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Classic movie review: 'Pulp Fiction' (1994)

John Travolta and Samuel Jackson in 'Pulp Fiction.'
John Travolta and Samuel Jackson in 'Pulp Fiction.'
Movie still

Pulp Fiction


Criminal kingpin, Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) orders one of his hitmen, Vincent Vega (John Travolta), to take his wife, Mia (Uma Thurman), out to dinner when Marsellus is out of town. Vincent finds himself in a real jam when Mia overdoses and nearly dies.

Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), a boxer, is ordered by Marsellus to throw a fight. Butch double crosses him and must disappear before Marsellus' men catch up with him. The only problem is that he must retrieve a treasured heirloom before he can get out of town, and Butch is willing to risk his life to recover it.

Vincent and his fellow hitman, Jules Winnfield (Samuel Jackson), need help real fast when an accidental shooting turns the back of their car into a bloodbath and leaves the hapless duo with an unwanted corpse.

Check your P.C. at the door
Welcome to the world of Quentin Tarantino, an elevated terrain where political correctness cannot survive and where a love for movies supersedes all else. In Pulp Fiction we are taken on a wild ride through the colorful and violent underbelly of Los Angeles. It pulls no punches, and the language the characters speak is second nature to them. Tarantino does not make the mistake of using the word nigga (spoken mostly by the black characters) once or twice as a signpost to show this is how these people speak. Instead, he litters their speech with the epithet and we accept it as a natural part of their everyday lives.

Only in the movies
Where else but in the movies are you going to get the glowing "MacGuffin" in the briefcase? Where else can the lure of heroin be both seductive and repugnant at the same time? Where else can two thugs be talking about fast food in Europe one minute and later have a philosophical discussion about the meaning of life and how one might go about fulfilling that meaning?

We are speaking, of course, about the language of cinema. What's in the mysterious briefcase (with the combination 666 to unlock it) is not really important to the audience; what matters is that we understand it is important to the characters. Later, in the scene where Vincent takes a hit of heroin, it's the music and cinematography that conveys both the allure and the revulsion of the drug.

Another example: There's a moment when Vincent comes to Marsellus' home to pick up Mia. A note on the door tells him to come in and make himself a drink. But we do not actually see him enter the house. Instead, there is a flash of white and in the next shot he is inside--a tipoff that this is not going to be a normal night. Vincent has just crossed a threshold and is about to embark on one hellish adventure.

Talk talk talk talk talk
And thanks to Tarantino's dialogue (to this writer reminiscent of early David Mamet), full of surprising and entertaining digressions, we get both a glimpse into the minds of this motley bunch of characters as well as hints of moments that pay off later in the film. For example, toward the beginning when Jules and Vincent are retrieving the briefcase from the unfortunate young men who thought they could scam Marsellus, Jules goes on a rant and asks one of them if he thinks Marsellus looks like a bitch; and if not, why does he think he can fuck Marsellus like a bitch. He's speaking figuratively, of course, but it pays off later when we do see Marsellus in that unfortunate position (literally).

Christopher Walken's nearly four minute monologue about the gold watch is bizarre, hilarious and hypnotic (while watching the film at home I thought there might be a glitch on my DVD because there were a couple of moments when Walken would stop talking and would not move; but those are deliberate pauses--eerie, brilliant). It sets up Butch's willingness to risk his life to retrieve the watch.

A macabre wit
Tarantino has a macabre wit that never ceases to entertain. In one scene, when Butch is on the verge of escaping from redneck perverts, he decides to go back and help Marsellus, who is still held captive. While searching for a weapon, his succession of choices, as he replaces one thing for something more destructive, almost always elicits a giddy response from an audience.

It's happening at the cemetery
This Friday, July 11, you can catch Pulp Fiction at the Sunnyside Cemetery, on Willow St. Lola's Outdoor Retro Cinema and Long Beach Cinematheque have teamed up to present a series of summer screenings at the historic graveyard. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.

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To read more reviews and articles by Michael Ballard, CLICK HERE.

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