Quentin Tarantino's opening move in Pulp Fiction is so similar to its Natural Born Killers counterpart that you're reminded that Tarantino, current patron saint of American cinematic ultraviolence, wrote both films. One opens in a coffee shop, the other in a roadside cafe; both feature off-kilter couples who chat a bit, then reach for their revolvers. But the Pulp Fiction version is so superior to Oliver Stone's notion that you'd swear Tarantino was satirizing the big oaf.
Instead of Natural Born Killer's affectless demolition derby, we're treated to a couple -- Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) -- musing on their careers as two-bit criminals. Over breakfast they decide that liquor stores are more trouble to knock over than they're worth, and Pumpkin has an inspiration. "Why doesn't anyone rob restaurants?" he asks, then goes through a description of their virtues: the owner is never present; the employees aren't likely to risk their lives to save another man's money; the customers all have wallets of their own. Honey Bunny is easily convinced, and they decide to act on their moment of genius.
These two characters are so nuanced, and so agreeably weird (the awkward swan Plummer was a particularly shrewd bit of casting), that you're curious to see what they'll do next. Never mind that this scene doesn't quite live up to the "Is-Madonna-an-artist-or-not" roundtable that opened Tarantino's directoral debut, Reservoir Dogs (as a colleague whispered in response to my enthusiasm). I had promised myself that I wouldn't go overboard in evoking that inspired film, not as long as the current movie was keeping me reasonably happy.
But that didn't happen, and as Pulp Fiction droned on, moments of brilliance flashing only occasionally through its smugly overwritten script, I gave in to the comparison game. Better than Natural Born Killers, to be sure, but as for Reservoir Dogs...
Given Pulp Fiction's structural and tonal similarities to Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino almost begs for the comparison. Though at first it seems he'll be throwing his narrative noose a little wider here, it's not a successful rope trick. The best of his little dogies get away.
Not that this is immediately apparent. In the first of three titled episodes, "Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace's Wife," we meet the titular Vincent (John Travolta) and his partner, Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), as they approach the apartment of some smalltime criminals who have ripped off their crime boss, Marsellus Wallace. The action is predictable, and gets overwhelmed by the dialogue, but when the talk is this good, that's okay. We learn almost as an aside that Vincent is supposed to take Wallace's wife out on the town and entertain her while the boss is away on business. We also learn that some poor slob has just been tossed off the roof of his apartment building for the sin of massaging Mrs. Wallace's (Uma Thurman) feet.
Jules is put off by his boss' reaction, saying that a man shouldn't be paralyzed just for handling a woman's feet, but Vincent disagrees, winning the day by asking Jules if he would give a man a foot massage. This conversation is tossed off in a winningly breezy fashion as the two approach their target. Travolta is particularly likable as a greasy enforcer who has just enough wit to really enjoy the low life. Jules is his opposite; he's a gangster on a mission, an Ezekiel-quoting hit man who might be all we have left of the Old Testament prophets who once called down destruction in the name of the Lord.
But there's nothing terribly original about a scripture-quoting killer, and Tarantino slows his story to a crawl so that Jules can have his monologues, his gun pointed at defenseless prey. It turns out that this is only the first in a long line of torture scenes, in which one man revels in his power over a defenseless other. In a later chapter, Tarantino gets more explicit about torture in a totally failed scene, and you can't help but remember Michael Madsen's horrifying, but dramatically right, ear-cutting, flesh-burning turn in Reservoir Dogs. That scene came straight out of Madsen's sadistic character; here, the torture almost always feels forced, as if Tarantino simply wants to make his audience squirm.
But that's not apparent in the opening moments, and when the first episode ends Tarantino seems in control. Vincent's uncomfortable date with Mrs. Wallace is the movie's high point. If nothing else, this film has the virtue of making Uma Thurman's waifish beauty seem threatening again. When she and the heroin-ripped Vincent repair to a '50s-theme restaurant for steaks, five-dollar milk shakes and a twist contest that Mrs. Wallace is determined to win, danger is very much in the air. The twist scene, in which a reluctant Vincent is dragged on-stage by Mrs. Wallace, is the movie's most successful torture sequence. And sure enough, it's a multileveled, ironic pleasure to see John Travolta boogie on-screen again. He's gone a little to seed, but he's still got legs, which might be all that Tarantino is saying about American pop culture.
When Mrs. Wallace finds Vincent's stash and overindulges in a double dip of heroin and cocaine, the film becomes truly dangerous, simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny and terrifying. But at this point there's two hours still left on the reels, and by the conclusion, this scene is but a fond memory -- and a measuring stick for how far short the rest of the movie falls.
The agonizingly slow, 120-minute fade to black covers two more titled sequences. In one, "The Good Watch," Bruce Willis shows up as Butch, a boxer in the employ of Marsellus Wallace who's supposed to take a dive in his next fight, but instead double-crosses the gangster by betting heavily on himself, winning and taking off with a gambling fortune. Or at least trying to, before a plot twist brings him and Wallace into the clutches of a pair of backwoods perverts leftover from Deliverance. The final segment, "Jules, Vincent, Jimmie & the Wolf," brings us back to Pumpkin, Honey Bunny and the coffee shop of the opening. It also brings us back to Jules and Vincent, who stop by for a breakfast and to talk over their last job.
The shock is that there's no shock in any of this. In Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino's plotting had us perpetually carrying one story line up to another, feeling them crackle when they came together, then racing ahead. But here there's no similar payoff. Tarantino's idea for the goofily amateurish bandits doesn't develop, and the predictable showdown between them and the pros is buried alive by his limp staging of the action.
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At this moment, Quentin Tarantino's career trajectory feels a bit like David Lynch's. Lynch did American sickness like never before in Blue Velvet, was hailed a dangerous genius, then won Cannes with the execrable Wild at Heart and floated off into the ether. Pulp Fiction, another Cannes winner, isn't as bad as Wild at Heart, but much of its tedium comes from Tarantino's lazy, possibly arrogant, overwriting. He was told his words were pure gold once or twice too often. Tarantino's love affair with his own words, and probably with his press clippings, is what strangles Pulp Fiction. After the nearly silent Mrs. Wallace, the characters become more and more given to monologues that Tarantino hopes will be weird and character-and-plot developing. But they're only wasted air.
But in a classic case of the emperor and his new clothes, nobody seems willing to let Tarantino in on that. And if the drumbeat continues for this bloated mess, in which the enfant terrible has already begun to recycle himself rather than build on what he's done, Tarantino may find himself as stuck as Lynch in his own success.
Directed by Quentin Tarantino. With John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer.