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Review: Pulp Fiction (1994)

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Premise: Three intersecting stories of characters involved in organized crime. A pair of hit men (John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson) run into misadventures trying to deliver a suitcase to their boss (Ving Rhames), one of the hit men takes their boss’ drug abusing wife (Uma Thurman) out for dinner and drinks, and a boxer (Bruce Willis) manipulates a fixed fight.

What Works: Each decade of American cinema is dominated by certain filmmakers whose work sets the tone and the pace for everyone else. In the 1990s Quentin Tarantino was one of those filmmakers and he and his work became the essence of cool for that time. Tarantino had first made a splash with 1992’s Reservoir Dogs but Pulp Fiction elevated Tarantino’s stature to a whole new level; critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert dedicated an entire episode of their television show to what they called the “Tarantino Generation.” As a result of the film’s popularity, Pulp Fiction’s memorable characters, witty dialogue, and famous scenes have been parodied, alluded to, imitated, and otherwise referenced in other works. This is ironic because Pulp Fiction is largely a love letter to cinema. References to other motion pictures are scattered throughout the picture, including highbrow classics like Psycho (Ving Rhames crossing in front of Bruce Willis’ car), cult films like Kiss Me Deadly (the mysterious suitcase), silent films like The Great Train Robbery (the method of robbing the patrons in the restaurant), Westerns like Rio Bravo (Bruce Willis prompting the cop to pick up his gun), road pictures like Easy Rider (the name of  the motorcycle Bruce Willis rides at the end of his story), and Disney films like The Parent Trap (the square Uma Thurman draws in the air). These references make Pulp Fiction a hypertext of cinematic allusions and the movie was on the forefront of the trend toward metatextual storytelling that would overtake movies and television in the second half of the 1990s. One of the most recognizable elements of Pulp Fiction is its dialogue. Tarantino’s writing is a bit like Beat poetry, using profanity and a blue-collar sense of language, and it combines that rough dialogue with the American love of the outlaw in stories of criminals coping with matters of honor. The acting in the film is top notch with players cast to their strengths. Bruce Willis, a limited actor who makes very good choices of material, plays exactly the kind of likable tough guy he is known for. Samuel L. Jackson’s image as a badass, and much of his career since, is a direct result of his work in this film. The potent mixture of complex characters, violently wacky stories, and dense cinematic references struck a chord with the mid-1990s audience and Pulp Fiction became one of the defining films of a generation.

What Doesn’t: At the time of its release, Pulp Fiction was hailed as an instant classic. Since the hype over the movie subsided, that judgment has been up for revision. Some would point to Reservoir Dogs, which received mixed reviews in 1992, as a much stronger picture. There is a case for this, since the stories of Pulp Fiction have a lot less going for them when the nonlinear editing is taken out of account. Pulp Fiction also stumbles in comparison to Tarantino’s later movies. Pictures like Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds continue to reflect Tarantino’s knowledge and love of cinema. However, these newer movies use those allusions to critique films, genres, and cinema history. By comparison, Pulp Fiction, drops references but does not do so in the service of a grand design. Especially harsh detractors would argue that Pulp Fiction was so well reviewed in 1994 because it appealed specifically to the solipsism of film critics.

DVD extras: The blu-ray edition includes deleted scenes, featurettes, image galleries, interviews, TV spots and trailers, interviews, a trivia track, and a Siskel & Ebert episode on “The Tarantino Generation.”

Bottom Line: Pulp Fiction is a tribute to the movies of the past while simultaneously pointing to cinema’s future. That makes the picture essential viewing for film enthusiasts and for anyone looking to see how to make an original story out of older material. The long term value of Pulp Fiction to American cinema may be debated going forward but it is still a cool piece of work.

Episode: #253 (August 30, 2009); Revised #508 (September 14, 2014)