30. Pulp Fiction (1994)

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Maria de Medeiros, Ving Rhames, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, Christopher Walken, Quentin Tarantino, Frank Whaley

Were I to pick one director with whom I most desire to have a sit-down discussion accompanied by a few drinks, it would be Quentin Tarantino. In his interviews, he leaves me with the impression that he and I share more than a few of the same interests in the world of cinema as well as music. Tell me you can listen to “Jungle Boogie” and not want to get up out of your chair and dance badly. It doesn’t hurt that Tarantino and I also share the same birthplace of Knoxville, Tennessee. I freely admit to giggling the first time I heard Bruce Willis mention my hometown in this movie.

I would love to tell Tarantino in person how I feel about each one of his movie scripts, but I would undoubtedly spend the most time on the subject of “Pulp Fiction.” Its narrative format having been inspired by the 1963 Mario Bava-directed horror anthology film “Black Sabbath,” “Pulp Fiction” is a three-movement symphony, of which the instruments are violence and witty dialogue. Not a single character in the movie can be categorized as a “good” person, and yet the story provides for us ways in which to both sympathize and root for them all to succeed at what they’re doing.

One of my favorite things Tarantino does with this movie comes during the segment featuring the boxer named Butch, played by Bruce Willis. He’s in the process of making his getaway after winning a match in which he was supposed to take a dive. While driving back to the motel room where his girlfriend is waiting for him, he comes to a stop sign. Right there in front of him crossing the street is the crime boss he cheated out of thousands of dollars. It’s right out of a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” and it’s just perfectly played.

I don’t know if I can come up with another actor in the last twenty years whose film career experienced a resurrection quite like John Travolta’s did thanks to “Pulp Fiction.”  Introduced to the world by the TV show “Welcome Back, Kotter” and the films “Grease” and “Saturday Night Fever,” his best pre-“Pulp Fiction” movie is easily Brian De Palma’s 1981 conspiracy thriller “Blow Out.” The early 1990’s, however, saw Travolta starring as the father of a talking baby in “Look Who’s Talking” and its sequels. Thank goodness for Tarantino! As the accident-prone hitman Vincent Vega, whether he’s the focus or not, Travolta has a key part to play in each of the movie’s three segments, each involving messes that Vincent creates which someone else will have to help to clean up. You get the sense that Vincent might shoot his own foot off if someone weren’t around to hold him by the hand.

John Travolta gets many of the film’s best lines, but the majority of those that aren’t spoken by him are given to Samuel L. Jackson as Jules, Vincent’s partner in the hit assignments. Jackson plays Jules as a man who can walk into any room and take control of a given situation, even when the odds seem against him. He’s as much of a smooth talker as he is a stone cold killer. But Jules is not a stoic individual. When someone annoys him, Jules will let them know it immediately, and not always with his words. But a near-death experience which Jules equates to an act of God causes him to question whether he still wants to be in his current line of work. Probably the smartest decision he’s come to in his life. Samuel L. Jackson is so reliably good at his craft, is it any wonder how he got more work in the 1990’s than any other actor?

Although Vincent and Jules are clearly my favorite characters, and although there are several noteworthy performances throughout including that of Uma Thurman (whose image dominates the promotional material for “Pulp Fiction”), my favorite piece of acting comes in the flashback that leads into the “Gold Watch” segment. No, I’m not talking about Christopher Walken, although he is terrific. The guy is so good that he can star as the villain in the worst James Bond movie of all-time (1985’s “A View to a Kill”) and still be the best part of it. No, I’m referring to the child actor playing the young Butch. This kid deserved an award of some kind. How do you listen to the speech that Walken gives in this scene and manage to keep a straight face? Granted, the way the scene is set up, it’s possible they might’ve filmed their parts separately and would thus never have been on set at the same time, but I’d like to think this kid sat attentively without so much as breaking a smile while the great Christopher Walken talked of hiding a watch in the one place no one would ever think to search for it.

I close on this final thought: If there does not exist somewhere in this world a Jack Rabbit Slim’s restaurant, there should. If it does exist, then it’s on my bucket list of things to do before I die to locate this place and eat there.


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