movie film review | chris tookey

Pulp Fiction

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  Pulp Fiction Review
Tookey's Rating
10 /10
Average Rating
9.39 /10
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Directed by: Quentin Tarantino

Released: 1994
Origin: US
Length: 153

A boxer (Bruce Willis) is supposed to take a dive in a fight but kills his opponent instead, then tries to escape with his wife (Maria de Medeiros).
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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The other chief protagonists are a pair of hit-men : ageing pretty-boy Vincent (John Travolta, pictured right), rapidly running to seed on a diet of junk food, pop culture and heroin, and his black sidekick (Samuel L. Jackson) who sees himself as an instrument of Biblical vengeance. Along the way, these two run into a smooth-talking dope dealer (Eric Stoltz) and his wacky wife (Rosanna Arquette). Uma Thurman (pictured left) gives the performance of her life as a gangster-boss's cocaine-addicted spouse - and the world's worst date. And there's a super-cool trouble-shooter (Harvey Keitel, who else?) who has the job of cleaning up after the two hitmen have accidentally blown a man's head off in the back of their car.

Inevitably, many reviews concentrated on the blood, bad language, drugs and depravity; but the ingredient which lifts this black comedy thriller to greatness is the storytelling. Although the dialogue has the bite of an Elmore Leonard novel or a David Mamet play, it is Quentin Tarantino's sheer delight in spinning a yarn which makes him the Spielberg of splatter.

But whereas Spielberg pictures are about Good versus Evil, Tarantino is interested in the palpable friction between Evil and Much, Much Worse. On display here is the kind of lowlife which makes the underside of a stone look salubrious. There is scarcely a character who is not motivated by greed or self-indulgence. Perhaps the most shocking moment is when a wife bursts into tears of relief at her husband's blood-soaked return; it's virtually the only sign of normal human concern in the whole movie.

Bookending the film is an episode where two petty crooks (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer) hold up a fast-food joint. The narrative connection between them and the rest of the picture only becomes clear at the end; but their role is morally crucial. For they are young people who, lacking any roots or morality, are contemplating a life of crime. They fancy themselves as a latterday Bonnie and Clyde. The rest of the film charts that descent into a Dante's Inferno which they risk entering. The denouement delivers them from the worst consequences of their stupidity, and looks likely to dissuade them from trying anything like it again.

There will always be those who argue that Pulp Fiction trivialises violence and glamorises crime; but what clearly fascinates Tarantino is a world where bloodshed can become trivialised, where crime really does confer glamour, where greed and depravity are disguised beneath a veneer of cool professionalism. As surely as Martin Scorsese in GoodFellas, Tarantino exposes the banality of evil, but he does so with the clinical detachment of French New Wave film-makers such as Jean-Pierre Melville or the very early Jean-Luc Godard. He - and they - know that you can't hope to understand criminality without appreciating its attractions.

The numerous movie references within Pulp Fiction should not be construed as mere Post-Modernist affectation, or showing off for the benefit of critics; they reflect a recognition that films help create the role-models for our society. It was often said of the Kray Brothers that they imitated the Hollywood gangsters they had seen (though, of course, they chose to ignore those movies' moral lessons). Tarantino doesn't disguise the fact that Cinema forms part of criminal culture.

When Bruce Willis escapes in a cab from his fatal fight, for instance, the back-projection behind him is black-and-white. This reminds the audience that his story is part of a boxing movie tradition which runs from Body and Soul through to Raging Bull. At the same time, the colour foreground reveals that this is all taking place very much in the amoral present, with his cab-driver gaining a perverted pleasure from the knowledge that her passenger has just killed a man.

In another memorable scene, Travolta's hit-man enters a dance competition which knowingly sends up his big-screen debut in Saturday Night Fever. The sequence is richly comic because Travolta's character evidently fancies himself as a John Travolta; and the reason why his dancing partner is attracted to him is just as obviously that he looks like Travolta, though a bit fleshier, older and not quite as quick on his feet.

In perhaps the most nightmarish episode (and one which some people will find homophobic), Willis finds himself in a stylized, sado-masochistic situation which combines the worst moments of Deliverance and Silence of the Lambs.

Such references might have been clever-clever or distancing; in Tarantino's hands, they are arresting. How many times have people said of reality, especially at moments of danger, that it was like being in the movies? Here is the film which, more cleverly than any art-house classic like 8 1/2, explores that symbiotic interaction between movies and life.

The question remains as to whether Tarantino has made a film about desensitisation, or has merely made a desensitised film. It is hard to see Pulp Fiction without the uneasy feeling that modern audiences may - like the Krays with those old gangster movies - respond to the style, violence and sleaze without perceiving the moral underpinning. And there are moments when Tarantino's intention is clearly to gross out the audience. But then Shakespeare did the same with the eye-gouging in King Lear, the decapitation in Titus Andronicus, and the murder of Macduff's family in Macbeth.

This is not a film for anyone who is easily offended by bad language, or who thinks that all screen violence is "unnecessary". Do see it, however, if you enjoy a cracking story, lively characters, sparkling dialogue and bravura cinematic talent. For once, the Grand Jury at Cannes - under the timely Chairmanship of Clint Eastwood - came to the right decision in awarding Pulp Fiction the Palme d'Or. For this is the film in which Tarantino fulfils the promise of Reservoir Dogs and lifts himself immediately into the class of Scorsese. Not only is this among the best films of the 90s; it is also the most 90s film of the 90s.

"I don't make movies that bring people together."

(Quentin Tarantino)

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