True Romance (1993)

2018 #150
Tony Scott | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & France / English & Italian | 18

True Romance

Directed by Tony Scott from Quentin Tarantino’s first screenplay,* True Romance is pretty much everything you’d expect from an early Quentin Tarantino screenplay directed by Tony Scott. It stars Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette as a pair of Bonnie and Clyde-ish lovers, who accidentally steal a load of cocaine from her pimp and end up on the run from the mob.

At first blush, I’d say this feels much more like a Tarantino movie than a Scott one. It’s all there in the dialogue, the subject matter, the characters — it’s everything you’d expect from early QT: verbose, funny, littered with pop culture references, violent. It’s well paced, too; not exactly whip-crack fast, but also never slow or draggy. It is shot more like a Scott flick than a QT one, but only somewhat — it lacks both the slick flashiness we associate with Scott’s early work (Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II) and the grungy hyper-editing of his later stuff (Man on Fire, Domino). That said, some scenes (like one between Arquette and James Gandolfini’s underboss in a motel room, for example) are shot like Tony Scott to the nines, reiterating my opening point.

Other observations: There’s one helluva supporting cast — it’s just littered with famous names in roles that only last a scene or two. (I could list them, but that might spoil the fun.) The sweet plinky-plonky score by Hans Zimmer is so unlike either his normal stuff or this genre of movie, which is no bad thing. On its original release the film was cut by about two minutes to get an R rating, with the original cut eventually released “unrated” on home formats, sometimes labelled the “director’s cut”. All the differences are relatively short trims to do with violence (full details here). The “director’s cut” is the only one that’s ever been released on DVD or Blu-ray anywhere, thus making the distinction between “theatrical” or “director’s cut” pretty much moot at this point… or at any point in the last 20 years, frankly.

Clarence and Alabama go to the movies

It’s got a funny old trailer, too: it’s centred around a bunch of made-up numbers that have no basis in the film (“60 cops, 40 agents, 30 mobsters”), it mostly features the film’s climax, and it doesn’t once mention Quentin Tarantino — I guess “from the writer of Reservoir Dogs” wasn’t considered a selling point just the year after it came out. (Though obviously it was in the UK — just see the poster atop this review.)

Of course, nowadays it’s often regarded as “a Tarantino movie” — the copy I own is part of the Tarantino XX Blu-ray set, for instance. I wonder if that ‘divided authorship’ is why, while the film does have its fans, it’s not widely talked about as much as some of either man’s other work: it’s not wholly a Tony Scott film, but, without QT actually behind the camera, it’s not really a Tarantino one either. Personally, I’m a fan of both men’s work, so of course it was up my alley. I don’t think it’s the best from either of them, but mixing together the distinct styles of two such trend-setting iconoclasts does produce a unique blend.

4 out of 5

True Romance was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

* True Romance came out between Reservoir Dogs and Natural Born Killers, but apparently QT wrote this first, then when he failed to get funding for it he wrote NBK, then when he also failed to sell that he wrote Reservoir Dogs. Another version says True Romance and NBK started out as one huge movie, written in Tarantino’s familiar chapter-based non-chronological style, until QT and his friend Roger Avery realised just how long it was and decided to divide it in two. ^

Bullet to the Head (2012)

2015 #70
Walter Hill | 88 mins | TV | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Bullet to the HeadI had absolutely zero intention of ever watching this Sylvester Stallone vehicle (which is not to be confused with John Woo’s Bullet in the Head, of course), but then I saw a trailer on a Blu-ray and it looked like it might be funny and passable dumb-action fun. My respect to whoever edited that trailer, because neither of those elements are significant features of the full film.

Adapted from a French graphic novel (no, really — it’s called Du plomb dans la tête), the story casts Stallone as a hitman whose partner is killed by order of their employer, which is what brings him into contact with cop Kwon (the Fast & Furiouses’s Sung Kang), whose former partner was also killed by the same chap. (Actually, he was killed by Stallone; and they weren’t partners any more because the guy went corrupt, or something. My point is, the partners parallel is an angle that gets pithily highlighted in marketing and reviews, but is barely touched in the film itself.) Reluctantly teaming up, they set out to find out who’s behind it all.

At times, you get the impression that director Walter Hill (who also performed uncredited re-writes) wants this to be a noir tale: there’s a hardboiled voiceover, a story mired in corrupt officials, twists about who to trust, and so on. But these elements are only fleeting (including that voiceover), never building a consistency where you could plausibly claim it as any kind of neo-noir. Instead, it’s more of a buddy movie in the ’80s mould. There are multiple scenes of Stallone and his new chum just driving around chatting, often in a gently racist way, all of which is clearly striving for that amusing, loveable, buddy movie vibe. It doesn’t reach it — it’s not funny, or likeable, and it just feels like a shoehorned aside from the plot.

AxefightSaid plot all comes down to a final fight, Stallone vs Jason Momoa (of Game of Thrones and the Conan reboot), who’s technically the henchman but serves as the primary antagonist. In the film’s closest move to originality, they duel with fire axes. It’s a fairly worthwhile dose of combat, if you enjoy that kind of thing, but even then isn’t worth watching the whole film for.

It comes to something when your production logos gimmick is the most interesting thing about your movie, but Hill has even bluntly stated in an interview that “we’re not breaking new ground. We’re trying to be entertaining within a format that’s familiar.” Talk about setting your sights low! And, indeed, low is all they achieved.

2 out of 5

Bullet to the Head is on Film4 tomorrow at 9pm.

Alone in the Dark (2005)

2009 #69
Uwe Boll | 94 mins | TV | 18 / R

Alone in the DarkI’ve never played an Alone in the Dark game. I wanted to, when I was young and they were a widely-known cutting-edge franchise, but it was deemed too scary or adult or something like that and I wasn’t allowed. (By the time someone’s nostalgia revived the series nearly a decade later, I didn’t care.) I’ve also never seen an Uwe Boll film, though his reputation obviously precedes him. Considering the latter, having no attachment to the former is probably a benefit to assessing this — I understand that, story-wise, it bears virtually no relation — but I can’t say it helps much.

Right from the off, things don’t look good: it opens with an essay’s worth of backstory in scrolling text… which, just to rub it in, is also read out. It takes about a minute and a half. There are any number of screenwriting rules this not so much breaks as slowly and methodically grinds into sand. Some rules can be bent or broken to good effect if the writer knows what they’re doing, but others exist for damn fine reasons and breaking them just results in a lesser film. This is unquestionably the latter. There’s an almost-excuse: the text was added after test audiences said they didn’t understand the plot. But it’s not much of one. The relevant information is all revealed later in the film too, and neither manage to explain what the hell is going on. It’s not the audience’s fault they couldn’t understand the plot, it just doesn’t make sense.

Quickly, the poor quality opening is cemented with the addition of a dire voiceover narration from Christian Slater’s lead character. He addresses the audience in a chatty style that’s both irritating and incongruous, and primarily exists to continuously dump more useless info. That it disappears without a trace fairly early on is a relief, but proves how pointless and cheap it was in the first place.

And then there’s an action sequence, which defies logic in every respect. The editing mucks up continuity, the good guys turn into a dead-end marketplace for no reason — other than it provides a handily enclosed location for the ensuing fist fight — the bad guy rams cars, scales buildings and jumps through windows, also for no reason, and the fight seems to consist of a punch followed by some slow motion standing around (yes, it’s the standing around that’s in slow motion) repeated too often, interspersed with the occasional ‘cool’ move or shot. On the bright side, there’s one sub-Matrix, Wanted-esque shot of a bullet-time close-up as Carnby fires at the bad guy through a block of ice, which in itself is passably entertaining. You’ll note, of course, that that’s one good shot. One. Shot.

I could go through every scene in the film describing what’s wrong in this way, but no one wants to suffer that. Suffice to say it only gets worse — none of the initial flaws improve, but are compounded by more weak performances (Tara Reid as some kind of scientist?) and the story entirely vacating proceedings. Before halfway I gave up following the plot — after all, why try to follow something that makes no sense in the first place — and just hoped it could pull out some interesting or exciting sequences. But the horror sequences have no tension and the fights no coherence. One action sequence, which begins entirely out of the blue, sees soldiers shooting at beast-thingies in the dark, lit only by muzzle flashes, set to a thumping metal soundtrack. It probably seemed innovative when conceived, but instead is laughable for all the wrong reasons. Like the rest of the film.

Sadly, none of it’s laughable in a charming way — this is not So Bad It’s Good territory. Take the moment where the good guys arrive at an abandoned gold mine that’s actually the villain’s Super Secret Lair. They bring a whole army’s worth of heavily armed marines. Commander blokey insists it’s nothing like enough men… and then proceeds to enter the mine with just half a dozen of them. If there was no budget for more it might be funny, but the rest stay up top to be slaughtered by some Primeval-quality CGI. Even the ending, supposed to be ambiguous apparently, is just a meaningless cop-out that makes absolutely no sense. Like the rest of the film.

Sometimes I feel sorry for Christian Slater. He always seems a nice guy in interviews, yet this kind of drivel is all the work he can get. At the time of writing it’s the 82nd worst film of all time on IMDb (according to its own page, though not that chart). While this is the kind of status that’s often an overreaction (the number of people on IMDb declaring various films are “the worst film ever” suggests most of them have been fortunate enough to never see a truly bad movie), for once it’s justified: Alone in the Dark is irredeemably atrocious.

1 out of 5

If you want to subject yourself to Alone in the Dark, ITV4 are showing it tonight at 11pm.

Alone in the Dark featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2009, which can be read in full here.

Churchill: The Hollywood Years (2004)

2008 #4
Peter Richardson | 84 mins | TV | 15

Churchill: The Hollywood YearsWhat if the Americans made a movie of Winston Churchill’s life, prone as they are to re-write World War 2 history to show they won it all by themselves?

This is ostensibly the premise of this spoof from some of the team behind Channel 4’s The Comic Strip. I say ostensibly, because the film is bookended (for padding, I suspect) with scenes that suggest that the real Churchill was an American GI, and the British simply re-wrote history using a somewhat chubby actor called Roy Bubbles. Sadly, the joke was funnier when it was riffing on those US historical re-writes.

The problem with killing that joke is, it’s the best one the film’s got. It’s also just about suitable for a five-minute comedy sketch, or, at a stretch, a series of sketches. The strategy for drawing this out to movie-length seems to have involved those bookends, as well as bunging some outtakes at the end and including a bunch of ridiculous, irritating, and unfunny subplots with Hitler and his entourage. It’s a shame to see the talents of actors such as Antony Sher and Miranda Richardson frittered away on such material.

This is all being a tad harsh, because Churchill actually has its fair share of amusing moments. The supporting cast of British TV comedians are mostly very good, Neve Campbell’s posh English accent (usually such a stumbling block for Americans-as-Brits) is as good as anything a British actress could have delivered, and Christian Slater and Romany Malco make for a likeable pairing. But, again, most of the best bits are of sketch length, and so wind up spread out among the padding.

In that respect it’s quite a shame, because there’s a good idea, good potential, and some good laughs in here.

2 out of 5