Retro Review: ‘Pulp Fiction’

Read on as Shotgun Critic explores some gems and turds of cinematic yesteryear. Rediscover a forgotten classic through fresh eyes, or see how time has worn away the polish on your favourite childhood movies. Join us.

When it comes to career-defining films, it was Quentin Tarantino’s second work, ‘Pulp Fiction’ that has arguably defined the tone and stylistic traits we’ve come to expect from the master filmmaker. It’s an important film—firstly, a discontinuous narrative arc (meaning, one that plays with time and sequence of events)  was something rarely attempted in mainstream filmmaking. Secondly, it was graphic – in violence, drug use and, bleakly, humour.  It took risks—and it did so with a calibre of writing and cinematographic quality that Tarantino’s first film, ‘Reservoir Dogs’ certainly hinted at. It did so on a budget of just $8 million.

The story is complex. Two hitmen are hired to retrieve a briefcase. The pair cross paths with a boxer who intends to rip off their kingpin boss, who also tasks one of the hitmen with entertaining his new wife while he’s away on business. Separately, a husband and wife crime team hold up a restaurant where the two hitmen are eating, in a sequence that bookends the film– though it takes place mid-way through the story chronologically. In between, there are sequences involving drug dealers, redneck rapist pawnshop owners, 50s-style diners and dance sequences and risqué cab drivers. There’s a bit of everything—and with a melting pot of ideas, under a different director, Pulp Fiction could’ve been disastrous. In fact, it was miraculous – a success despite the odds.

“Royale with Cheese.”

Initially though, what really turned heads back in 1994 was the cast. This then-low-key director had assembled an ensemble cast of players that set jaws agape: Amanda Plummer, Tim Roth, Samuel L. Jackson, John Travolta, Bruce Willis, Ving Rhames, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel, Eric Stoltz, Steve Buscemi, Rosanna Arquette, Christopher Walken, Lawrence Bender and Phil LaMarr. Everyone was onboard—and most would have their careers bolstered by association.

Running with John Travolta, whose career had really hit a dry spot around this time, was a stroke of genius—but in pairing him with then low-key star Samuel L. Jackson, it ignited one of the best filmic duos of all-time. Instantly iconic, perfectly matched for tone and intensity, Travola’s ‘Vincent Vega’ and Jackson’s ‘Jules Winnfield’ are the ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’ of Pulp Fiction. They overanalyse. They wax philosophical. They laugh as they shed blood and we laugh with them; they are anti-heroes of the most extreme nature and utterly beloved.

“Bring out The Gimp.”

With Tarantino’s love of schlock genres apparent for all to see in his work in ‘Death Proof’ and the ‘Kill Bill’ double-bill, it’s Pulp Fiction that we really start to see his stylistic influences. He dips his toes in out-and-out horror (“Bring out The Gimp!”), slapstick talkies – (“You just shot Marvin in the face!”) and ‘Patton’-esque grandstanding speeches (“And now, little man, I give the watch to you.”). His love of gangsters and crime narratives are naturally on full display, but it’s how Tarantino subverts the genre with other influences that gives Pulp Fiction a lasting originality that so rarely has been approached by other filmmakers (‘In Bruges’ comes to mind – and perhaps ‘Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang’). Even the soundtrack, a mash-up of classic jukebox hits, surf rock and hip-hop, went on to define how filmmakers would colour their sequences for years to come.

It’s hard to overstate how important Pulp Fiction is—from a filmmaking standpoint, from a writer’s perspective, from a director’s chair, from the ears of a lover of music. Its dedicated fan-base and the pop-culture reverberations that have flowed steadily from it, almost 20 years on, echo Tarantino’s achievements with Pulp Fiction. Unassailable filmmaking.

5 Stars

Patrick Kolan


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