An actor should be able to disappear into whatever role he or she is given. That’s gospel. Gary Oldman wasn’t exactly famous by the time Tony Scott’s True Romance hit theaters, but he’d already left his mark in several meaty roles, most notably as Lee Harvey Oswald in Oliver Stone’s JFK, Sid Vicious in Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy and, in a complete showstopper of a performance, as the short-fused Jackie Flannery in Phil Joanou’s seminal Irish-gangster drama, State of Grace. Each one of those films had Oldman disappear into his assigned role. He’s been labeled as a chameleon many times over, and he’s one of the few actors who can actually live up to that particular tag. Oldman is nearly unrecognizable in many of the films he’s been in.
But it’s his portrayal of Drexl Spivey in the Tony Scott-helmed, Quentin Tarantino-scriped True Romance that stands as one of the most astonishing displays of an actor completely submerging into a role ever committed to film. His screen time is short, but it’s an absolutely scene-stealer of a performance if there ever was one.
When Drexl’s name is first mentioned in True Romance, it’s thrown out in casual conversation, and it’s not until he shows up on screen that you get a true sense of what a menace he is. You don’t think much of the guy at first, other than that he’s a white guy trying to play it black with ratty dreadlocks and a mug that looks like it was introduced to the business end of a broken bottle. But that changes once Drexl, with a playful demeanor and a toothy smirk, lays waste to his business partners in order to get his hands on a suitcase of cocaine destined to play an important role in the burgeoning romance of Clarence Worley (Christian Slater’s comic-book-store clerk) and Alabama (Patricia Arquette’s hooker with a heart of gold). It’s an incredibly violent exchange and perfectly sets the mood for an inevitable confrontation between Drexl and Clarence.
And the great thing is, once that confrontation comes, and even though the viewer knows that Clarence has dropped himself into a snake pit, Clarence himself doesn’t understand just how much danger he’s actually put himself in by confronting Alabama’s former pimp. The exchange between the two is an exercise in tense Tarantino dialogue, rife with pop-culture references ranging from The Mack to Charlie Motherfuckin’ Bronson. Slater and Oldman play off of each other incredibly well. You can almost feel the adrenaline coming off of the screen as each one tries to shake up the other with thinly veiled threats. There’s a gleam in Oldman’s eyes that speaks volumes as to how much fun he’s having with the role, and that playfulness somehow makes Drexl all the more terrifying.
Of course, an all-out brawl explodes between the two (with Drexl’s henchman along for the ride), and not even the fancy fish tank gets spared. Before long, Clarence is on the ropes and fighting for his life, but the viewer’s too busy reveling in just how awesomely written and performed Drexl is to remember to care. In just two scenes, Oldman brings this deranged oddball to life in ways you’d never expect and leaves his unique mark on the film. Drexl is an absolute beast of a villain who gets an equally beastly comeuppance (which is even more brutal in the director’s cut of the film). Though the guy deserves what he gets in the end, it’s almost sad to see him go so early in the film. He’s that great of a heavy.
So sit down and grab yourself an egg roll when you revisit True Romance. There are plenty of seedy villains in the film to enjoy, but it’s Drexl who stands tallest among these scumbags to earn a spot in the Cult Spark Movie Villain Hall of Fame.