of peach.”
Hell, I’m not complaining. Both of these films are in my Top 5 of all time, so clearly, I have a taste for love with more than a little bit of violence thrown in. It is that pure, unconditional, crazy love that gets me every time.
Alabama is one of the great icons of film to me. If you see a picture of her, you know exactly what the film is. She’s a technicolour dream in aquamarine, gold, and pink. Loud designs in cow print, leopard print and flowers like she’s been plucked straight from a John Waters movie. She’s so effortlessly cool; of course I want to be her. But it’s not just her style; it’s the whole package. It’s the misguided innocence, the pure coquettishness, the devotion to her man, her vulnerability and her incredible strength. The fight in her is what is so surprising, and you just know that side of her was spawned from the fire burning in her heart for Clarence. She’s his Queen now and she isn’t going to give up her crown for anyone or anything. He is her King, and she would fight to the death to protect him.
Clarence has become someone new overnight too. Far from the boyish comic geek we first met, more like an emerging Travis Bickle, he heads to Drexl’s with a fire in his belly, a fierce need to protect his Queen, no matter how much danger he could be getting himself into. Drexl is genuinely unnerving, creepy even, and not too dissimilar from the Bobby Peru character in Wild at Heart in that sense. Both of their unpredictable natures put you on edge within seconds. Needless to say, Drexl doesn’t take Clarence’s visit too well and a gunfight ensues.
Like Alabama, Clarence is fuelled by passion and returns the victor, having shot Drexl in the dick and then in the head. Several times. He’s very dead. He grabs what he thinks is Alabama’s belongings in a suitcase and returns home to his wife. Alabama cries when she sees the bruises on his face and when she hears that Drexl is dead, but it’s not because he has murdered someone or even that he could be caught and sent to prison for murdering someone. She cries because it is the most romantic thing anyone has ever done for her. Did I tell you I love her? I really do. It’s precisely the kind of messed up romantic gesture that would bring me to tears too. The couple open the suitcase but instead of clothes, they find half a million dollars worth of uncut cocaine.
Uh oh. They really have to get out of Dodge now, and so their travels begin. Clarence’s father is an ex-cop and now security guard, so the newlyweds visit him at his trailer. Clarence hasn’t seen his father for three years, but their relationship is a profoundly loving one. We don’t often see Dennis Hopper playing a fatherly role, but wow, does he do it well. His eyes show such affection for his son, despite his worry that Clarence and his new wife (that he literally just learned of) are in real danger. Being an ex-cop, you’d think he’d be outraged, shun them both or even shop them in, but no. He listens, he doesn’t ask too many questions, and he helps them out. Clifford tells Clarence that the police assume Drexl’s murder is a gang killing.
With all that coke on their hands, the couple leave for Los Angeles to find a buyer for the drugs. But the mafia is hot on their trail and show up at Clifford’s place where he is interrogated by Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken — yep, this really is the best ensemble cast ever), consigliere to a mob boss named “Blue Lou Boyle”, whom Drexl had been doing business with and who is now after the cocaine. Knowing that he will die anyway, Clifford mocks Coccotti knowing that stereotypically Sicilians are often racist scumbags by telling him that Sicilian ancestry stems from black people. Infuriated, Coccotti shoots Clifford dead. A note on the fridge leads the mobsters to Clarence’s Los Angeles address.
It is such a brilliant scene. The writing, the acting, the direction — every single thing about this makes me feel blessed to have experienced it. Walken reportedly improvised it all, though he had played it out in his head several times. But it’s Hopper that steals the scene for me. Clifford asks for a cigarette like it’s his last meal and is calm during his last minutes of life. Like Alabama, Clifford would give his life to protect Clarence. He will not give up his son’s whereabouts, and he will not go down without a fight, even if words are his only weapon. Clifford may not come out of that scene alive, yet it feels like his victory.
True Romance is all about love; the clue is in the title, I guess, but it’s not just the love between Alabama and Clarence. The love between Clarence and his father is so subtly and expertly played out by Dennis Hopper and Christian Slater in their brief screen time together. Yes, there is understandable resentment, but these two men have a bond, and the ties are there until death.
There is love between Clarence and Dick Ritchie (Michael Rapaport). Clarence can call upon his old friend in his hour of need for help to get out of a situation and fast. Dick is an aspiring actor and knows some people in the Hollywood scene, so he helps Clarence set up a deal to pass on the cocaine to a film producer at a much-reduced price than it’s worth. The lovebirds just want enough money to make a getaway to Cancun.
The rest of the film is a game of cat and mouse as Alabama and Clarence are hunted by the mob, with some truly horrible results. Floyd (Brad Pitt looking his most beautiful), Dicks constantly stoned friend, inadvertently gives away the address to the motel they’re staying at to Virgil (James Gandolfini), one of the mob and a particularly nasty character at that.
This whole time, no matter how chaotic things are happening around them, Clarence and Alabama cannot keep their hands off each other. They always hold hands, are more interested in kissing than talking through the drug deal, and have sex in a phonebooth while Dick is still pretty much on the end of the line. It’s not all in your face though; this is happening in the background of the scenes, their intense lust for each other playing the lead role, tying it all together (in no small part thanks to some excellent soundtrack and incidental music choices from Hanz Zimmer) — even when Alabama and Clarence are apart.
Virgil is lying in wait for Alabama when she returns to the motel, and it is here that we witness just how strong her love and desire to live is. She tries a few ways to get around him, but Virgil is truly a monster. He enjoys killing and he won’t be drawn in by her somewhat childlike flirtatiousness. She has to change her game. She’s not the sweet, naive little girl anymore; she is a warrior. Alabama survives the most brutal beating fuelled by passion, taking on Clarence’s attitude to this whole situation so far, with no fear, just rage.
Just when you think she can’t possibly take any more, she stabs him through the foot with a corkscrew, sets fire to him using a spray can, finally ending his life by blasting him with his shotgun. The shot of her lying on the floor surrounded by little packets of sugar feels like a metaphor for cocaine. If they’d just left that alone they’d be ok. But the coke doesn’t matter, and the money doesn’t matter; they are small and insignificant compared to the magnitude of their love.
Still pressing for the drug deal to go ahead, Clarence arranges to meet Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek) as arranged by his cowardly assistant Eliott Blitzer (Bronson Pinchot). Eliott is stopped by the police for speeding, hilariously making matters much worse for himself when the tester bag of cocaine explodes over his face in front of the cop. Eliott buys his freedom by agreeing to go undercover on the drug deal.
The end showdown is so Tarantino it hurts. He always writes the most violent scenes with brilliantly dark humour — except for when it comes to violence against women, which may seem gratuitous to some, but almost always, the woman emerges victorious. The drug deal is going smoothly, it seems. Clarence has buttered up Lee convincingly, well actually, I think he truly did love his Vietnam film, “Coming Home in a Body Bag”, it sounds great, doesn’t it?! The transfer of drugs and money takes place, with Clarence leaving Alabama to count the cash while he goes to the bathroom. Elvis appears to reassure him it’s all going well, which it was until Eliott lets it slip that he’s wearing a wire.
Chaos ensues as the cops ambush the hotel room. They and Lee’s muscle get into a gun battle, joined shortly afterwards by the mob. It’s like the News Anchor Team fight-offs in Anchorman but with a lot more death. In fact, the only people to get out of the massacre alive are Dick, who throws the suitcase of cocaine in the air which gets blown to pieces by bullets, then makes his escape. The cocaine showers down like snow over an already white scene of feathers from the shot up sofas — the serenity of the white heralds the end of the gun battle. Silence falls; the only sound heard is the wailing of Alabama as she holds Clarence in her arms. He was caught in the crossfire, shot in the eye.
In the original script, Clarence died at the scene. The alternate ending exists; I watched it a few days ago and cried my heart out. Alabama leaves the scene alone with the suitcase of money, drives away in the purple Cadillac, telling herself in her head that it was his fault, trying so hard not to be heartbroken. It’s absolutely heart-wrenching, and I am so glad that Tony Scott decided he couldn’t allow it to end this way.
Alabama and Clarence walk away from the scene — which is now a mafia/cop shootout with hostages and all sorts — without being noticed. They have the money. They won the war. The white of the end of the battle also signifies that the darkness was beaten. All the bad guys lost — the mob, the dodgy cops and the crooked Hollywood set. Clarence and Alabama may have been no angels, but they didn’t intend for any of this to happen. Their love was more powerful than these three massive corporations combined and they knew it from the moment they met. The final scene shows Alabama smiling, lying on a beach, watching Clarence and their son playing in the ocean. Isn’t that the most beautiful thing? True love wins.
“Amid the chaos of that day, when all I could hear was the thunder of gunshots, and all I could smell was the violence in the air, I look back and am amazed that my thoughts were so clear and true, that three words went through my mind endlessly, repeating themselves like a broken record: you’re so cool, you’re so cool, you’re so cool. And sometimes Clarence asks me what I would have done if he had died, if that bullet had been two inches more to the left. To this, I always smile, as if I’m not going to satisfy him with a response. But I always do. I tell him of how I would want to die, but that the anguish and the want of death would fade like the stars at dawn, and that things would be much as they are now. Perhaps. Except maybe I wouldn’t have named our son Elvis.” — Alabama Worley
The greatest love stories are about lovers who have to fight to be together, who will never give up on each other no matter hard it is, how much chaos is happening around them — like Clarence and Alabama in True Romance. The lovers who have to wait for what feels like forever to be united but have a fire in their hearts will never burn out — like Sailor and Lula in Wild at Heart. The lovers that are kept apart out of loyalty to other people but hold on to the hope of one day being with their true love, even if it takes fifty years — like Ed and Norma in Twin Peaks. One thing I know for certain is that love like that is worth waiting and fighting for. It’s so cool.