So here I am . . . sitting in a theatre watching Professor Q’s ninth directing effort, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, 25 years after the release of a movie that proved Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs wasn’t a fluke: Pulp Fiction, a film which served as his third film overall—and his second directorial effort.
While us Tinoheads awaited for Pulp Fiction to drop—and courtesy of Reservoir Dogs’ success—Quentin sold two of his pre-Reservoir Dogs screenplays that came to be directed by others: Tony Scott’s True Romance (based, in part, on Tarantino’s unreleased 1987 short film, My Best Friend’s Birthday), and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. Sadly, when discussing Tarantino’s oeuvre, Tony Scott’s True Romance is brushed aside in favor of Stone’s Natural Born Killers.
Is it because Tony Scott—the younger brother of Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Alien)—started his career on the “A-List” backed by producer-action guru Jerry Bruckheimer and directed Tom Cruise (Top Gun and Days of Thunder), Kevin Costner (Revenge), and Eddie Murphy (Beverly Hills Cop II) in flashy, MTV-kinetic brain freezes, while Stone’s writing and directing debut was the trashy, VHS-freak out, Seizure (1974)—featuring a balaclava-and-bondage-geared axe killer under the thumb of an ex-Bond girl adorned in Mortica Addams garb with a knife-wielding Hervé “Tattoo” Villechaize as her side kick?
Yeah, we know how it is with you Iron City-swillin’ (oh, you’re not from Pittsburgh; okay, Old Milwaukee then) snobs who troll B&S Movies: Sir Michael Caine’s hand going “Hands of Orlac” across Canada courtesy of Stan Winston’s make up work (The Hand; 1981) is “the shit” while Bruckheimer’s MTV dive-bombing F-14s is “shit”. Hey, this reviewer gets it: When given a choice, the stench of the undergroundsploitation route gets my Scooby-Doo a doin’ a cinematic shoe-scrape too.
Regardless of the then newly-formed Tinohead-contingent rejecting True Romance—because Tarantino didn’t direct it, it lacked his obscure, 45-rpm singles-romance, and was it was devoid of the characteristic, non-linear plotting of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction—the film none the less received a 1993 Saturn Award (The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Awards) nod for best screenplay.
In a June 2009 interview for Cinema Blend, Scott reflected that all six of his films with Bruckheimer received bad press and, after his debut feature, The Hunger, he stopped reading his reviews. While he completed True Romance at the Tinsel Town bargain-basement price of 13 million dollars, which one would think would ensure a guaranteed box office success, the film grossed less than its production budget and is considered a box office failure. Today, critics review the film in high regard, with the British film magazine Empire ranking it at # 83 on its Top 500 list. Indie Wire lists the Tarantino-Scott collaboration as one of the essential Top 5 films of Tony Scott—in a consortium with his debut, The Hunger (1983), Crimson Tide (1993; a sub-suspenser that Tarantino script-doctored), Brad Pitt’s Spy Game (2001), and the runaway-train romp, Unstoppable (2010).
While the film noir element of Reservoir Dogs remains for the what-is-now-customary, hypnotic cocaine hit with a Red Bull chaser that is Tarantino, this time Professor Q dips into the obscure world of Cold War-era Romance comic books from the ‘50s with their soap-operatic, love-dysfunctional plots. (Remember, in addition to being a film and music freak like you and me, The Q loves comic books.)
Drawing from his life experiences as a video store clerk, Tarantino crafted a tale about an Elvis Presley-obsessed, kung-fu loving comic book store clerk, Quentin Tarantino . . . uh, I mean, Clarence Worley (Christian Slater), who “scores” with a fellow kung-fu flick lover, Alabama Whitman (Patricia Arquette).
Now wait just a dang-gum minute, Tarantino. Not in all my years of trolling vintage vinyl outlets, comic book and video stores, and their related conventions and swap meets. . . . Seriously. Call John de Lancie. This shit only happens in the Q Continuum. . . . Oh, shit . . . we just entered the hicksploitation zone: It’s another wimpy-reluctant miscreant and social malcontent not gutsy enough to run ‘shine or long-haul contraband who meets a badass Sally “Frog” Field packing a shitload of shit-storm baggage.
Yep, Zed! Cue the Gimp! We’re off on one of Tarantino’s celluloid-pastiche mind fucks layered with fast-on-their-feet characters zinging each other with pop-culture dialog twisted on multiple narrative threads. After a Violent Femmes-styled “just one fuck,” Alabama and Clarence get hitched . . . with Val Kilmer’s Elvis-apparition (The K-Man portrayed The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and progressive rock’s piped piper, Jim Morrison? You rock, Val. Batman need not apply.) convincing Clarence to murder Drexl (Gary Oldman!), Alabama’s pimp—and unknowingly steals a suitcase of cocaine. The chase is on.
As with any Tarantino film, there’s that one iconic (hell, two or more!) scenes: In Pulp Fiction: It’s Christopher Walken in “The Gold Watch” and Zed and Maynard being scamps in a pawn shop’s basement. In Reservoir Dogs: It’s Michael Madsen’s soft-shoe mutilation to an old Steelers Wheel tune . . . and in True Romance: It’s “The Sicilian Scene” with Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken.
So how does this romance between Tarantino’s “substance and style” colliding with Tony Scott’s-cum-Jerry Bruckheimer’s “style over content,” popcorn-tent pole oeuvre end? As all fine wines and champagnes do: That bottle of Dom Tony Scott aged gracefully.
Tarantino claims that after his 10th written and directed film—possibly a Star Trek sequel (Kirk MUST have a soft-core porno fling with a green-skinned alien babe)—he’s retiring. I don’t believe Quentin Tarantino will ever tranquilize the pop-culture driven, dialog synapses firing in his analog-celluloid inebriated brain. He has to tell stories. I want him to keep telling stories. We all do.
And if he does—fingers crossed—True Romance is proof that any script—starting with #11—will be in capable hands to quench our romance with Professor Q.
Oh, don’t forget: While spending the week with Quentin on this B&S Movies’ spotlight on his career, please surf over for a video store ‘80s history lesson with “The 37 Movies that Make Up Kill Bill.” It’s Sam’s—our illustrious proprietor of the video orphans you love—master thesis of Quentin’s love of the films we love. As for my own master thesis, I unpack Q with my “Exploring” feature on his Rolling Thunder reissues shingle. For Quentin is us, and we are he, and he’s is the Walrus, and we’re the pigs from the gun sitting on a cornflake waiting for his next film.
Do you more from The Slate? Oh, hell yes you do! He rules! Check out our review and a Slate career round up for his 2012 outing, Playback.
In July 2022, Arrow reissued True Romance as an 4k Ultra HD, Blu-ray and Steelbook, which we’ve spotlighted.