Renegade romance flicks
Outlaw lovers on the run: It would be hard to think of an entertainment formula with a mightier wallop. This powerhouse recipe for romantic mayhem has yielded some of the most potent Hollywood movies of the last few decades, from Bonnie and Clyde — the original film noir in blood red — to the nihilist classic Badlands to Jonathan Demme’s cathartic nitro-comedy, Something Wild. Not that the genre is without its pitfalls; in the raucously Dada Wild at Heart, director David Lynch sent his preening boy-and-girl renegades careering down the road to nowhere. Now, two new Hollywood fantasies play variations on the myth of the innocent/dangerous fugitive couple who cling to each other as they kiss off the world. The cheerfully disreputable True Romance has all the tawdry surface pleasures you want from a high-style getaway caper: fast sex, ballistic violence, a cast of flamboyant goons who talk as well as they shoot. Kalifornia, on the other hand, manages to be at once glossy and portentous — it’s a film-school thesis gone disastrously wrong.
The product of what might have been a calamitous clash of talents, True Romance was directed by Tony Scott (Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II) and written by Quentin Tarantino, the rebel independent filmmaker who galvanized art-house audiences with last year’s shockingly violent heist drama, Reservoir Dogs. Unlikely as it sounds, these two prove a neat fit. Scott hasn’t relinquished his slickness — his images are bathed in their usual smoke-and-fog glow — only now the luscious Scott surface keeps getting disrupted by flying shards of Tarantino’s wit.
The movie begins conventionally enough, as the story of two sweetly jaded punk-bohemian deadbeats who rescue each other from oblivion. Clarence (Christian Slater), an amiable loner, works in a comic-book store in Detroit, worships Elvis, and spends his off-hours sitting through kung fu triple features at the local schlock movie house. Alabama (Patricia Arquette) is a buxom sexpot and novice hooker who gets paid to make a date with Clarence (as a birthday present from his boss). The two meet, go to bed, fall in love, and get married — all within a couple of days. Then Clarence, incensed at Alabama’s flirtation with prostitution, figures he’ll save her from her fallen state by confronting her pimp. He does, talking his way into the lair of Drexl (Gary Oldman), a dreadlocked flesh peddler with a temper as ugly as his leering, snaggletoothed grin. Oldman’s kinky, I-wanna-be-black performance — he’s an English actor pretending to be an American pretending to be a homeboy — helps set the tone for the entire movie. There’s a bloody shoot-out, and Clarence escapes with half a million dollars worth of stolen cocaine, but the scene is really a lurid piece of cabaret, an excuse for Oldman’s (and Tarantino’s) brazenly profane theatrics.
As Clarence and Alabama climb into their purple Cadillac and drive to Los Angeles, where they attempt to unload the coke, the movie becomes an interlocked series of comic detours: one offbeat showdown after another. An encounter between Clarence’s ex-cop father (Dennis Hopper) and a Sicilian mobster (Christopher Walken) serves no major plot function, but the two veteran ham actors have such a grand time chewing on Tarantino’s gaudy insults that you want to applaud their operatic hostility. In L.A., we’re introduced to a gallery of mesmerizing oddballs. The wonderful supporting cast includes Saul Rubinek as a high-strung hipster producer; Michael Rapaport as Clarence’s touchingly naive actor buddy; Brad Pitt as the buddy’s stoner roommate, who seems lost in his own dazed reaction time; Bronson Pinchot as a nervous hanger-on who’s forced to wear a wire to a big drug sale; Christopher Penn and Tom Sizemore as smart but flaky cops; and Val Kilmer as — yes — the ghost of Elvis.
The movie is spattered with vicious gunplay. For a change, though, the violence is used in a dramatic, suspenseful way — to create a constant threat of violence. Clarence and Alabama have wandered into a high-stakes game, and we’re never allowed to think they’ll find a magic way out. For all that, True Romance would have been better if the two lead characters were more than glorified clichés. Attractive and likable as they are, Slater and Arquette are a touch bland; the film is more convincing putting its heroes in reckless situations than it is probing their souls. Tarantino once worked behind the counter of a Los Angeles video store, and you get the feeling that every film he saw playing on that store’s TV screen worked its way into the pop storehouse of his imagination. With True Romance, you never forget you’re watching a derivative, machine-tooled entertainment; the fun is in how the machine keeps spinning off course.
Kalifornia is also about an odyssey to the West Coast, only this one centers on two couples. Early (Brad Pitt again) is a mangy white-trash sociopath who swills beer all day long and kills people as casually as if they were bugs; he lives in a trailer with the childlike Adele (Juliette Lewis). Brian (David Duchovny) is an earnest yuppie writing a treatise on serial killers, and Carrie (Michelle Forbes) is his chic photographer girlfriend. Does it seem remotely plausible that this quartet would end up sharing a cross-country road trip? Not bloody likely. From its inception, however, Kalifornia throws dramatic sense out the window to prop up its rickety thesis: that Early and Brian — two men who wouldn’t have four words to say to each other — are brothers under the skin.
Once you get past the ludicrous premise (and the fact that the filmmakers don’t seem to understand that a hair-trigger psycho like Early is really the opposite of a serial killer), there’s nothing to experience in Kalifornia besides a mountain of ostentatious bad acting. Pitt and Lewis are straining for downscale Method seriousness, but with their strenuous Hee Haw accents, both of these gifted young actors come off as embarrassingly mannered. Pitt’s performance is straight from the look-how-many-days-I-skipped-washing-my-hair school of grunge integrity — I’m afraid we have the founder, Mickey Rourke, to blame — and two hours of Lewis’ precious waiflike stammer is enough to drive anyone crazy. As outlaw road movies go, this one stalls before it even reaches the highway.
True Romance: B+