Often unbearably tense and frequently hilarious, Quentin Tarantino’s second film, following his greatly admired 1992 cult hit Reservoir Dogs, is still his masterpiece.
Tarantino’s brilliantly inventive and exuberant direction of his ultra-smart, sadistically violent 1994 thriller dazzlingly mixes witty humour with scary bursts of action as it focuses on the bizarre lives of a group of LA small-time crooks.
Paying serious attention to its credentials as both a black comedy and a crime thriller, it paints a credible portrait of the nineties LA criminal culture while delivering an endless supply of the cleverest of wisecracks and punches both to the gut and the sensibilities, all the time eliciting way above their usual game performances from his hand-picked, all-star cast.
Making his movie comeback after years of misfires, John Travolta is outstanding as dangerously thick, dim-witted killer Vincent Vega, who’s ordered to retrieve a mysterious black briefcase from his duplicitous mob boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames).
Travolta memorably discusses hamburgers and what Big Macs are called in other countries (‘you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris? They call it a Royale with Cheese’) with his equally dangerous fellow hitman Jules Winnfield (Samuel L Jackson) and dances the twist while flirting with Marsellus’s sexy, drug-addled wife Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) in between relishing some ultra-bloody killings.
Bruce Willis also gives one of his most iconic performances as the double-crossing prize-fighter Butch Coolidge, Maria de Medeiros scores as his absent-minded French sweetheart Fabienne and there are notable turns from Harvey Keitel, Christopher Walken, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, Steve Buscemi and Quentin Tarantino himself. The actors’ wages represented $5million of the film’s $8million cost.
As co-writer with Roger Avary, Tarantino cleverly weaves together three lurid lowlife stories (‘the oldest in the book’, he calls them) in a perfect, complex circular structure that satisfyingly has the film beginning and ending in the same place at around the same time. So the tale opens and closes in the apparently cosy, everyday setting of a diner, where a young couple, Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) are casually planning a holdup.
The writers’ scheme is to avoid making an anthology movie of short stories, which have usually proved unpopular and difficult to sell to producers and the public alike. But instead their goal is to ‘organically intertwine the separate stories so in the end you think you’ve seen only one movie, a movie about a community of characters’.
The rich, rewarding and splendidly quirky, dialogue-heavy script is rightly universally admired and honoured. Oscar, Bafta and Golden Globe award winners for best original screenplay, which in printed form went on to be the first movie script to sell a million copies. At one time in the nineties, everyone seemed to have a copy on their shelves. It was an icon of the culture. How many were actually read, I’m not so sure.
Who cares if this film isn’t about anything, or is style over substance? Or that the screenplay is just one long digression after another, throwing in the kitchen sink, the baby and the bathwater to have wicked, adult fun. Few films have more style or can find a wittier or more entertaining way to say nothing.
A controversial proponent of the cathartic nature of film violence, Tarantino joked that he was surprised when Pulp Fiction won the Palme D’Or main prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994 because ‘My films aren’t about bringing people together’.
Stephen Hibbert plays The Gimp, Julia Sweeney is Raquel, Peter Greene is Zed, Duane Whitaker is Maynard and Alexis Arquette plays Fourth Man.
© Derek Winnert 2013 Classic Movie Review 13
Check out more reviews on http://derekwinnert.com/