Tarantino's twisted 'Pulp Fiction'

October 14, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" is a Saturday Night Fever dream: a hot, dense, wicked disco of tough-guy posturings, vivid dips of violence and literally unbelievable plot moves.

Set on a single deconstructed weekend in a hyperbolically exaggerated Los Angeles criminal netherworld, it blithely slides through three main, marginally interconnected narratives, throwing away dazzling chunks of screwball dialogue, doing effortless deadpan comic riffs with the ease of a con man, while re-arranging time sequences for better thump. It is a prime post-modernist work: part wicked parody, part high-tech atrocity, part megalomaniacal solo spin by its brazen young director -- all cut to the snappy rhythm of a music video, somehow both artificial and moving at the same time.

If "Pulp Fiction" lacks anything, it's the shattering intensity of Tarantino's mind-blowing first film, "Reservoir Dogs." In that movie, he stunned you with the discordant notes: a torture sequence set to sleepy '70s rock, as a droopy-eyed psycho did a shuffle-off-to-Buffalo while slicing off a policeman's ear. It was horrifying and hilarious at once, and hypnotic.

Rather, "Pulp Fiction" stuns with the glib twists of its plot. It is absolutely unfigurable. Just when you think you've got it nailed, it finds a whole new direction to go, and then when you adjust to that, again it permutes. I think of it as a stress fracture shooting across a pane of glass, jagging this way and that, moving with utter unpredictability and utter confidence.

In story one, two hit men -- Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (a heavier, duller John Travolta) -- fulfill a professional obligation by popping an apartmentful of yuppie crooks who have absconded with a crime lord's suitcase full of, well, we never learn. But they don't just kill; rather, they turn the execution into an eloquent examination of fate. Think Rosenkranz and Guildenstern with .45 automatics and you get the picture -- although to be fair, it's Jules, the smart one, who turns pensive in the face of his mission. Poor Vincent, played in a humorously moronic stupor by Travolta, is a man moping through in the lazy, hazy days of a drug high; he never quite gets with the rap.

That job done, the two report to the bar where the crime lord -- Ving Rhames -- is holding court with a lumpy boxer (Bruce Willis). Soon we're off on another adventure: Travolta's "date" with Rhames' wife (Uma Thurman), who is very sexy. But Travolta knows if he gets romantic, he gets dead. So he commits himself to being a good boy. They go to a loony '50s bar, dance a twist contest (Tarantino sends up Travolta's dance contest sequence from "Saturday Night Fever.") All this is very droll: she's much smarter than he is, plays adroitly with him, but somehow we feel his personality imprinting himself on the situation. They return to her place and just when you think, 'OK, now I know what this is all about,' it turns out to be about something entirely different.

Then we turn to the boxer (Willis) who we've seen earlier. He becomes the center of the film after a brief, comically strange soliloquy by Christopher Walken. Set to throw a fight, Willis' Butch Coolidge instead bets on himself, kills his opponent, and escapes, knowing that if he can collect on his bets he's a millionaire. If he gets caught, he'll get killed. So the movie covers his attempts to flee town while being hunted by killers -- among them, Travolta; this would be the day after his date with the boss' wife. It's this story that veers into the strangest territory.

Suddenly lurching into a cross between "Deliverance" and "The Collected Works of the Marquis de Sade," it puts Willis and Rhames at the merciless mercy of rednecks with really nasty ideas on their mind. Favorite, weird, unexplained touch: the little guy in the leather hood who comes out of the box.

But we're not done with the day before.

After the boxer story plays out, we slide back in time to the previous day, when we learn why the hit men showed up in strange college-guy clothes. It's because after the first hit, they took one of their spies home with them. While gesturing dramatically with a gun, Travolta learns why the first rule of gun safety is never point a gun at something you are not willing to destroy. The gun, as guns do, goes bang; the young man, as young men do when hit by bullets, goes ker-blooie. Thus follows a bizarre adventure in post-shooting hygiene, in which the two hit men, a suburban buddy (played by Tarantino himself) and an elegantly mysterious fixer (Harvey Keitel) deal with the problem of scrambled brains all over the upholstery.

That, in part, is sort of what "Pulp Fiction" is about. But only sort of. More to the point, it's about attitude and voice. Tarantino has much of both: He's hypercool, a kind of third-generation hipster who loots his routines from pop culture with the aplomb of a Willy Sutton, presumably because that's where the laughs are.

His world is astringently amoral: Killing isn't a sin; being uncool is. Drugs are life, guns are death, bright patter and cunning are everything in between. (Curiously, Tarantino doesn't really identify with the powers-that-be in such a world, but with the scufflers, the good soldiers trying to get through the day.) It has almost nothing to do with the real world and almost everything to do with the pretend one.

"Pulp Fiction"

Starring John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Released by Miramax

Rated R

*** 1/2

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