It is hard to say what is more dispiriting about "True Romance," the movie itself or the fact that someone somewhere is sure to applaud its hollow, dime-store nihilism and smug pseudo-hip posturing as a bright new day in American cinema.
In truth this latest example of Hollywood's growing fascination with Bad Boy Chic (the kind of films where the men are violence-prone misfits and the women gasp and coo) has all the originality of a paper cup. A derivative dead end that pushes familiar genre themes way past absurdity, "True Romance" is anything but truthful and not even remotely romantic.
Starring Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette as lowlifes in jeopardy and in love, "True Romance" (citywide) also features cameos by Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, Brad Pitt and Chris Penn, actors with a gleeful affinity for sadistic beatings, sullen gunplay and other over-the-edge antics.
The light for all these moths is screenwriter Quentin Tarantino, the poet laureate of Bad Boy Chic, whose brassy debut as a writer-director, "Reservoir Dogs," brought so much spirited energy and enthusiasm to its blood-soaked violence that casually dismissing it couldn't be done.
Tarantino, however, is not the director here. Tony Scott is, and one of the few things "True Romance" (rated R for strong violence and language and for sexuality and drug use) does well is provide a strong argument for writers being put in charge of their own material.
A celebrated director of commercials, Scott has had major box-office successes ("Top Gun" and "Beverly Hills Cop II") as well as embarrassments ("The Hunger" and "Days of Thunder"), but a sensitivity to the written word and a grace with actors have never been his trademarks. "Romance's" clumsy treatment of Tarantino's idiosyncratic lines will be obvious to anyone who has seen "Reservoir Dogs," and its considerable violence feels piled on and excessive in a way that picture managed to avoid.
In fairness, though, "Romance," apparently the first thing Tarantino ever wrote and sold, is not the most compelling of narratives. With its erratic plot turns and showoff sequences, it has the feeling of a "Hey, notice me" spec script, written to impress anyone who read it with how clever its creator is. And its inclusion of sappy plot twists better suited to "Free Willy" does not speak well for its thematic integrity.
Clarence Worley (Slater), mild-mannered comic-book store employee and major fan of Asian fighting hero Sonny Chiba, is first glimpsed at a bar, trying to pick up an understandably bored floozy by rhapsodizing about Elvis and his own personal "live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse" philosophy.
Hanging out at his favorite action theater, Clarence makes a connection with Alabama Whitman (Arquette), a bimbo with a heart of gold who keeps falling out of her fluorescent clothes and has a weakness for fake leopard-skin outfits.
Though no signs of it are visible on screen, Clarence and Alabama immediately develop such a passion for each other that his and hers tattoos can't be avoided. Next, after some business with the nasty Drexl Spivey (Oldman, over the top even for him) gets taken care of, the love birds head out for California in a large purple Cadillac, determined to make their fortune and avoid the evil forces that have ended up on their trail.
In its focus on star-crossed lovers on the run, "True Romance" tries to be a kind of post-modern homage to the lonely hearts of film noir. Unfortunately, without a sense of style that extends below its trash-loving surface, its extremes of behavior are tedious and cartoonish and its attempts at wit little more than smug.
Unable to get the emotional effects it is after, "True Romance" ends up, like a defiant teen-ager, striking what it thinks are the appropriate poses and hoping nobody will notice the difference. The film also displays an almost religious veneration for on-screen violence, a blanket reverence for guns and blood as gee-whiz swell that is both childish and off-putting. Nothing is more irritating than a dumb film that thinks it's hip, and "True Romance" is this year's model.
Christian Slater: Clarence Worley
Patricia Arquette: Alabama Whitman
Dennis Hopper: Clifford Worley
Val Kilmer: Mentor
Gary Oldman: Drexl Spivey
Brad Pitt: Floyd
Christopher Walken: Vincenzo Coccotti
A Morgan Creek production, released by Warner Bros. Director Tony Scott. Producers Samuel Hadida, Steve Perry, Bill Unger. Executive producers James G. Robinson, Gary Barber, Bob and Harvey Weinstein, Stanley Margolis. Screenplay Quentin Tarantino. Cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball. Editor Michael Tronick, Christian Wagner. Costumes Susan Becker. Music Hans Zimmer. Production design Benjamin Fernandez. Art director James J. Murakami. Set decorator Thomas L. Roysden. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (strong violence and language and for sexuality and drug use).