A film review by Craig J. Koban
10th Anniversary Retrospective
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
I also mention an ingenious monologue by Walken?
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.
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
PASSION OF THE CHRIST.
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
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
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
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.