True Romance Blu-ray Review

Between bursting onto the cinema scene with Reservoir Dogs (1992) and cementing his success with Pulp Fiction (1994), writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s scripts became hot property in Hollywood. Oliver Stone adapted (and per Tartantino’s opinion bastardized) Natural Born Killers (1993), and Tony Scott (Top Gun, Crimson Tide) brought True Romance (1993) to the big screen. While Scott’s vision was not exactly how Quentin would have cinematized his script, he eventually warmed to the interpretation.

Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette, who play the leads Clarence and Alabama respectively, head up a star-studded cast. The characters meet under unconventional circumstances (she is a “call girl” supplied for Clarence’s birthday), quickly fall in love and get married. The newlyweds mistakenly steal a suitcase of cocaine from her pimp, Drexl (Gary Oldman) and take off to Hollywood to trade the goods, with help from aspiring actor/friend Dick (Michael Rappaport), for enough cash to live happily ever after. Mob thugs are soon on their trail and the action does not let up till the intense finale. Filling out supporting roles are Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, Val Kilmer, Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini and Bronson Pinchot,

Being familiar with Tarantino’s body of work, if you had no idea who wrote True Romance you would easily guess or either suspect he was being paid homage to or blatantly ripped off. While crime, violence, music and witty dialog (all Q.T. staples) abound, there is also a somewhat softer edge to the narrative that has always felt slightly off to me. Do not mistake me as I find the film very entertaining, and as mentioned there is no shortage of the components that make a “Tarantino” movie. What is missing is some of the edginess that Quentin brings.

Juxtapose the Walken/Hopper interrogation sequence in Romance to the “ear cutting” one in Reservoir Dogs. The latter is considered offensive to those with weak stomachs and makes me uncomfortable just thinking about it while the former is witty and humorous (as much as a scene like that can be). For many this may be a good trade off, but scenes of this nature should make you uncomfortable. What I find absent in Scott’s take is a real sense of danger. While there is more than enough carnage (and many reviewers complained about this), I did not find myself nearly as affected by it as in the writer’s self-directed works.

In Tarantino’s breathless audio commentary, he actually expounds on this. The writer states that Romance was his most “commercial” script in the sense of not being overly esoteric and playing to better known aspects of popular culture. As noted, Quentin had creative differences with the director, most specifically on the ending. The theatrical ending, while not exactly feel-good, does play out in what may be thought of as stereotypical “Hollywood” audience pleasing fashion. The writer defends Scott’s finale based on it being a personal choice and not a concession to popular tastes. Tarantino openly states this is not the “True Romance” he would have made but finds the ending consistent with the overall “fairytale” feel Scott brought to his adaptation.

While I do not think the mostly excellent parts quite gel into a totally successful whole, my qualms aside, Romance is one of Scott’s better films and a mostly exhilarating and entertaining thrill ride that has held up well over the years. Warner now delivers the “unrated, director’s cut” to Blu-ray. This version has been the home video staple for so many years, I cannot remember what was added or changed, but I will guess it is some extra snippets of violence.

The VC-1 encoded, 2.35:1 framed 1080p transfer does what it can to bring out the best in the source material but falls short of what many anticipate from high-def. My gut response after viewing the first few scenes was disappointment as I was expecting more detail and depth. In the movie’s defense, it has always been a soft looking film with a murky quality to the visuals and many smoky, dimly lit scenes not lending themselves to the spit polish of modern cinema on Blu-ray. I even want to claim that DNR (digital noise reduction) has been overly utilized (and considering Warner’s track record in this area this is very possible), but it is hard to definitely say, as the inherent softness of the image may be to blame.

After my expectations got in line with the presentation, I was able to better appreciate the transfer’s subtlety. I did numerous comparisons to the special edition DVD, and the Blu-ray exceeds in all categories most noticeably in color reproduction, shadow delineation, dimensionality and detail. Even though True Romance is not demo material in high-def, the way that standard-def treats the source material really makes you appreciate the benefits of the enhanced resolution. By no means perfect (I am still suspicious of too much noise filtering), this is easily the best the film has ever looked on home video.

The English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD (48 kHz / 16-bit) surround mix is the first I have encountered on a Warner Blu-ray where the lossless option is the default rather than having to switch to it from the lossy track. Hopefully this was not a slipup, and the studio actually listened to consumer complaints and will continue this setup on future releases. Additional audio is provided as 5.1 English and French Dolby Digital with optional subtitles in English (SDH), Spanish and French.

The TrueHD track anchors the well balanced dialog in the center channel, and the majority of the audio content, which is cleanly delivered, takes place in the fronts since this was originally 2-channel stereo. The rears support a noticeable ambiance spreading the varied pop/rock tunes utilized into the surround mix and also bolster the action sequences with an enveloping sound. While not as dynamic as modern soundtracks (your sub will not get much of a workout), this mix holds up well for a 16 year old film.

The majority of the extras from the special edition DVD are ported over with stereo sound and standard-def video that does not particularly impress. The cover lists an “animated photo gallery” that does not appear to have been included. I remember this from the DVD, and it is not a great loss considering the quality extras we get.

Feature-Length Commentaries – Three commentaries (actor, director, writer) are provided covering the full range of possibilities from entertaining to informative. The first is Slater and Arquette reminiscing about filming. This is my least favorite as there is little critical information though the pair gets along well and fans may find their banter entertaining. Next is Scott giving a very thorough, if a bit dry, overview of many aspects of production involving casting, scripting, editing, etc. The last is Tarantino (which is my favorite), who is talking so fast that it is almost exhausting to keep up. The majority of his input chronicles his early career, writing and selling the script with little direct reference to the movie. You might almost think he is not even watching until he takes quick detours to comment on a particular shot then veers right back into his enjoyable rambling monologue.

Selective Actor’s Commentaries – Dennis Hopper, Val Kilmer, Brad Pitt and Michael Rappaport provide screen-specific commentaries covering the majority of their onscreen time totaling over 55 minutes. Hopper and Pitt’s input is a bit flat (though listening to Pitt explain why his character was a stoner is cool) while Kilmer and Rappaport give lively insight into their roles. Since this supplement is recycled from the DVD, the scenes are shown in standard-def rather than using reference to the movie in HD like the feature-length commentaries.

Additional Footage (29:19) – A collection of 11 extended/deleted scenes with optional director commentary. The extended scenes get tiresome as the extra footage only drags them out but does justify why they were trimmed. Scott’s commentary gives good insight into the editing changes made.

Alternate Ending (6:22) – The ending from Tarantino’s original script with optional director and writer commentary. The commentary is very interesting and juxtaposes Quentin’s ending with the reasons for it not being used.

Original 1993 Featurette (5:37) – A short piece that is promotional at heart and has little rewatch value.

Behind the Scenes Interactive Featurette (5:34) – On set footage of various shooting and interviews with director and cast. There is optional functionality to engage 15 or so minutes of further footage broken across five different sections including outtakes from the Hopper/Walken interrogation, Clarence visiting Drexl and the final shootout. While the video quality is quite poor, the footage is interesting, and, for my tastes, it would have made more sense to incorporate the extra footage into the featurette without having to manually choose to watch it.

Theatrical Trailer (2:08) – The original trailer with poor video quality.

While True Romance does not equal the best of Tarantino’s films, it channels a good bit of Quentin’s style through one of Tony Scott’s better efforts; especially since being before the director detoured into the quick cut editing of his recent work. The Blu-ray image will not knock your socks off but does represent a noticeable, if admittedly subtle at times, upgrade from the previous DVD, and the lossless audio is very satisfactory. With the majority of the extras from the previous edition, Warner’s BD is worth the upgrade for fans who want the latest and greatest experience of this stylistic blend of violence, crime and romance.

– Robert Searle

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