It seems hard to recall a time when Quentin Tarantino wasn’t a ubiquitous part of the pop culture landscape, but anyone of a certain age will surely remember when his name, and his work, were relatively obscure. I’d already seen and become obsessed with Reservoir Dogs - on VHS, mind you - by the time I went off to college in the fall of 1993, so when True Romance was announced I was thrilled; but Liz, one of my very good friends, had no idea who he or it was, and her assumptions about its content based on that innocuous title were quickly dashed (okay, let’s say brutally murdered in a hail of profanity and gunfire) when I took her to see it opening weekend. I’m not sure if it subsequently became one of her favorite movies, but it certainly became one of mine, and established Tarantino not just as a figurehead in '90s cinema but a creative force who would continue to inspire and excite me for more than 25 years.
Please forgive the slightly more personal tone of this essay; I’m getting married in just over a week, and for some (perhaps obvious) reason revisiting this unconventional and yet perfect love story more or less concurrently with that event is inspiring an unexpectedly specific trip down memory lane. But what’s remarkable is how the film has seemed to evolve over the course of the past 25 years as its action and dialogue and film references have somewhat receded, while its emotional resonance and its humanity has only intensified. Meanwhile, it still boasts one of the greatest casts ever assembled, and features a scene that I for a long time considered the best I’d ever seen - that is, until I watched the opening of Inglorious Basterds 16 years later.
But let’s get it out of the way: True Romance is exactly the kind of wish fulfillment you might expect from a first-time screenwriter raised on movies and working in a video store. Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) was the coolest nerd you’d ever seen - shaggy, gregarious and charismatic. Alabama was a prototypical hooker-with-a-heart of gold, a voluptuous, cheerful, un-jaded ball of energy with untold (but soon to be tested) reserves of street smarts and strength. Their well-intentioned plans are, I think the movie acknowledges, naïve at absolute best; each person drawn into their circle is quickly confronted with some harrowing realities (poor Dick Ritchie), while their innocence, and their love for one another, carries them through mostly unscathed. The whole story unfolds like a teenage boy’s fantasy, with a colorful cast of characters and just enough fun, sex and danger to keep things moving, and consistently interesting.
But much of that stuff means less in 2018 than it did in 1993, not the least of which because so many copycats and imitators - and the progress of a culture that appropriately and healthily does not prize male nerd gratification above all other things - followed in its estimable footsteps, to lesser effect. Characters riffing on Sonny Chiba’s Street Fighter, or The Mack, or any of a hundred other references in the film are no longer a novelty, exciting as they may remain for the folks in the audience who were then recognizing their own speech patterns showing up in movie for the first time. In fact, the stuff that really seems to connect Clarence and Alabama so inextricably is everything but that: the affinity the two of them share for grandiose romantic statements, the effortless way they complement one another as each new development in their cross-country journey unfolds, and an easygoing chemistry that anchors them to one another in the face of a rootless, uncertain existence for low-income twentysomethings.
When she writes “you’re so cool” on a napkin during their meeting with Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek) and passes it to Clarence like a mash note in the middle of class, she means it - not that he’s hot shit, existentially speaking, in comparison to an A-list Hollywood producer, his flunkies and the other folks they’ve encountered, but that he is what she thinks is cool, a kind, good-hearted person who’s true to himself, and maybe most importantly, who loves her unreservedly.
Conversely, it’s her effervescence, and resilience, that makes her so irresistible on screen, not her pin-up looks (though those metallic teal sunglasses peeking out from behind her blonde locks are admittedly pretty charming). The reason her showdown with Virgil (James Gandolfini) works so powerfully, especially now, is not because she eventually prevails, and does so in a believable way given their disproportionate sizes; it’s because her personality is written into every second of that scene, first as she initially attempts to disarm this would-be murderer with friendly charm, and then remains not only defiant as she is physically overpowered, but kind of blissfully detached from what seems like an inevitable fate. That sort of clarity - the integrity of her identity - is what makes her a true equal to Clarence, and it’s what eventually stymies even Virgil, a man who admittedly kills “just to see the expression on his victim’s face,” but who faces an individual who’s unbroken by his menace - well, maybe physically, but never emotionally.
Then of course there’s that centerpiece conversation between Vincent Coccotti (Christopher Walken) and Clarence’s father, Clifford (Dennis Hopper). The way that it languishes in the rhythms of the exchange of dialogue is by itself a marvel - there are few scenes director Tony Scott has ever handled more skillfully, and Walken and Hopper are at the top of their game. But what emerges upon multiple viewings and detached from Tarantino’s ’93-era mystique is the screenwriter and director’s incredible ability to get at the emotional substance of even a conversation that is bursting with minutiae, and especially in this case is deeply offensive. What drives the scene and makes it such a spectacular moment is, superficially, watching two great actors battling one another with the live ammunition of some of the best writing they ever got, but at a deeper level, there is the irrefutable humanity of a dad who knows he’s going to die, and who has decided to provoke his opponent into killing him so that (1) he won’t betray his son’s whereabouts, and (2) will hopefully go quickly if he pisses the guy with the gun off enough.
This is true of so many moments in the film, from Clarence and Alabama’s “first date” conversation over coffee and pie, to Dick’s bittersweet little moment after learning he’d gotten a bit part on “T.J. Hooker” where he pauses to contemplate whether he should accompany his friend to a drug deal that was almost certainly about to go wrong. In 25 years, what has aged the least well are its “Tarantinoisms,” while the stuff that has endured is what the writer and director does best - create distinctive and memorable characters, then make us care about them. True Romance may have helped make Tarantino a phenomenon, but its real legacy is teaching us what Tarantino the storyteller thinks it truly means to be cool - to be a kind, good-hearted person who’s true to yourself, and who loves unreservedly. And on the eve of my wedding, it’s a lesson I’m happy to be reminded of.