Running time: 154 mins
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis
The retrospective eye over the shoulder continues with 20 Years on the QT Vol. II better known amongst his fans as Pulp Fiction. In this “homage” to the French New Wave but with bullets the lives of two hitmen, a mobster’s wife, a browbeaten boxer and two low level stick-up merchants intertwine to tell a bloody story on the tough streets of California.
Like a right hook to Reservoir Dogs left jab in the one-two combo of an explosive few years Quentin Tarantino demonstrates his writing stylings, taste in music and knowledge of European cinema to wow American audiences and bring the cinematic world to it’s knees in praising him as the great white hope of American cinema.
Pulp Fiction is, for me, very much a picture of two halves and like some who share the director’s knowledge and love of European cinema (in particular French, Italian Neo-Realism and German Expressionism) I’m at odds with myself over exactly how I feel about Pulp Fiction. Tarantino’s direction is strong; a little more assured and flashy than in his debut but a sign of a growing eye. Like Reservoir Dogs the camera often lingers, picking up and dropping off at intervals that allow the four stories to be almost overheard. It’s a promiscuous form of cinematography and works extremely effectively for the narrative being told. The film would be credited with “kick starting” John Travolta’s film career not just as a bankable commodity but also object of the quivering loins for audience members who remembered him the first time around. It would be a credit Tarantino would accept and attempt to continue in later works with various levels of success.
Travolta’s performance (as Vincent Vega) is strong. For anyone thinking it’s a serious departure for him think again; that idea is smoke and mirrors as he’s a likeable if slightly easy-going guy who at times is a little dumber than you would think, who does bad things but is ultimately likeable. The rest of the character is all Travolta; it’s lasting connotations of his “acting brand” mixed with an eagerness to do a good job and get back to making movies that don’t include a talking baby.
(as Jules) gives a commanding performance; he had been a jobbing actor for years and brought a hunger to the scream that has been somewhat lacking in every performance he’s given since then. Interestingly he; like Madsen before him; has an odd relationship with acting in that he’s not as good the second time around (Jackie Brown) and somehow has found himself set in and around the ballpark of that performance since. His interplay with Travolta, in another ensemble cast, is excellent. Not only do the two men seem to be having real fun working alongside one another they almost seem weaker without the other; picture Jackson without Hardy and you’ll be close. Thurman’s performance is perhaps the most interesting. For the most part Reservoir Dogs lacked any female involvement on screen so for Tarantino to write and Thurman to perform such a complex and contradictory female role is a genuine treat and the closest to Exploitation cinema QT has ever gotten. She’s fiercely intelligent and independent yet married to a dominating man who, most likely, doesn’t take kindly to being argued with. She's fun loving and at the same time harshly serious; it’s unlike anything Thurman had been given before; unsexualised yet erotic and the clearest sign that Tarantino can write real characters. For more on strong women see reviews for The Switchblade Sisters and Coffy. On the other hand Butch (Bruce Willis) is a two dimensional alpha male but like Vincent Vega the scribe has written right into Willis’ wheelhouse and allows for him to give a hugely enjoyable and controlled performance, certainly one of his most impressive. Laurel
There are many, many, many more performances worth talking about but the film is so heavily populated with returning and eager newcoming actors all wanting to be part of “the follow-up to Reservoir Dogs” you’d spend a day discussing them; suffice to say everyone was great…well done them! The score is an important aspect of Tarantino cinema, or at least it was. In recent films it has felt more and more like a gimmick used to hammer home an idea than couldn’t be articulated on the page or sculpted on screen but Pulp Fiction’s score is a character in it’s own right and in part gave the film a sense of American identity it sorely needed with it so heavily peppered with Goddard, Melville and Truffaut.
The problems with Pulp Fiction and it’s one that many will refute and proclaim it “perfect” is that it’s too long and impressed by itself. Somewhere in the middle it sags; the film loses pace and becomes entrenched in it’s own smarts. It is a smart film and it has every right to be proud of that face but a film can be smart without announcing it so blatantly. The pace gives the audiences slack on an otherwise taut rope and allows them to drive and though the film does win them back and end strong I can’t help but feel Tarantino was writing to give himself a pat on the back for just how much he knows about cinema that, by and large, most of America are oblivious to. In later years this smarts would become unbearable smugness and if uncorrected could render any QT joint unwatchable.
For the most part Pulp Fiction is a marvel to watch. There’s something to be said about anyone who can take Bande á Part and remake it for an American audience making it financially powerful, cinematically independent and culturally relevant but it is a blatant step in the direction of misappropriation that will, unchecked, become sheer thievery. The fact that it’s a hugely enjoyable, stylish and well constructed piece of non-linear narrative fiction is tainted by the bigger fact that rather than an ‘original screenplay’ credit Tarantino should have been attributed an ‘adapted for non-lovers of subtitles’ mention. Hugely impressive but ultimately derivative of one of the greatest French directors ever; which is probably why Cannes fell so deeply in love with it.