This 'Romance,' brilliant and violent, ultimately fails to ring true

September 10, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Whatever "True Romance" lacks in artistic refinement or high intellectual and moral purpose, it has this one undeniable virtue: never a dull moment.

A blazingly violent bad-boy story from the hyperfervid id of the same Quentin Tarantino who wrote and directed "Reservoir Dogs," "True Romance" is "It's a Wonderful Life" for the '90s, except that the wonders of life include guns, drugs, gaudy convertibles, great sex, and this time the hero is named Clarence, not the angel. The angel is named Elvis. Are we talking sentimental or what?

The true romance in it is screenwriter Tarantino's for movie violence and style. It's a melody in the key of BLAM! that represents an adolescent's yearning fascination with the power of the gun and the power of having a blond on your arm. Sex and death are its entwined strands of DNA and, like "Reservoir Dogs," it wears this tin-pot nihilism like the badge of honor. And somehow, it's red, white and true-blue American: red blood, white trash and blue dialogue.

But it's not as good as "Reservoir Dogs," which had the core strength of being about professionals in a hard and violent trade and was as unsentimental as a spent cartridge case. This one -- which, admittedly, Tarantino wrote before "Reservoir Dogs" -- follows the far less rewarding theme of the lucky amateur, as a dreamer finds himself in the middle of hardball drug-dealing culture. His magic talisman: not a Kevlar Threat II ballistic vest, but . . . true love.

Our hero is Christian Slater, as Clarence Worley, a dreamy, movie-mad clerk in a comic book store who, one dreary Detroit evening, sits in an all-night theater watching three Sonny Chiba flicks (if you don't know who Sonny Chiba is, the movie's $H probably not for you). Who should sit next to him, and start yapping cheerfully about nothing at all but that fabled creature: the girl of his dreams (Patricia Arquette).

She's blond, pert, sexy, funny, wild and . . . she really likes him. What has to happen does happen and only the next morning does he learn she's named Alabama Whitman and is by trade a prostitute, paid for by his kindhearted employer as a birthday present. But -- here's the fairy tale part -- she falls in love with him and wants to leave her pimp.

Clarence has seen all the great John Woo films, just as has Tarantino, so the next step is straight from the Woo canon: it's a bogusly sentimental expression of love through the medium of ultra-violence. He goes to see her pimp -- Gary Oldman, sporting the best Jamaican posse dreads ever seen on a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts -- and exchanges harsh words, blows and ultimately bursts of gunfire. He flees with what he thinks is a suitcase full of her clothes, which turns out to contain $500,000 worth of mob cocaine.

Here's where "True Romance" fumbles. Each character is terrific -- tough, vivid, comprehensible, brilliantly acted -- except for Clarence. Where does this lad who's heretofore been depicted as a sweet, nearly dysfunctional clerk suddenly come up with the nerves and technical skills of a world-class hard boy? Throughout the film, in fact, Slater is enhanced with such brilliant tactical abilities that he could have learned only from a graduate level course at an advanced gladiatorial school -- that is, a maximum security penitentiary. Tarantino's conceit is dreary and unconvincing: Elvis (Val Kilmer) appears at key moments to walk him through reality. All the other behavior seems solidly rooted in character; Slater's Clarence is a dreamy writer's dreamiest conceit, the poet-killer.

In fact, the movie's best scenes transpire when he's not around. Two are so good they almost blow the picture away. In one scene that recalls John Belushi and Peter Boyle's legendary dueling Brandos from an early edition of "Saturday Night Live," Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken have a searing encounter in a trailer, as Walken is the chief gangster in pursuit of Clarence, Alabama and the coke and Hopper is Clarence's dad. Then there's a fight in an L.A. motel room between Alabama and one of Walken's more brutish thugs that's a terrifying ordeal of the physical: tense, violent, brilliant, breathtaking, but more important the perfect expression of her character. Underneath that beautiful body, we've always known there's a hard cracker farm girl tough as nails.

But for every stroke of brilliance there's a stroke of wanton stupidity. The largest: The movie has no moral compass whatsoever. The $500,000 worth of nose candy is never remotely considered from the standpoint of the woe it will unleash upon the world, but merely as the source of some fast money for the two lovebirds, as they head out to L.A. to sell it to "movie people." The portrayal of movie culture -- Bronson Pinchot and Saul Rubinek as, respectively, a venal actor and a sleazy producer -- is juvenile but amusing. And Chris Penn and Tom Sizemore are good as two L.A. narcs who stumble to the brewing deal and decide to take it down.

What isn't amusing is the ending, again almost lifted scene by scene from more of Woo -- you might say this movie is from its master's Woo untimely ripped! It involves a mega four-sided shootout in a posh Beverly Hills hotel. Here, Tarantino, amplified by too-slick director Tony "Top Gun" Scott, somehow subtly and unfortunately changes the tone and value of the violence: it suddenly becomes Hong Kong gangster violence, cheesy and fantastic, leaving literally hundreds of bodies strewn about. The bigger it gets, the more meaningless it becomes, which could be said about "True Romance."

"True Romance"

Starring Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette

Directed by Tony Scott

Released by Morgan Creek

Rated R

** 1/2

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