A spectacularly entertaining piece of pop culture, “Pulp Fiction” is the “American Graffiti” of violent crime pictures. Following up on his reputation-making debut, “Reservoir Dogs,” Quentin Tarantino makes some of the same moves here but on a much larger canvas, ingeniously constructing a series of episodes so that they ultimately knit together, and embedding the always surprising action in a context set by delicious dialogue and several superb performances.
Reviews, cast and heavy anticipation will make this a must-see among buffs and young male viewers, but rough genre, length and bloody mayhem will rep a turnoff for others, creating a real test of Miramax’s marketing savvy in turning a niche picture into a crossover item upon late-August release.
Working on a widescreen constantly bulging with boldness, humor and diabolical invention, Tarantino indulges himself with a free hand and a budget several times larger than he had on his first outing.
Some may feel that the film sags in spots due to the director’s tendency to try to stretch conceits as far as he can, but Tarantino should be commended for daring to explore the limits of his material, winding up on his feet and beating the sophomore jinx in the process.
As did “Reservoir Dogs,” new pic begins in a coffee shop, with a young couple who call each other Pumpkin and Honey Bunny (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer) chattering away before deciding to hold up the place.
Next sequence also feels like familiar territory, as two hit men, Vincent and Jules (John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson), are attired just like the hoods in “Dogs,” in dark suits, white shirts and ties. At once, Tarantino positions himself as the Preston Sturges of crimeland, putting the most incongruous words and thoughts into the mouths of lowdown, amoral characters.
Recently returned from a drug-happy sojourn in Amsterdam, Vincent speaks knowledgeably about the different varieties of fast-food available in Europe, while Jules fancies himself a philosopher of sorts, waxing eloquent on the Bible , vengeance and divinity.
After they bump off some kids who didn’t play straight with crime lord Marsellus (Ving Rhames), the cool, self-possessed Vincent, as a courtesy, takes his boss’ statuesque wife, Mia (a dark-haired Uma Thurman), out for a night on the town.
This “date” occasions the picture’s biggest set piece, an amazing outing to a giant 1950s-themed restaurant/club. Even with all the decorous distractions, the plot gets advanced through some tantalizing verbal tennis between the two hot lookers, and the evening ends shockingly, with Vincent forced to save Mia’s life in a way that will initially have many viewers cringing but will leave them laughing with appalled relief.
Here as before, Tarantino builds up tremendous tension, only to spice it with humorous non sequiturs. When his characters draw guns, as they so frequently do, one never knows if they’re going to blow others’ heads off, make a funny speech (they often do both), have the tables turned on them or make an honorable, peaceful exit.
An hour in, pic becomes even more audacious, leading the audience deeper into uncharted territory with new characters whose relationships to those already seen remain unclear for some time.
After a fantastic monologue by Christopher Walken as a soldier giving a prized gold watch to a little boy, a stripped-down Bruce Willis, as a boxer named Butch, is seen jumping out a window and getting in a cab. On instructions from Marsellus, Butch was supposed to take a fall, but he didn’t and is on the run for his life.
Butch’s existence over the next few hours is agonizingly unpredictable. Some of the earlier characters begin to drop back into the story, and gradually a grand design starts falling into place.
Overall structure comes clear only after the two-hour mark with launch of the final stretch, which dovetails beautifully back to the beginning but also embraces a new character, the Wolf (Harvey Keitel), an impeccably organized specialist in literally cleaning up other people’s dirty work.
Buffs will have a field day with the bold, confident style of the film and with the cinematic points of reference. Tarantino and lenser Andrzej Sekula’s striking widescreen compositions often contain objects in extreme close-up as well as vivid contrasts, sometimes bringing to mind the visual strategies of Sergio Leone.
Performances are sensational. Jackson possibly has the showiest opportunities , and he commands attention whenever he’s present. Travolta, sporting long hair and an earring, is also terrific, especially during his ambiguous outing with Thurman.
With head shaved in a buzz cut, Willis is all coiled tension and self-control. Keitel has tasty fun as a criminal efficiency expert, Rhames is as menacing as a person can be as the pic’s most powerful figure, and Roth and Plummer are the jumpy couple on the low-rent end of the criminal spectrum.
Most of the coin for David Wasco’s production design must have gone into the enormous diner, a delirious creation. Sally Menke’s editing reps the definition of precision, and score consists of many judiciously selected rock tunes from different eras.
On any number of important levels, “Pulp Fiction” is a startling, massive success.