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‘Pulp Fiction’ (R)By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 14, 1994
The oafish knee-breakers, the fight-throwing palookas and the nail-filing molls: All the bit players come out of the shadows in “Pulp Fiction,” Quentin Tarantino’s time-twisting homage to the Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns of film noir. A comedy blacker than Scarface’s heart, Tarantino’s ingenious and slyly assured second film wisely forgoes the graphic excesses of his 1992 debut, “Reservoir Dogs.” Tarantino, who also wrote “True Romance” and “Natural Born Killers,” opens this film with another pair on the lam: Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) and Pumpkin (Tim Roth), whose snuggly pet names belie their thieving ways. Over breakfast at a cozy coffee shop, they discuss plans to go from robbing liquor stores to restaurants.
It’s the perfect prelude to the body of “Pulp Fiction,” an anthology of three luridly overblown, chronologically deviant stories, their narratives linked via characters who slide from one segment to the other as easily as a moll onto her sugar daddy’s knee. Tarantino’s characters may be goons, but they are also inveterate fat-chewers on par with the boys at Barry Levinson’s “Diner.” As the boss’s wife, Mia (Uma Thurman), says to henchman Vincent (John Travolta), “When you little scamps get together, you’re worse than a sewing circle.”
In the first story, Vincent baby-sits Mia for his boss, although it’s rumored that her last chaperon fell out of a skyscraper after giving her a foot massage. Before the date, Vincent shares his concerns with his Jheri-curled colleague, Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), who, after much back and forth, remains skeptical of the story.
Vincent, a paunchy heroin user, shoots up before his date with the lustrous Mia, who has snorted a little something herself before they leave for Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a ’50s theme restaurant where dead celebrity look-alikes serve Douglas Sirk sirloin. Buddy Holly (Steve Buscemi) reluctantly takes Mia and Vincent’s order for burgers—bloody—and shakes. They top off the evening by entering Slim’s twist contest in a dreamy, druggy rendition of the dance.
Later at Mia’s place, Vincent has a sudden desire to massage her feet, and wonders whether he can betray his boss, Marsellus (Ving Rhames). For all the splatter, the movie’s message has to do with loftier themes, honor and redemption among them.
Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), a prizefighter paid to take a fall, decides to double-cross Marsellus in another story, “The Good Watch.” Just when Butch seems about to escape Marsellus, he is faced with the moral choice of saving him from mutual enemies or making off with the dough. It’s no coincidence that Butch arms himself with an old samurai sword.
Willis, minus his smirk, brings more compassion than sass to this role, but the movie starts to lose its momentum through the section as Tarantino continues to force the action into odder, grosser directions, including bondage and homosexual rape. It’s a relief to get back to Jules and Vincent, still driving along in their parody of a salt-and-pepper buddy movie.
Upon surviving an ambush at point-blank range, Jules calls it an act of God and resolves to give up his life of crime. It’s not easy, since he is carrying a mysterious briefcase that when opened emits a golden glow. Could it be that Jules has found the Grail?
Jackson looks the part of an Old Testament prophet, eyes burning like charcoal briquettes, when Jules quotes a long biblical passage before blasting his victim. Travolta, who shares the bulk of the screen time with Jackson, manages to make Vincent sympathetic despite his occupation. There are also a pair of priceless cameos by Harvey Keitel as the mob’s Mr. Fixit and Christopher Walken as a Vietnam veteran. If Travolta gets to dance, then Walken gets to tweak “The Deer Hunter.”
True to his nature, Tarantino stuffs “Pulp Fiction” with movie references, but its true strength is in turning these on end. The experience overall is like laughing down a gun barrel, a little bit tiring, a lot sick and maybe far too perverse for less jaded moviegoers. When bits of brain cling to Jules’s oily ringlets, not everybody is going to laugh, perhaps because they have been too close to someone who has been the victim of a shotgun blast. Maybe we’re laughing because we’re too shellshocked by what we have become to cry.
Pulp Fiction, at area theaters, is rated R for profanity, drug use, graphic violence and sexuality.
Copyright The Washington Post