In his commentary track on the "True Romance" DVD, Quentin Tarantino reveals how much of himself he poured into the schlubbish Clarence character played by Christian Slater.
The Elvis-idolizing Clarence, an unkempt loner who works at a comic-book shop, is poor and unloved. He's also given to explosions of nutty diatribes on music, television, movies or comic books - which tends to drive girls away. His plight is much the same as Tarantino's own, the filmmaker explains, back when he was writing the screenplay that would one day be filmed by Tony Scott as "True Romance," one of the most dynamic action films of the 1990s.
After hearing his commentary, it's not tough to squint your eyes and see Tarantino in the place of Clarence. After all, Tarantino reveals he spent most of his 20s in poverty, sometimes working at a video store, never having had a girlfriend. He sold the "True Romance" script for a rock-bottom $50,000, to help fund his dream project, "Reservoir Dogs."
The film is essentially a glorious fulfillment fantasy, in which Clarence finds himself suddenly in love and empowered, a daring rogue rampaging through a criminal underworld he'd only experienced onscreen, on the cusp of changing a suitcase full of stolen cocaine into hundreds of thousands of dollars and the easy life.
To start such an adventure, Clarence first must meet the perfect woman, the one who will giddily throw herself into kung-fu flicks, chomp fast food straight out of the bag, maintain a voracious sexual appetite and help him take out the bad guys. As fate has it, the luscious Alabama (Patricia Arquette) stumbles into a late-night Sonny Chiba triple feature and spills popcorn all over Clarence. They strike up a conversation, and he lets her take him out for pie after the show.
The date leads to an all-night sex romp, then a whirlwind marriage, which isn't at all tripped up by Alabama's revelation that she's a call girl, and the only reason she came into that movie theater was because Clarence's boss paid her to do so as a birthday present. Unblinking, Clarence cares nothing about Alabama's past. All that matters is he's finally met his soulmate.
The improbable yet strangely disarming love story quickly melts away into a full-throttle, bullets-blazing blowout, kickstarted by Clarence's insistence that he must confront Alabama's pimp and get her clothes. Muddling over the matter of whether to take the risk, Clarence is fired up from a bathroom pep talk from Elvis (Val Kilmer), who pops up every now and then to advise and compliment the hero.
Bounding through its two-hour running time with unlimited reserves of energy, Tarantino's script twists and turns over on itself, rushing like whitewater. His dialogue is vintage crime-novel pulp, smooth and self-aware:
"If there's one thing this last week has taught me," Clarence says after getting entangled with the police, the mob and movie producers in the drug deal of a lifetime, "it's better to have a gun and not need it than to need a gun and not have it."
That's one of the film's few printable quotes. The script is jammed with enough swear words to get someone tossed out of a longshoreman's pub.
The Internet Movie Database reports that a certain four-letter swear word is used 225 times. Then there are the 21 deaths, all from gunfire.
No, this isn't a movie to show the kiddies, but it has a unique way of bringing out childlike tendencies in adults, causing them to see the film over and over for their favorite parts.
The highlights are too numerous to mention. Christopher Walken tears things up as a sadistic gangster, attempting to beat information out of Clarence's recovered alcoholic policeman father, Clifford (Dennis Hopper), followed by Clifford's button-pushing historical diatribe on why Sicilians have black hair and dark skin. Brad Pitt and Tom Sizemore pop up in small but memorable roles, and Arquette's breathy performance is drop-dead sexy. Alabama, nothing close to a helpless innocent, can turn from caring nurturer to red-eyed killer on a dime.
Alabama is nothing it all like a real woman. She's a female version of Clarence - in turn the female version of Tarantino - and it makes for some amusing armchair psychology to suspect that she represents Tarantino's overwhelming narcissism.
The adoration he has for his dialogue and characters is contagious. The movie doesn't just play. It reaches through the screen and romances you. Truly.