Newcomer Quentin Tarantino injected some Scorsesian adrenalin and an overdose of Scorsesian banter among his low-life characters into his feature film debut Reservoir Dogs (1992), a contemporary heist film that owed its plot to Raoul Walsh's classic gangster movie White Heat and its oddball narrative structure to Stanley Kubrick's heist film The Killing. Critically acclaimed – and controversial – because of its gritty gutter language, back-and-forth in time method of storytelling, and mixture of humor and extremely graphic violence,
Reservoir Dogs brought Tarantino to the attention of Hollywood. But his follow-up, Pulp Fiction, made him the inspiration of film school graduates everywhere – even though Tarantino himself never went to film school. The director studied his craft by clerking at a video store where he watched everything on the shelves, from the classics to the wild and bloody Hong Kong action movies of Jackie Chan and John Woo, all the while writing scripts in his spare time.
Like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction deals with a disparate group of low-life gangland characters, each of whom shares one thing in common: a gift for gab and gunplay. The milieu, storylines, and characters of the drama are straight out of the pages of those tawdry dime magazines from which the film derives its wonderfully apt title. It tells several stories concurrently, some of which intersect as the film unfolds. Characters are introduced, dropped, or killed off and later returned as the film's narrative structure jumps back and forth in the non-linear way of Reservoir Dogs and its Kubrick model.
The film starts out with a hold-up in a restaurant by a pair of hotheaded neophytes (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer), then picks up the story of two mob hitmen played by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson. Travolta's duties also include chaperoning his boss's drug addict girlfriend (Uma Thurman) around town and keeping her out of trouble while the boss is away. Yet another story involves a prizefighter (Bruce Willis) who takes it on the lam to get out from under the crooked clutches of the mob. This story, like so many of the bits and pieces of Pulp Fiction, owes its inspiration to Tarantino's years of movie watching; it's his take on the classic Robert Siodmack film noir The Killers. References to everything from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho to Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly abound throughout Pulp Fiction, making it a film buff's movie. The film ends where it began, in the restaurant, where Jackson and Travolta stop for a bite to eat after their labors; Jackson not only foils the hold-up, but sets the robbers on a straight path, turning the film into a shaggy morality tale.
Like his characters, Tarantino has a gift for gunplay. Pulp Fiction's graphically violent setpieces are not for the faint of heart; the blood flows as freely and as spectacularly as it does in the Hong Kong action movies Tarantino loves so much. But the scene where the desperate Travolta must jump-start Thurman's heart with a hypo after she suffers a drug overdose is arguably the film's grisliest and most potent – and there's not a gun in sight.
Tarantino also shares his characters' gift of gab. Dialogue is not typically a high point of action films. But it is in a Tarantino action movie. In fact, dialogue is Tarantino's most distinctive trademark – as well as his most individual. He thinks nothing of having his characters consume minutes of screen time spouting pages and pages of dialogue, ranging from the innocuous, to the hilarious, to the eloquent and even poignant – and all of it revealing of their characters. Travolta and Jackson's constantly bantering hitmen do most of the film's best and brightest talking. And their exchanges, wherein among other things Travolta comments on the French translation of "quarter pounder with cheese" while Jackson waxes philosophically on the possibilities of redemption, are priceless. The two actors earned Oscar nominations for their performances – Travolta as Best Actor, Jackson as Best Supporting Actor, although their parts in the film are of equal weight. Neither won. The film, however won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, transforming Tarantino into Hollywood's hottest wunderkind since Steven Spielberg.
Essay by John McCarty
Release Date: 1994
Starring: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Harvey Kietel, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Maria de Medeiros, Ving Rhames, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette, Christopher Walken, Bruce Willis, Quentin Tarantino, Steve Buscemi, Frank Whaley, Duane Whitaker, and Peter Greene
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writers: Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary
Source Citation: McCarty, John. "Pulp Fiction." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 979-981.