Twenty years ago this week, moviegoers got their first glimpse of Quentin Tarantino’s startling, genre-busting “Pulp Fiction.” It may not have been everyone’s cup of tea at the time — and some critics hated it — but if you’re a fan, you’ve been amazed at how well it holds up over repeated viewings.
What also holds up well? The original Washington Post reviews of “Pulp Fiction.”
The film made a stupendous splash at the Cannes Film Festival that summer — and the subsequent waves of hype and backlash as it reached U.S. shores had many cinema nerds struggling to decide what exactly to think about “Pulp Fiction” once they saw it. But both Rita Kempley and Desson Thomson (then writing as Desson Howe) cut through the noise with clear-eyed reviews that still accurately evoke a movie whose twists and jokes and shocks now are so familiar. I checked in with both writers this week; their retrospective thoughts appear after their reviews from October 14, 1994.
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‘PULP FICTION’: A SLAY RIDE
By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Kempley, who left the Post in 2004 after 25 years, is now an author and independent writer. Looking back, she warns us not to credit Tarantino with introducing “snarky, po-mo cinema” — the Cohen brothers and David Lynch beat him by a decade. But she sees “Pulp Fiction” as part of a mini-trend of the early ’90s along with Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven,” starkly violent movies that asked us “to reconsider the historical narratives we had been presented” in classic Hollywood genres celebrating “cowboys, gangsters, noir detectives, boxers. The sanitation of violence in those genres is demolished when brain bits land in Sam Jackson’s Jheri curls. . . We are asked to consider our part as viewers.”
TRUTH IS: ‘PULP FICTION’ RULES
By Desson Howe
“PULP FICTION” is everything it’s said to be: brilliant and brutal, funny and exhilarating, jaw-droppingly cruel and disarmingly sweet. Quentin Tarantino, the postmodern Boy Wonder of American crass culture, for whom the only thing to fear is boredom itself, has produced a work of mesmerizing entertainment. To watch this movie (whose 2 1/2 hours speed by unnoticed) is to experience a near-assault of creativity.
The multi-plot story, whose almost-Escherian design becomes apparent as the movie progresses, is too involved to outline. Essentially, the film’s a narrative circle of interconnecting, time-jumping episodes, in which various pulp-fictional gangsters, molls and palookas deal with bizarre occurrences in their lives. In the end, everything comes together in a multi-ironic Tarantino reverie. The never-a-dull-moment drama is propelled by its crazy-casting dream team: Samuel L. Jackson is unforgettable as a philosophical killer who quotes Ezekial before his ritual executions. Uma Thurman, serenely unrecognizable in a black wig, is marvelous as a zoned-out gangster’s girlfriend. Bruce Willis is a pug-faced charm as an aging boxer who refuses to throw a fight. And who knew John Travolta would produce the sweetest performance of his career as a good-natured goon?
As with his “Reservoir Dogs,” Tarantino delves into the working-stiff world of crime. For the characters in “Pulp Fiction,” killing, stealing and breaking fingers are merely occupational banalities. Partners Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth discuss whether to keep robbing liquor stores or stick up all the customers in the sandwich shop they’re eating in. (They carry on like a married couple making a mutual career decision.)
Hoodlums Travolta and Jackson — like modern-day Beckett characters — discuss foot massages, cunnilingus and cheeseburgers on their way to a routine killing job. The recently traveled Travolta informs Jackson that at the McDonald’s in Paris, the Quarter Pounder is known as “Le Royale.” However “a Big Mac’s a Big Mac, but they call it Le Big Mac.”
“Come on,” says Jackson, as they approach the room of their victims-to-be. “Let’s get into character.”
With chatty asides like these, Tarantino makes unwilling — and disconcertingly easy — conspirators of the audience, no matter how outlandish the action. In one of the movie’s most harrowing sequences, Thurman has a drug overdose and Travolta — stuck with babysitting her for his boss — has to perform improvisatory surgery. It’s horrifying and oddly funny. As Travolta and drug-dealer Eric Stoltz attempt to revive her with the help of a medical book, the movie enters some out-there combination of Sam Peckinpah-style gruesomeness and “I Love Lucy.”
Tarantino, an L.A. video store clerk-turned-auteur, was raised on filmic bloodletting. Screen violence, assimilated secondhand from such films as “Straw Dogs,” “The Godfather” and “Scarface,” is his most immediate reference point. But he transcends himself by putting brutality in quotation marks, making it traipse hand in hand with absurdity. It may be that, with “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction,” Tarantino has over-mined his muse. Should he make another work remotely like either film, he’ll run the risk of rendering his work commonplace. But for now, his material is witty, ironic and inspired — although the irredeemably squeamish should know to stay away. In “Pulp,” you’ll see what it is to clean up a car spattered with brain gore. But you’ll also see an amusing Harvey Keitel, as a freelance clean-up man (dressed as if for a prom) supervising the icky proceedings. In the film’s most exhilarating showpiece, Willis undergoes an extended, hair-raising suspense ride that includes sword violence, rape, gunfire and torture. After the most brutalizing experience of his life, Willis returns to his girlfriend, who promptly starts crying. Shaken beyond compare, Willis is the one who has to do the consoling.
“How was your breakfast?” he inquires, as pleasantly as he can.
Desson Thomson, who left the Post in 2008 after 25 years, is now a speechwriter at the State Department. “I opened this up expecting to cringe,” he told me — his reaction when re-reading so many other old reviews. “But that’s one rare moment when I felt like I got it right.” Also: “I can’t believe I got ‘cunnilingus’ into a review!”