There's a lot of Travis Bickle in Clarence Worley, and there's a lot of Taxi Driver in True Romance.
Clarence and Travis are both lonely guys. Misfits. Taxi Driver's Travis is an insomniac who frequents Times Square porno palaces late at night, in part because they're the only movie theaters open when he's not on duty behind the wheel of his cab. Clarence is a comic-book store clerk with a weakness for kung-fu flicks and Elvis musicals. He fantasizes about being more like the King, whose spirit visits the unpopular young man from time to time a la Bogey's ghost in Play it Again, Sam.
Clarence tries to woo a woman he meets in a bar by offering to take her out to a movie. The problem is, he wants to see a chop-sockey triple feature -- Street Fighter, Return of the Street Fighter, and Sister Street Fighter. It's not as big a miscalculation as Travis's escorting Betsy to a porno flick on their first date, but the prospect of sitting through three Sonny Chiba films does not exactly endear Clarence to the woman.
Travis, a nobody who feels like a somebody with a gun in his hand, goes on a bloody rampage that begins with the shooting of a pimp and ends with the object of his affection (the previously unattainable ice maiden, Betsy) seeing him as a hero. Clarence ultimately shoots a pimp and wins his new gal Alabama's approval, not to mention her freedom -- she's a call girl who meets Clarence on a tryst paid for by his boss. They fall in love and marry impulsively and immediately.
"When it comes to relationships, I'm 100 percent monogamous," she assures him. After all, she's only been a hooker for four days and Clarence is just her third customer. The groundwork is set for the murder of Alabama's keeper, Drexl. Meanwhile Clarence, acting on the advice of Elvis's ghost, has decided to pay Drexl a little visit. The pimp is less than thrilled with the newlywed's early-retirement plan, however, and gets downright inhospitable. But Clarence is packing a gun, and soon Detroit has one less man of leisure to worry about.
"I killed him," Clarence nonchalantly confides while eating a hamburger he picked up on the way home from the slaying. He's a little worried about how Alabama will take the news.
"I think what you did was so romantic," she coos.
Clearly, this is not going to be a popular movie with gun-control advocates.
There are a few important distinctions between Taxi Driver and True Romance. Of course there's the obvious differences in tone: Scorsese's movie is grim and brooding while this new one is glib, lighter, and Hollywood slick. Travis's shooting of Sport, the oily procurer, occurs late in the earlier film, after his character's feelings of outrage and alienation have been fleshed out so brilliantly by writer Paul Schrader, director Martin Scorsese, and actor Robert De Niro that you want to grab a piece and blow away a few of Sport's slimy cohorts yourself. Clarence's wasting of the dreadlocked Drexl occurs a few short minutes into the latter picture and reveals little about the meek salesclerk's character. Does he do it for love? Honor? Revenge? Self-preservation? The only thing screenwriter Quentin Tarantino, director Tony Scott, and actor Christian Slater make abundantly clear is that once he pulls the trigger, Clarence is no longer a nerd. It's as if capping a pimp is an acceptable rite of passage into manhood. Wanna get laid? Shoot a bad guy.
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Before he met Alabama, Clarence had spent the last four years of his life reading comic books, listening to music, and watching movies. He murders a man and suddenly his life kicks into high gear. He's so blase about it, and the transformation from nebbish to knighthood so matter-of-fact that for a while there it almost seems that Clarence's conversion is a put-on, a warning about the potential desensitization that can result from viewing too much bloodshed. Almost. But by the end of the film when Clarence's girl has reassured him for the umpteenth time how cool he has become, it is clear that far from condemning screen violence, Tarantino is sanctioning, even reveling in it.
But, damn, the man can write. As anyone who saw Reservoir Dogs can attest, Tarantino has a great ear for dialogue. And no one does a better job of getting all of the guns into one room than Tarantino. This is a man who's seen his share of Westerns; he has a special gift for setting up the tense standoff and the blazing shootout. True Romance boasts its share of clever set pieces as well, and they pack additional wallop because of the acting muscle behind them. In addition to Slater, who keeps the Nicholson mannerisms in check and does a credible job as Clarence, there's Gary Oldman as the menacing pimp, Drexl; Dennis Hopper as Clarence's estranged father; Christopher Walken as a volatile Mafioso (the confrontation between Hopper and Walken is a classic); Brad Pitt as a comically inept stoner; and Patricia Arquette as Alabama, the hooker with the heart of gold who runs off with Clarence.
It's not the most original plot in the history of cinema -- the good guys stumble into a large drug shipment and try to turn it into a windfall -- but Tarantino fuels it with just enough witty repartee and character quirks to prevent it from decelerating into just another road or caper movie. And director Scott packages carnage glossily enough to make it feel more substantive than it is.
So the film has a lot going for it -- sharp dialogue, bravura acting, sexy leads, attractive packaging, and a hip soundtrack. But the bottom line still boils down to killing a few people, selling some dope, and living happily ever after. Apparently, in 1993, that's what passes for True Romance.