Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino)

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Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A gangster takes his boss’s wife out for dinner… A boxer wins a fight he’d been paid to throw… A dead body causes a panic… And a pair of thieves hold up a restaurant…

What does QT do? The script was based on a number of disparate story fragments. One of them – Pandemonium Reigns, which became Butch’s plotline – was by Roger Avary, who helped Tarantino with the draft and gets a ‘story by’ credit. Director Quentin also cast himself in the role of Jimmy, who has significant amounts of dialogue with Samuel L Jackson, John Travolta and Harvey Keitel – he was not short of self-confidence around this time. It’s an okay performance. (He toyed with playing Lance, but wanted to be behind the camera during the famous adrenalin-shot moment.)

Notable characters:
* ‘Pumpkin’ (Tim Roth) and Yolanda/‘Honey Bunny’ (Amanda Plummer) are the young couple who hold up a diner. Despite Pumpkin’s English accent, and the fact he jokingly gets called Ringo, his dialogue is littered with Americanisms. The characters are another example of Tarantino’s Bonnie-and-Clyde-type criminals in love (see True Romance and Natural Born Killers).
* Jules Winnfield (Samuel L Jackson) is a mid-level gangster with a jheri-curl hairdo. When we meet him, he’s retrieving a suitcase from some associates. He quotes a doom-mongering Bible passage before killing one of them, then survives a near-death experience and decides to quit the life. Jackson is *immense* in this film: captivating, cool and chillingly charismatic. You can’t take your eyes off him. He won a Bafta and was nominated at the Oscars.
* Vincent Vega (John Travolta) is Jules’s partner. He’s just returned from a few years in Amsterdam, where he’s become keen on drugs. A confrontational guy, he’s nervous when boss Marsellus asks him to entertain his wife. There are two running gags about Vincent in the film. Famously, he goes to the toilet three times and something catastrophic happens each time. Also, he’s actually fairly incompetent: he kills someone by mistake, can’t wash his hands properly, leaves dangerous drugs for Mia to find…
* Brett (Frank Whalley) is the associate who has the suitcase. He and a friend – referred to as ‘Flock of Seagulls’ because of his silly haircut – are scared shitless when Jules and Vincent show up.
* Marvin (Phil LaMarr) is Marcelles’s man on the inside with the associates. After Brett and co are dead, Marvin leaves with Jules and Vincent – but in the film’s biggest laugh, Vincent accidentally shoots him in the face.
* Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) is a boxer who Marsellus pays to throw a fight. However, Butch secretly bets on himself then wins the bout and goes on the run. When his girlfriend forgets to bring his beloved wristwatch, however, Butch sneaks home to get it – and bumps into Marsellus. They fight in the street and end up being kidnapped by redneck rapists. (In a flashback scene, Butch’s mother is played by Brenda Hillhouse, Quentin Tarantino’s former acting coach.)
* Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) is hidden from view in his first few appearances – he’s shot from behind or kept in shadows. It’s only when he surprisingly appears in front of Butch’s car that we see fully him.
* Jody (Rosanna Arquette) is the girlfriend of drug-dealer Lance and has lots of piercings: “Five in each ear, one through the nipple on my left breast, two in my right nostril, one in my left eyebrow, one in my belly, one in my lip, one in my clit… and I wear a stud in my tongue.”
* Lance (Eric Stoltz) sells Vincent some prime heroine, which he says is making a comeback. He’s later pissed off when Vincent returns with an OD’ing Mia. Lance is a more with-it version of Floyd from True Romance.
* Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) is Marsellus’s wife, who Vincent has to take out for a meal on Marsellus’s orders. She’s a hedonist who forces Vincent to join her in a dance contest and then overdoses on his heroine. This is Thurman’s best performance in a movie by far.
* ‘Buddy Holly’ (Steve Buscemi) is a waiter at Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a 1950s-themed diner Vincent and Mia go to. In Reservoir Dogs, Buscemi’s character argued against tipping waitresses; here he plays a dour waiter. A neat gag.
* Captain Koons (Christopher Walken) appears in a flashback (or possibly dream sequence). He served in Vietnam with Butch’s father, who’s been killed, and is giving the young Butch his father’s watch. Walken’s cameo is mostly a monologue.
* Esmarelda Villa Lobos (Amanda Jones) is the taxi driver Butch hires to get him away from the boxing venue. She has a perverse fascination with what it’s like to kill a man. (The scene in the moving cab uses black-and-white footage for its background plates – a nod to the movie’s film-noir inspirations.)
* Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros) is Butch’s child-like girlfriend, who witters on about pot bellies and pancakes. She also loses his beloved watch, which doesn’t go down well.
* Maynard (Duane Whitaker) and Zed (Peter Greene) are two rapists who lock Butch and Macellus up in their cellar. Zed’s a copper and has a chopper (not a motorbike) called Grace. They also have another man locked up in their basement: the Gimp (Stephen Hibbert), who’s kept in a box and dressed all in leather.
* Jimmy (Quentin Tarantino) is a pal of Jules’s who seemingly used to be a crim but now lives in a nice house with his wife, a nurse called Bonnie. Early one morning, Jules and Vincent show up with a dead body and ask for his help.
* Winston Wolf (Harvey Keitel) is a fixer hired by Marsellus when Jules and Vincent land in trouble. We first see him at an all-night cocktail party (hence why he’s in a tux at 8am).

Returning actors: Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi and Quentin Tarantino had all been in Reservoir Dogs. Samuel L Jackson and Christopher Walken had small roles in True Romance.

Music: It’s one of *the* great movie soundtracks. No score, but a long list of excellently chosen pop tracks. It’s an effortlessly cool playlist in itself, strong with surfer music and instrumentals, but the most impressive thing is how the songs work in context. They’re deployed with precision: the whipcrack Misirlou (Dick Dale & His Del-Tones) to power us into the credits; the chilled Let’s Stay Together (Al Green) to score Butch’s meeting with Marsellus; the trippy Bustin’ Surfboards (The Tornadoes) for Vincent’s drug haze; the cool-as-fuck Son of a Preacher Man (Dusty Springfield) when we enter Mia’s world; the jaunty You Never Can Tell (Chuck Berry) for the dance contest; the upbeat Flowers on the Wall (The Statler Brothers) for Butch’s moment of triumph; and so on…

Time shifts and chapters: This anthology film has three main stories with on-screen titles (Vincent Vega & Marsellus Wallace’s Wife, The Gold Watch, and The Bonnie Situation) as well as a subplot about two robbers. But the first story chronologically speaking is actually shown last, allowing the movie to circle back on itself, and the film has a pleasing symmetry. We start and conclude with the robbers, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny. Then moving one step in from either end, we have Vincent and Jules. One step further in and Vincent’s recklessness is causing chaos (an overdose and a death). Butch sits at the centre of the film. This structure allows for plenty of fun: for example, on a second viewing you can actually spot Vincent and hear Jules during the opening scene in the diner. More importantly, every major character is given a closing moment of redemption or triumph. Vincent is shot and killed, but then ‘resurrected’ for The Bonnie Situation (which is set earlier). Jules drops out of the film after 25 minutes, but then returns in The Bonnie Situation and we learn that it was his choice. Mia goes through hell in the opening story, but then we see her doing well in The Gold Watch. Butch’s last scene – as he rides off into the sunset a winner – comes with an hour of the film to go, but is actually the final scene chronologically. This playing around with time also allows us to see different points of view of the same events. The film twice loops back to an earlier moment – to Jules killing Brett, and to Pumpkin and Honey Bunny’s robbery – but now we have new information about what’s happening.

Connections: Vincent Vega is the brother of Mr Blonde from Reservoir Dogs. A fan theory has it that the suitcase Jules and Vincent are collecting contains the stolen jewels from Reservoir Dogs. Harvey Keitel has recently been reprising Winston Wolf in some fairly unwatchable British TV ads.

Review: Pulp Fiction is a sprawling film-noir masterpiece, populated by fascinating and entertaining characters, and there’s more going on in 147 minutes than in most film directors’ entire careers. A strong theme is that while choices have consequences – Vincent buying the drugs, Butch betraying Marsellus – more often than not fate plays a key role. Lance runs out of the right sort of bags for heroine, Fabienne forgets the watch, Butch bumps into Marsellus in the street, Vincent’s gun goes off at the wrong time, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny pick the wrong day to rob a diner, the Pop Tarts are ready at the worst time… These unplanned moments reverberate throughout the movie, and the characters’ reactions to them are really interesting. For example, Jules and Vincent are shot at but survive. The prosaic Vincent shrugs it off as luck, yet Jules is deeply affected and it changes his life. This keeps the character stories interesting and engaging. On every level, in fact, this is superior filmmaking. Tarantino’s attitude-loaded dialogue is extraordinary. The large cast is excellent. There’s some wonderfully staged camerawork, including more long takes (Vincent and Jules walking up to the apartment is five minutes of film with just four cuts). It’s superbly edited by Sally Menke. There’s a tremendous sound mix that reveals lots of subtle details on repeat viewings. The film established Tarantino’s reputation for innovative casting (the then-unfashionable John Travolta in a leading role, movie star Bruce Willis ‘working for scale’). It introduced the director’s foot fetish (characters discuss foot massages, Mia is barefoot a few times), which will crop up again in future films. And the script contains some fantastic conceptual jokes. Guns, for example, either don’t work or go spectacularly wrong, while Winston Wolf is built up as an all-powerful, almost mythical figure who will rescue Jules and Vincent from disaster… then all he does is tell them to clean the car. This film changed my life. It came out when I was 15, and like some kind of Rosetta Stone it opened my eyes to what cinema can be, what it can do. More than any other movie it put me on a road that led to a film degree and a career vaguely connected to the media. I owe it a lot.

Every motherfucking last one of you out of 10

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