It’s less than five minutes into “True Romance” when, depending on your perspective, Patricia Arquette either salutes or slams the Motor City with a backhanded compliment for the ages: “If you gave me a million years to ponder,” she says, in voiceover and in character as a Florida native transplanted to the Midwest, “I would never have guessed that true romance and Detroit would ever go together.”
That line has stood the test of time, and so has “True Romance.” The crime caper fairy tale, released 30 years ago this month, features a legendary ensemble cast, a crackling screenplay from a young Quentin Tarantino and stylish direction from Hollywood veteran Tony Scott (“Top Gun”), who brought a slick edge to the production.
It follows Clarence (Christian Slater), an Elvis-obsessed loner in Detroit, and Alabama (Patricia Arquette), a call girl hired to bump into him at the movies, and their sudden whirlwind love affair. It’s a tale of pimps, gangsters, hopes, dreams, and a suitcase full of uncut cocaine, all scored to Hans Zimmer’s gorgeous soundtrack, which sounds like an island sunset in a tropical paradise.
“True Romance” was not a hit when it was released; it opened at No. 3 its first weekend, below “The Fugitive” (in its sixth weekend) and the Dennis Quaid-Kathleen Turner comedy “Undercover Blues,” on its way to an uneventful $12.2 million gross. But it found its audience on home video and was eventually hailed as a classic, and is now seen as emblematic of early ‘90s cool, a time when movies embraced tough talking characters, swaggering antiheroes and loads of ultraviolence.
Its cast remains one for the ages, its collection of young and seasoned talent even more impressive as time ticks on. On the occasion of the film’s 30th anniversary, here’s a look at “True Romance’s” 10 best performances.
Honorable mentions: Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Penn, Michael Rapaport, Bronson Pinchot
In a crowded cast, these four are simply squeezed to the edges, but each turn in memorable work. Samuel L. Jackson, a year away from his “Pulp Fiction” breakthrough (his 1993 also included appearances in “Menace II Society” and “Jurassic Park”), just isn’t around long enough to be tallied, and Chris Penn cedes his spotlight to his louder, more boisterous scene partner, Tom Sizemore. Rapaport is a hoot as Dick Ritchie, an optimistic young actor looking for his big break, and is one of the few characters who gets to leave the film unscathed. Pinchot, meanwhile, does a 180 turn from his role as Balki on the ABC sitcom “Perfect Strangers,” which had just wrapped its eight season run at the time, as sleazy low-level actor Elliot Blitzer, who acts as a conduit for the movie’s big drug deal and turns informant on his boss the second things go awry.
10. Saul Rubinek
The Canadian actor goes big as scumbag producer Lee Donowitz, who is said to be based on Joel Silver, with whom director Scott famously butted heads on 1991’s “The Last Boy Scout.” Rubinek doesn’t hold back, and in a cast full of scene chewers, he manages to gobble several scenes all by himself, practically foaming at the mouth when registering the betrayal of Pinchot’s character in the movie’s climactic scene. His performance is an inside Hollywood joke that reverberates outward.
9. Tom Sizemore
As a detective working Blitzer’s case, Sizemore is pure, rabid intensity, a cowboy cop who wants to do the right thing but can appreciate the moxie of the so-called bad guys he’s up against. By this point in his career, Sizemore — who died this year at age 61 — had already racked up a string of character parts in films such as “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Blue Steel” and “Point Break.” But his breakout here identified him as a wild-eyed ‘90s archetype, a role he’d go on to solidify for the remainder of the decade.
8. Val Kilmer
Kilmer is never clearly seen in “True Romance,” but he’s felt, playing Elvis as Clarence’s conscience, both the angel and the devil on his shoulder. (In the credits, he’s referred to as Mentor.) Kilmer was rock star huge at the time — he’d played Jim Morrison in “The Doors” two years earlier, and “Tombstone” would be released a few months later — but the air of mystery he brought to the role only added to his, and the film’s, mystique.
7. James Gandolfini
He was still six years from debuting as Tony Soprano, but Gandolfini — who also had an uncredited role in “The Last Boy Scout” — earned his first significant screen time in “True Romance,” playing Virgil, a vicious mobster who gets in a bloody brawl with Arquette’s character in a trashy motel room. It’s a violent, stomach-churning sequence, prefaced by Virgil’s coldhearted soliloquy on the monotony of murder, and Gandolfini makes poetry of everything in front of him. Also, look closely in the background of the scene between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken and you’ll see Gandolfini looking on, quietly studying the two masters.
6. Brad Pitt
He was a known entity at the time but he had yet to become Hollywood royalty, which is how Brad Pitt was able to show up for a few short scenes as Dick Ritchie’s stoner roommate, Floyd, goateed and looking like he wandered in off the set of “Dazed and Confused” (which would be released in theaters two weeks later). Floyd mostly lays on the couch, watching TV and ripping bong tokes, though his clueless affability (he gives the bad guys directions to where the good guys are holed up more than once) should not be mistaken for passivity: “con-des-cend me, man,” he says after Virgil brushes off an invite to watch TV with him, “I’ll f—ing kill you, man.” And then he goes right back to smoking on the couch.
5. Gary Oldman
He’d already played Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald and Dracula, but nothing could prepare viewers for Oldman as Drexl Spivey, a dreadlocked, cloudy-eyed pimp with facial scars who wears leopard print robes and talks like he’s in “The Mack.” “They got everything here from a diddled-eyed joe to damned if I know,” says the classically trained British thespian, chowing on Chinese takeout and fully embracing the menacing, loose cannon energy of the role.
4. Christopher Walken
Walken has just one scene in “True Romance,” but it’s one for the books, as he goes toe-to-toe with Dennis Hopper as the two discuss, well, ancestry. Walken plays a mobster who refers to himself as “the Antichrist,” and while he’s a vicious, unblinking killer, he’s not above offering a Chesterfield cigarette to the man he’s about to mercilessly torture. Walken’s job in the scene is mostly reacting to Hopper’s character’s monologue, as he’s offered a lesson in the Sicilian bloodline which employs no shortage of offensive language. Walken, at this point already an Oscar winner for “The Deer Hunter,” absorbs, registers and reacts to his scene partner, and it’s a delight watching the two screen legends match wits and dance with one another. After that, he’s gone — Walken had another scene that was left on the cutting room floor —but his presence hangs like a cloud over the rest of the movie.
3. Dennis Hopper
Hopper had been up and down and to hell and back by the time he hit the screen in “True Romance,” and his role as Clarence’s sweet, semi-estranged father kicked off yet another comeback for the screen icon. (He’d be in both “Speed” and John Dahl’s “Red Rock West” the following year.) We’re not told much about his character but we learn he’s an ex-cop and an alcoholic whom Clarence calls on in his time of need, and Hopper gives him an understated resonance, warmth and intellect that allows his character to feel fully formed in the course of just a few scenes. It says a lot that in his five decade career which spanned more than 150 films, “True Romance” ranks among his finest work.
2. Patricia Arquette
Let’s face it: “True Romance” is a male fantasy, and it’s an incredibly dude-heavy film. (You can count the female speaking roles on one hand and still have fingers to spare.) Within that structure, Arquette steps up and knocks her role out of the park, playing a hooker with a heart of gold and eyes only for her Clarence. She’s a blonde bombshell in the classic mold, a Playboy bunny teenage dream, but with enough grit and guts to go round for round with James Gandolfini in a knock-down, drag-out battle to the death. She embodies the fairy tale aspect of the character, but Arquette’s bold, brash portrayal is why she lives on, and why women dress up as Alabama for Halloween to this day.
1. Christian Slater
“Heathers” and “Pump Up the Volume” solidified him as a Gen X dreamboat with a dark, outsider edge, but “True Romance” is Christian Slater’s career peak. Clarence’s code of honor is gleaned from screen heroes from James Dean to Sonny Chiba, and he talks a big enough game to charm strangers at the burger stand and high level Hollywood producers alike. He also drives a purple Cadillac and wears Elvis shades, and Slater does it all with gusto.