Pulp Fiction (1994) / Thriller-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, pervasive strong language, drug use, sexuality, nudity, and a scene of rape
Running Time: 154 min. (A special edition runs 168 mins.)
Cast: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, Uma Thruman, Ving Rhames, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Eric Stoltz, Quentin Tarantino, Maria de Madeiros, Amanda Plummer, Rosanna Arquette, Christopher Walken, Peter Greene, Duane Whitaker, Angela Jones, Phil LaMarr, Frank Whaley, Julia Sweeney (cameo), Steve Buscemi (cameo), Lawrence Bender (cameo)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino
Review published December 25, 2005
Are introductions really necessary for Quentin Tarantino's best film? Pulp Fiction is nearly perfectly executed in every detail, balancing a fine line between tragedy and comedy, the absurdly surreal and the unflinchingly realistic, morally depraved and counter-intuitively positive. With nearly ceaseless wit, style, panache, and straight-out balls, Tarantino goes for broke, taking chances that most other directors would have considered too high risk to attempt. In nearly every case, the attempts are successful, and just like any high odds wager, the payoff for all of the personal investment is immense indeed. The success of Pulp Fiction would catapult Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs) as a filmmaker to watch, and countless imitators would follow suit, although few would succeed at producing even a tenth of the humor or thrills this one packs in.
Interwoven together are several stories, some told out of sequence, but all interconnected in some way. The primary story involves two hitmen, Jules (Jackson, Jurassic Park) and Vincent (Travolta, Two of a Kind), and some of the strange occurrences that take place during the latest hit they've been sent to cement for their boss, Marsellus (Rhames, Entrapment). Vincent is also involved in a second side story involving an evening with Marsellus' eccentric wife, Mia (Thurman, Mad Dog and Glory). Meanwhile, we are also treated to the tale of Butch the boxer (Willis, Hudson Hawk), who is paid by Marsellus to take a dive in his next big fight, except Butch has plans of his own to score some cash.
The stories themselves would only have been marginally interesting if not for the overwhelmingly fresh quality of Tarantino's dialogue, which is so rich in allusions and humorous asides that you literally listen to every sentence or phrase just waiting for the next quip or pearl of wisdom to emerge from another character's mouth. As witty as Tarantino can be, he owes a great deal of debt to the performances of his actors. In particular, Samuel L. Jackson provides the stand-out performance of the film, driving Pulp Fiction's momentum into sheer intensity with complete conviction. Much has been made of how this film revitalized John Travolta's long-thought-dead career, and he does do a terrific job in giving the film a light and fun feel, while also playing well during the low-key flirtations that are the underpinnings of the Mia/Vincent scenes.
Not all of the actors fare as well. Perhaps the weakest part of this otherwise powerhouse film is the choice by Tarantino to cast himself in a prominent role. Interesting that Tarantino would have the most difficult time among all of the actors in reciting his dialogue, but thankfully, once he is off-screen, the momentum does pick back up again for the gripping finale.
As with all of Tarantino's work, the writing and directorial stylings are rife with homage, although they are done with a much less obvious way than in his other films. Cult film buffs will get the references, but you don't need to know every significance to understand them. They're just little bits thrown in that lend depth and irony to the stories at large.
For all of its flash, there is a surprising amount of thematic substance here underneath it all, which is precisely why viewers keep returning to the film time and again. There is a living and breathing presence that seems to permeate every scene of this film, imbuing these stories with a feeling of depth and connectedness with forces that exist beyond the intentionally banal discussions. The nature of good vs. evil, salvation, redemption and culture are all in play, dizzying us with meanings that make us want to backtrack the film to see if we can catch all of the significance. Whether any of these meanings are intentional or not is of little significance -- the little touches here and there command your attention and play with your intellect, never settling into a mundane existence for even a moment.
The momentum generated by this film would have Tarantino's fans bestowing his two successive films, Jackie Brown and Kill Bill, as great films as well, although I must respectfully disagree. Remove Pulp Fiction from the equation and one would see them as interesting but flawed films on their own. I guess that's what makes Pulp Fiction such a magical movie in itself -- it leaves viewers to ravenous for more, that they will scour all of Tarantino's future works for more little details and portals into the skewed universe created from this film, as if they were extensions of the same story.
I actually have known a couple of people that absolutely hate this film, and while I think that there are too many good performances and brilliant moments to understand why someone would disregard this film so easily, I should remind potential viewers that any piece of work that is ambitious, audacious, and concertedly different than the norm will have its share of detractors as well. On the other hand, there are also an even larger number of fans that consider this film to be a masterpiece, and while I can also see their point of view more so than those that would seek to call this movie disposal-worthy entertainment, there are some weaknesses here and there that keep me from bestowing that label on it so readily. That it's one of the best films of the decade, I have no qualms about. It provided a roadmap for up-and-coming filmmakers of the next decade to follow through its use of sight, sound, and dialogue to tell stories that might ostensibly have little meaning on the surface, but are full of intelligent thought underneath.
©2005 Vince Leo