True Romance (DVD)
Quentin Tarantino's dominance of '90s cinema captured the imagination of young, pop-savvy movie lovers, many of whom had never seen big-screen characters talk so cool and act so mean. But by the time his five-year run of success gave way to an extended hiatus, a glut of seedy, tongue-in-cheek crime pictures dulled the novelty. As the new breed of cineastes dug further into the director's influences, many wondered if Tarantino was nothing more than a skilled rip-off artist, dispensing cheap sensation with the shallow hookiness of a TV theme song. This year, almost simultaneously, Tarantino's three films as a writer-director (1992's Reservoir Dogs, 1994's Pulp Fiction, and 1997's Jackie Brown) have all received overdue DVD special-edition treatments, and with the dust of the Tarantino explosion long settled, the movies haven't lost any of their power. The roller-coaster plotting is still thrilling, the dialogue retains its crunch and flavor, and the thematic collision of underworld voyeurism and suburban mundanity still has poignancy. The "apocryphal" Tarantino film (he wrote it, but Tony Scott directed it), True Romance has also received the two-disc treatment, and though it doesn't deserve the reverence due its brethren, the movie's failings actually say a lot about the others' high quality. On one level, True Romance is as witty and gut-wrenching as any Tarantino-directed feature. Christian Slater plays a comic-store clerk who falls in love with novice prostitute Patricia Arquette, then flees to Hollywood after killing her pimp (played by a scintillating, sinister Gary Oldman) and stealing a suitcase full of cocaine. The pulpy plot provides an excuse for digressive character moments, as Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, Brad Pitt, Michael Rapaport, James Gandolfini, Tom Sizemore, Chris Penn, Bronson Pinchot, and Saul Rubinek all pop up as cops, crooks, and movie-industry players. But style-wise, True Romance fails everywhere that Reservoir Dogs and its successors succeed. Scott uses generic hard rock on the soundtrack instead of charming old pop and soul, he uses filtered light rather than Tarantino's flat naturalism, and he cuts with an almost random quickness, rather than letting the long dialogue scenes play out in the extended takes and precise tracking shots that are Tarantino's underappreciated signature. The Tony Scott version of Tarantino comes out vulgar; the graphic violence and profanity-laced posturing represent everything that the wannabes soon used to exhaust audiences. Nevertheless, True Romance contains so many unforgettable momentsWalken interrogating Hopper, Pitt cradling his honey-bear bong, Slater and Pinchot making a drug deal on a roller coasterthat the affection shown the film in the DVD cast interviews rings true. The most redemptive scene arrives late, when Slater and Arquette cuddle in a junkyard near an airport, watching the planes and talking about making a little money and seeing the world, a seemingly impossible dream for a couple of "minimum-wage kids." There's a meaningful similarity between the heroes' situation and that of former video-store clerk Tarantino. Even though it's clumsy, and even though Tarantino didn't direct it, True Romance may be his most personal film.