Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Instead of looking to the multiplex for inspiration, we honor James Gandolfini by singling out our favorite of the late actor’s performances.
True Romance (1993)
In Tony Scott’s True Romance, there’s a brief exchange between a gregarious hitman searching for a newly married couple and the stoner roommate of their Los Angeles friend. It’s a moment that, even in 1993, the year between Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, was unmistakable as the work of screenwriter Quentin Tarantino—tangential to the plot, bordering on indulgence, but rich in texture and nuance. It also turned the spotlight away from True Romance’s ostensible stars, Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette, and shone it on two little-known actors named James Gandolfini and Brad Pitt.
Pitt nails the passive-aggressive lassitude of the habitual stoner, but Gandolfini has the trickier part. He has to be friendly enough to slip past Pitt’s weed-dulled defenses, but he can’t reveal his undercurrent of menace, established in an earlier scene where he lurks silently behind Dennis Hopper’s back as he’s interrogated by Christopher Walken’s gangster, then abruptly slides a knife across Hopper’s palm. Most actors would feel compelled to telegraph the character’s nastiness, but Gandolfini lets it recede, lets his merciless killer become charismatic for an instant.
That tension pays off when Arquette returns to the motel where she and Slater have holed up with a suitcase full of stolen cocaine and finds Gandolfini waiting for her, patiently sitting with a shotgun across his lap. She barely flinches, and he plays it cool as well, but when she plays dumb, he socks her in the jaw, the prelude to a brutal and unforgettable battle to the death. The fight is difficult to watch, and it’s meant to be. Even as his younger and slimmer self, Gandolfini is an imposing physical presence, and he literally doesn’t pull his punches, blasting Arquette as if she’s anywhere near his weight class. Blood flows freely, clotting in Arquette’s hair and soaking through her flimsy outfit. It’s ugly, and for a moment in a film that’s mostly pitched as fantasy, the violence feels real. Much of that has to do with Scott’s atypically sedate direction, which avoids the glossy, fragmented excess of his later films. But it’s also due to Gandolfini, who handles the switch from seductive menace to animal rage with the seamless grace most viewers would come to expect from him much later.
Availability: Several DVD and Blu-ray releases (including a “Director’s Cut”), rental and purchase from the major digital providers, and disc delivery from Netflix.