In the opinion of this reviewer, director Quentin Tarantino is a one hit wonder. That hit is undeniably Pulp Fiction (1994); an eclectic melding of four distinct movie genres (the crime story, the suspense thriller, the screwball comedy, and the action movie) into one seamless and enthralling spectacle that rivets the audience to its seats. Tarantino’s screenplay is a brilliant patchwork of sordid stories remaining curiously aloof and fascinating unto themselves, only to crystallize into one cohesive narrative moments before the final fade out. That’s a tough sell indeed. But Tarantino knows exactly when to cut away from one story and move onto another. He doesn’t linger or divulge too much during any of these sequences, and manages the minor coup of keeping us guessing where all of this gutter depravity will lead.
But the film is also a potpourri for stellar cameos, made pointedly raw by Tarantino’s decided disregard for the niceties. In retrospect, Pulp Fiction is the movie that reintroduced audiences to John Travolta; that 70s pop icon who fizzled in the 80s and was, by ’94 considered something of a has-been in the industry. Travolta really does owe the latter half of his career and staying power to this movie. It’s a new kind of Travolta we get in Pulp Fiction and that takes a lot of guts. He’s playing against type, eschewing the clean shaven stud image that made him a star and delving more deeply into a dark, often conflicted character that is doomed to never be top dog in his chosen profession.
The plot concerns two hit men, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson). The two are working together for crime boss, Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) to liquidate several former associates who have double-crossed Marcellus and stolen a very valuable piece of property (more on this later). On their fool’s journey Jules and Vincent inadvertently come in contact with Ringo (Tim Roth) and Yolanda (Amanda Plummer) – a pair of amateur robbers about to hold up patrons in a restaurant in broad daylight.
The narrative unconventionally jumps about. There’s Vincent’s brief encounter with Marcellus’ wife, Mia (Uma Thurman) that almost ends with her death from an accidental drug overdose. We’re also introduced to washed-up prize fighter, Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) who refuses to take a payoff to throw his upcoming match. Christopher Walken makes a hilarious entrance as a returning war hero whom Butch recalls giving him the gift of his late father’s watch that he concealed in his anal cavity while over in Viet Nam. Don’t ask.
Pulp Fiction’s major selling points are its star power and its shock value. There’s plenty to unsettle just about everyone. An intentionally disturbing rape scene involves rednecks Zeb (Peter Greene) and Maynard (Duane Whitaker) taking out their sexual frustrations on a bound and gagged Marcellus that ends only after Butch, their intended victim #2, manages to free himself and slice through Zeb with a Japanese sabre. But there’s also Vincent’s accidental assassination of Marvin (Phil LaMarr); a onetime associate of Marcellus whose head is blown off after Jules hits a speed bump. The trick in these gruesome exercises is how Tarantino manages to repel us with one act of violence – the rape – while ticking our collective funny bones with the other – the shooting of Marvin. Somewhere in between our repulsion and exhilaration comes Mia’s near death experience; having her breast bone penetrated by a stabbed injection of adrenaline to save her life.
And, of course, there is the language to consider. Pulp Fiction is not a movie for the faint of heart or Puritan sensibility. This becomes immediately apparent from the opening moments of the story when Yolanda threatens to execute every last ‘mother fucking’ one of the restaurant patrons unless they acquiesce to her demands. And this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The film is riddled with cleverly timed, expertly placed profanity that is as gratuitously startling as it proves utterly hilarious. I don’t think I’ve ever sat through a two hour curse show that seemed so pleasantly amusing – or, if you prefer, profane with a purpose. It’s hard to refer to the ‘F’ word as charming, but in Pulp Fiction I think the case can be made.
Perhaps even more fascinating than how all of the parts come together in the end is just how each vignette manages to perfectly function as its own independent mini-movie. The great mystery in the film relates to what is inside the briefcase recovered by Jules and Vincent on Marcellus’ behalf. Inside is…well…we’re not exactly sure. Tarantino has always remained silent on divulging a concrete answer to explain away the curious golden glowing object inside the briefcase. During the sequence where Marcellus orders Butch to throw his fight we’re treated to our first clue – a big close up of the back of Ving Rhames’ bald pate with a giant Band Aid concealing…a scar? Again, not sure.
One interpretation of the glowing object is that it is Marcellus’ soul, fallen into the devil’s hands and therefore of the utmost importance to regain control. Question #1: If it is his soul, how did it escape his body in the first place? Question #2: once reacquired, how will it re-enter his body so that no one else can possess it? At some point I suppose one has to simply accept or refute the evidence and go with the assumption that it’s only a movie.
Since Pulp Fiction works on almost every other level, this blind acceptance is not so hard to invest in and in the final analysis Pulp Fiction is a superior action/mystery/ comedy/drama. That the film seems to have dogged Tarantino’s reputation as a brilliant innovator ever since – and mostly to his own detriment, as his subsequent movies have been unfairly compared and judged inferior to Pulp Fiction – is a shame. Still, what Tarantino has given us in this film is so good, so solidly crafted, so utterly compelling on so many levels in all its many fragmented pieces that fit so neatly together, its’ hard to fault him for perhaps failing to live up to his own legacy, because Pulp Fiction is a very tough act to follow.
New Line’s Blu-ray bests its 2 disc DVD from some years ago. The image is impressive with bold rich and vibrant colors. Contrast levels seem to have been bumped up, however. I’m not entirely certain this is in keeping with the theatrical presentation, but DNR has been liberally applied for a very ‘grain free’ visual that is decidedly not in keeping with the way I remember this film looking on the big screen. We get a sharp, but overly smooth and video-esque image. The audio is 5.1 DTS and exhibits an exhilarating spread across all five channels. Extras include extensive back story material, Tarantino’s ramblings on an audio commentary, interviews and storyboards, script pages and a ton of press release junkets – all imports from the old DVD release, but sure to please. Bottom line: Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)