With the passing of James Gandolfini, most will remember him for The Sopranos, a show certainly worthy in television history; but I remember him for a lesser role, one which did not earn any awards and barely, perhaps, a credit. I remember him in True Romance as Virgil, a wise guy, one of Vincenzo Coccotti's (Christopher Walken's) hired thugs feverishly in pursuit of Clarence (Christian Slater) and Alabama (Patricia Arquette), as they flee a murder with a bag full of cocaine. Arquette plays a call girl hired for Clarence's birthday, Slater an employee in a comic book store, Dennis Hopper his father and retired cop, and Val Kilmer the image of Elvis who tells Clarence to kill Alabama's pimp (Gary Oldham). The film, directed by Tony Scott and written by Quentin Tarantino, is ripe with other cameos, including Michael Rappaport, Bronson Pinchot, Tom Sizemore, and Brad Pitt. It is a film in which the male audience members are supposed to fall in love with Alabama, the females, sorry for Clarence, admitting they would also sleep with him on his lonely birthday, and all parties vehemently loathing Virgil for the manner in which he assaults Alabama.
When Virgil finally catches up with the couple in their hotel room, Clarence is out. Virgil begins with pleasantries before unloading his massive strength upon her face, which includes throwing her body from her throat across the room and tossing her through a glass shower door. The fight climaxes as Alabama, with blood streaming through her teeth, stabs Virgil in the foot with a Swiss Army knife, torches him with a flaming aerosol can, and shoots him multiple times in the chest. It is Tarantino violence in a way that only Tarantino can make violence. Of course, the couple escapes in the end -no spoiler alert necessary since the movie is twenty years old and I imagine those who have not seen it yet are not going to see it now- a happy finale and the beginning of the couple's new life together.
As a teen, I loved this movie and, sadly, never thought much of Mr. Gandolfini's character or acting prowess until now. I always felt he was type casted: it was not a difficult challenge for him to play a gangster. In retrospect, though, I imagine it was nearly impossible to play a role in which he so badly beats a woman likely only a third his size. I am no media critic but I imagine that in many ways, those brief abusive moments in True Romance demanded more from Mr. Gandolfini than the entire six seasons of The Sopranos. I also imagine that will be a fairly unpopular statement, with many readers deeming me a motion picture lightweight. I also do not care: anyone, even me, can pull out their best mafioso I-tal accent and pretend to be a wise guy. It takes a truly inspired actor to play a part that no one could possiby like. Virgil loses from the start and, at 51, Mr. Gandolfini loses too early.