A new year lies ahead, and while there’s plenty coming down the pike (Babylon, A Man Called Otto, Corsage, The Whale, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On), we like to start things with a bang around here, so let’s look back on a classic widely ignored on release thirty years ago; it’s still got less than 60 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes over three decades later. The late, great Tony Scott was something of a cinematic powerhouse as producer and director; a note on his Wikipedia page says that after The Hunger, he stopped reading the vitriolic critical reviews his films inspired and that’s probably a good thing. Of course, most of these critics are long gone now, but Scott’s canon endures; hits like Top Gun, Crimson Tide and Enemy of the State are all better than average blockbusters, but his other works are remarkable in their consistency; Revenge, The Last Boy Scout, Man on Fire or Unstoppable would be highlights in any director’s resume, whether they appeased the public or not.
Scott’s best film was a flop; 1993’s True Romance gave Scott a super-hot script by the then-embryonic Quentin Tarantino, clearly writing on spec, and Scott did it proud by teasing out a relatable and romantic heart amongst the carnage. Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette are ideal as Clarence and Alabama, young newly-weds who scram from snowy Detroit to sunny LA after he romantically murders her pimp Drexl (Gary Oldman exploring new degrees of mad under all kinds dreadlocks and prosthetics). A Hans Zimmer score, artfully reflecting the similarly themed Badlands, is the ideal accompaniment.
All kinds of talent are shown to their best advantage here, from Bronson Pinochet’s coke-addled flunky to Brad Pitt’s avuncular stoner Floyd, Val Kilmer as the ghost of Elvis and James Gandolfini’s memorable thug. Scott creates the requisite tension, but also creates vibrant, dangerous worlds for his characters to inhabit. And at the centre of the story is one of cinema’s greatest scenes; a confrontation between Clarence’s cop father Clifford (Dennis Hopper) and sly mobster Cocotti (Christopher Walken). Two experienced actors working with some great, non-PC dialogue; Scott gets the best out of both as Cocotti’s threats raise Clifford’s awareness of his predicament and his own imminent mortality.
From the moment Clifford accepts his last cigarette, the dynamics of the scene change and it becomes a meditation on one man’s unlikely defiance in the face of death. Ridley Scott has given interviews regarding the family history of cancer which throw some light on his brother’s suicide; Scott’s elegiac handling of True Romance’s highpoint throws further illumination. Unfairly derided as a man who placed style over content, Tony Scott was always in the deep end while most directors were just splashing in the shallows, and the perenially absorbing kinetic character collisions of True Romance are worth savouring and offer a sobering yet ideal way to start this or any year.