A film review by Craig J. Koban


RANK: #2


10th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1994, R, 154 mins.

Vincent Vega: John Travolta / Butch Coolidge: Bruce Willis / Jules: Samuel L. Jackson / Mia: Uma Thurman

Directed by Quentin Tarantino /  Written by Tarantino and Roger Avary

PULP FICTION was not so much released in the fall of 1994 as it was bestowed upon us.  Is it the best film of the 1990’s?  No (that honor goes to Martin Scorsese’s 1990 film GOODFELLAS), but it surely emerged as one of the most unique, offbeat, and original films of the last decade of the Twentieth Century.  Behind it all was a Generation X-er who grew up not going to film school, but by watching movies. 

Writer/director Quentin Tarantino's story is legendary, a wanna-be actor who worked on the side at a L.A. video store and took home films by the armloads.  He didn’t need College professors to educate him on the cinema, he needed movies.

  Watching PULP FICTION and revisiting it ten years later, this is abundantly obvious.  Like George Lucas did with the original STAR WARS, Tarantino’s PULP FICTION is a broad and wonderful kaleidoscope of movies he adored growing up and their influences dance though the film.  Whereas Lucas was influenced by innocent, B-grade adventure serials films to make his sci-fi epic, Tarantino was more interested in lurid, crime thrillers and film noir capers about seedy and evil people.  PULP FICTION is a thrill ride into Tarantino’s passions for these types of films, and watching it is like seeing a kid walk through a department store and play with the stuff he likes best.  The film shows what can result when a talented filmmaker reaches his peak, and PULP FICTION still is one of the most accomplished films of the last twenty years.

Tarantino and friend Roger Avary wrote PULP FICTION.  It just may be the best screenplay of the 90’s.  It’s one of those scripts where characters are allowed to speak and speak freely on any subject, whether its how to give foot massages, what they call McDonald’s hamburgers in France, or even Bible scripture.  The point is that they, like David Mamet, give character to their characters by freeing them from the wooden confines of the terribly limp and lifeless dialogue that so preoccupies modern films.  Their dialogue does not serve to advance the story in any way.  Rather, it gives color, whimsicality, and humanity to its characters.  Yes, oftentimes the characters engage in multi-syllable profanities that start with “f” or “mother” and use a certain racial slur several times, but cynics miss the point.  This film breaths and lives on its dialogue, and Tarantino has become the heir-apparent to the Elmore Leonard's and Mamet’s before him.  Yes, he’s that good.  And if you want to see a monologue written any better, then look no further that a speech given by the great Christopher Walken near the middle of the film where he tries to explain to an eight year old the trials and tribulations of trying to deliver him his father’s watch.  Writing just does not get better than that!

Like deconstructivist films like CITIZEN KANE (decades before it) Tarantino wisely films PULP FICTION out of sequence.  It’s a bit disorienting at first (few modern films, at that time, prepared us for its sort of jarring disregard for plot continuity), but it later develops a sort of poetic cadence on its own.  The film is the poster child for fighting against all of those ignorant and pompous University screenplay/creative writing professors that tell their students that a good narrative needs to proceed from point a to b to c.  PULP FICTION cheerfully steps on that philosophy, as it proceeds from point c to a to b to c and so forth.  Its kind of exhilarating how the film breaks from conventions and tries to make art in new ways.  The film is a real thrill ride of dialogue and plot, providing three independent but interconnected stories that weave together (despite being out of sequence) into a unifying whole.   Even those who might be taken aback by the structure may change their minds at the end of the film, where the final scene so perfectly intercuts and weaves into the first scene in the film that  you feel like your watching the work of a calculated and mad genius.

Because the film is all over the map, dissecting its plot seems rather difficult.  Okay, I’ll give it a try.  The first “story” features John Travolta (in a now infamous career saving performance) as hitman/thug Vincent Vega and Samuel L. Jackson (in an equally important performance) plays Jules, his fellow hitman friend and overall spiritually enlightened dude.  The first section deals with a hit they need to finish for their boss Marsellus (played with stone-cold charisma by Ving Rhames).  Afterwards, Vincent is hampered by another difficult job from Marsellus – taking his beautiful and free-spirited wife Mia (Uma Thurman) out for the night while Marsellus is out of town.  Why is Vincent nervous?  Well, it seems that Marsellus threw a man out of a fourth story window after the man gave his wife a seemingly innocent foot massage.  Vincent, thus,  is astutely aware of the fact that if he so much as lays a finger on Mia or if she is harmed in any way, then he’s in serious trouble.  The conclusion of this “story” reaches it absolutely shocking conclusion with a lot of tension and big laughs along the way.

The second “story” involves Bruce Willis (in a refreshing role for him) as Butch, a fighter that is employed by Marsellus to take dives when so ordered.  He is to be paid very, very well by Marsellus to take a dive for an upcoming fight.  Problem is, Butch changes his mind at the last minute and walks away, making a small fortune in bets.  Of course, this pisses off Marsellus to the utmost degree, and hires a hit on Butch.  Butch escapes with his French girlfriend Fabienne (the cute and funny Maria de Mederiros) hoping to get away.  The only problem is, Maria forgot Butch’s watch, which was handed down as a generational heirloom from his father.  Of course, you may think that his life must be worth more than a stupid old watch, right?  Well, if the Christopher Walken's previously mentioned monologue says anything, then its completely necessary for Butch to get his watch back (especially in hindsight, considering what his father went through to get the watch to Butch in the first place).  This story also builds to a shocking and surprising turn of events. 

Do you remember DELIVERANCE?

The final “story” ostensibly works at tying in all of the loose ends and ambiguities.  It ties the end to the beginning of the film (which introduced us to two restaurant robbers who are only referred to as “pumpkin” and “honey bunny”, played respectively by Eric Roth and Amanda Plummer).  This story also introduces us to the character of The Wolf, a Marsellus-hired Mr. Fixit played by Harvey Keitel.  It seems that Vincent and Jules got themselves into a world of trouble, and The Wolf rides in like the cavalry to save them.  It is also in this story where the surprising undercurrent of spiritual enlightenment makes its way into the screenplay, and Jules becomes “born again”, in a way.

If profanity and colorful dialogue laced with such vulgar metaphors was considered poetry, then Tarantino is Shakespeare.  The film is permeated with that crisp and sparkling dialogue already mentioned.  All the stories have their respective moments of exchanges that shine.  I especially liked how Jules and Vincent decide that they are too early to enter the apartment and make their “hit”, so Jules leads him down a hallway (the camera, curiously, does not follow, but we can still hear them) where he finds the time to further discuss the nature and hidden meaning of giving a woman a foot massage.  The two also have that now famous exchange on the way to their hit about how  Europe does not have the metric system, thus, France does not know what to call a Quarter Pounder With Cheese.  As Vincent explains, it’s called a “royale with cheese” there.  Later, when Jules interrogates one of his victims, he asks him if he knows why they call the burgers “royales with cheese”  in France.  The victim replies, “because of the metric system.”  Brilliant.  Name another film that has the patience to allow their characters to talk about things, and the film’s self-referential tone is a real delight.  The characters are realized as true originals.

Did I also mention an ingenious monologue by Walken?

Many of the individual scenes are also classic moments of tension and mood.  The infamous scene where Vincent is forced to stab a needle of adrenaline into a woman’s heart cavity is one of the all-time great moments of cinema, and Tarantino wisely chooses it to be both wildly hilarious and shocking at the same time.  The patience he also exhibits to get to this scene is also kind of remarkable.  Just when you think things are fine for Vincent, they completely snowball down disastrously.  The other tense moment occurs when Vincent and Jules interrogate the men they are about to hit.  That scene, too, has patience and develops to a stirring climax of energy and violence.  Sam Jackson has never been as forceful of a presence as he was in that scene.  Amazingly, that same scene is revisited in the third and final story, and at that time continues on to a hilarious climax. 

Without a doubt, the oddest and most troubling scene in the whole film occurs where Butch and Marsellus are held captive by a group of redneck hillbillies and their black-clad sex slave.  The scene involves a lot of blood, men being bound up, rape, and a great scene of retribution.  There is also a stabbing caused by a katana blade (in a small, but not-so-subtle reference to Tarantino’s love of martial arts films, which would prove itself to be integral to his future work).  The scene sounds harsh and needlessly violent, but it’s amazing if you think about how little on screen violence is in this scene, or in the rest of the film for that matter.  PULP FICTION has been given a very bad reputation for being graphically violent, yet there is only two on-screen deaths that I can think of, and the remaining other is obscured by the rear window of a car (and provides the film’s most shocking moment of dark comedy).  You never actually see bullets entering bodies or swords impaling their victims.  The violence largely occurs off-camera, where you mostly just witness reaction shots.  A few critics (and many concerned parental groups) chastised the film for glorifying violence.  Ironic, considering that there’s twenty times more on screen bloodshed and gore in a film like THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.

All of the performances are as perfect as they are going to get.  Travolta bravely emerged from this film by radically re-inventing himself and his on screen persona.  He was no longer the squeaky clean star of three LOOK WHO’S TALKING films.  In FICTION, he plays a heroine junkie and killer, yet he pulls off the amazing: he makes us like this thug.  Travolta has not been this good since URBAN COWBOY and SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER.  PULP FICTION allowed him to truly sink his teeth into character, and his Oscar nomination was deserved.  Jackson also received a nomination for his work, and he is the duo’s righteous and moral center.  He too is a questionable character – he also kills people – but at his heart is a man that wants inner peace and redemption, and at the end you really believe he’ll get it.  Uma Thurman also has a lot of spunk in her part, and acts as a great counterpoint to Travolta.  Vincent seems overly cautious on his date, whereas Mia feels free and extroverted.  The film’s only weak spot is in the character of The Wolf.  Its not that he’s poorly played by Keitel, its just that he seems a redundant character.  He feels more like an excuse to bring back a RESERVOIR DOGS alumni back as a self-aware statement.  And really, what was his point?  Where Vincent and Jules so incompetent that they needed someone to come over and tell them to get rid of a body and clean the body’s brain matter off of the windshield of their car?

That’s nitpicking and it undermines PULP FICTION as one of the best and most important films to emerge from Hollywood in the 90’s.  It established Tarantino as a major new voice in American cinema, one whose work has inspired countless ripoffs without any of the same success.  PULP FICTION is an original, a film that transcends the artform, plays around and breaks the conventional rules of cinema, and provides an exciting and entertaining two and a half hours of delight.  The film is also devilishly amusing.  The film shined a refreshing new light on the movie world, and its legacy is still felt today.  It’s vulgar, crude, and intense…but it’s also a classic. 

To loosely paraphrase Jules, PULP FICTION is like Fonzy: It's just plain cool.

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