Aside from the obvious (Bonnie and Clyde, which I've never actually seen, and Thelma and Louise, which came out two years earlier and was directed by the other Scott brother), my main frames of reference for this film were Terence Malick's Badlands and Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (to be honest, for the longest time I thought NBK and TR were the same movie). Badlands is a movie about a bored little girl on a farm who gets sweet-talked by a guy in his twenties to run away and live on the wild side for a while. The whole movie is undercut by a voiceover from that little girl about the meaning of life and her (inconsistent) reasons for doing what she did. From that voiceover, we get that, despite everything that happens, she's just a fucked up little kid looking for something that doesn't exist, and for that reason we feel something like empathy for a character who is morally on the wrong side of the tracks. True Romance cops the voiceover, as Alabama attempts to explain why she falls for Clarence, and why in the end she thinks he's "so cool" despite everything that has gone down.
But here's the thing: in Badlands, Kit was a bad guy, but the story belonged to that girl who followed him with deer-in-the-headlights eyes. True Romance is Clarence's own kung fu fantasy, and he doesn't come out as the badass he wants to be so much as an average dude in over his head, someone who wreaks a path of death and destruction that isn't so much his doing as it is fallout for his stupidity. He murders a pimp, which is asking for trouble, but he's never even confronted with the fact that his father takes the fall for it. By the end of the movie, I didn't care about Clarence's journey anymore: he would have been better off to stay home and play house with the pretty girl he already had in the bag. Hell, it was her that picked him up at the outset, and maybe that's one of the reasons her idolization occasionally rings false.
I don't really know how this movie compares to NBK, in many ways its bastard sibling. I vaguely remember hating NBK for what it wasn't, for its lack of insight. Of course, Oliver Stone isn't really one for introspection; his movies are more about values. And as bad people, I felt his protagonists(/antagonists) were in large part objectified. If there's ever an opportunity for moral ambiguity, it belongs in a movie about youth, angst and bloodlust, and as far as capturing the adolescent fantasy that spurs both movies, True Romance does a superior job. Tarantino and Scott do a brilliant job of describing how fun it would seem to run to California with a suitcase full of coke, even if the bodies start flying before we have time to really revel in the hedonism.
In general, there were so many things to love about TR that I wished I'd enjoyed it more. For one, Gary Oldman. Holy fuck, Gary Oldman. Why couldn't this movie have been about your character?
What's that, James Franco? You want to play a sick, twisted, faux-black, dread-toting drug dealer with weird teeth? Alien is a housecat next to Drexl. Seriously. I haven't seen a lot of Oldman, but what I have seen feels like a callback to this amazingly frightening and devastating character who lasts far too short for the TR world. He's fast-talking, he's greasier than the underbelly of a Winnebago, and he absolutely emanates insanity.
In this paint-by-numbers script, Drexl is the inciting incident, the character who pulls Clarence from the mushy feel-good prologue (which could have made for an entirely different, smaller movie about the risks of falling in love with a prostitute) into the violence that will consume TR's world. But Drexl's appearance also the point where the film jumped the shark for me. Clarence spirits Alabama away and Drexl has no idea where she is. So why does Clarence go to Drexl? Why even go to the bank if you know you can't cash the check? Everything that happens in the movie is a direct result of Clarence knowingly walking into a bed of snakes, and when shit goes bad all I could think was...well, were you expecting a carnation?
Things gets weird. People show up. Some of them stick around, others don't. Plotlines return when they're needed. That creepy theme music invades your brain. A lot of people who were semi-famous in 1993 and are much more famous now get cameos. And then everybody dies.
And then...Pulp Fiction happened.