Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Greatness Out Of Order: Pulp Fiction Holds Up!

The Good: Good acting, Decent characters, Engaging direction
The Bad: Non-sequitor plot/lines do not add up to anything.
The Basics: Pulp Fiction is a delightful mix of funny and violent in a way that remains entertaining even today!

When it comes to modern classics, there are several films that I will grant have real greatness to them. Pulp Fiction is one that I – like many – have accepted as great without having watched it many, many times in order to justify that opinion. So, now that my wife has the deluxe Blu-Ray edition of Pulp Fiction, I’ve been granted the chance to really delve into the film to evaluate it from a well-rounded perspective. And, after rewatching the film three times in as many days (without and with the commentary track on), I’ve come to the place where I can appreciate all of the elements of the film, but I don’t think it adds up to a perfect film.

Pulp Fiction is funny, original, violent, and generally engaging, but so much of the originality of the dialogue does not add up to anything exceptional. In other words, while Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Jules, has a genuine epiphany and character growth, most of the other characters, like John Travolta’s Vincent Vega, might be distinctive or quirky in their dialogue, but they do not develop beyond that. Vincent Vega’s ramblings about Europe are, ultimately, nothing more than musings of a dope fiend and he never evolves beyond that. The point is, while Quentin Tarantino’s mainstream masterpiece has quotable lines, great stars, and an engaging presentation, objectively viewed, the story the film tells, with the characters involved, is hardly as original or as compelling as those in truly perfect films. So, while Pulp Fiction is incredible, it does not have the timeless greatness of, for example, Casablanca (reviewed here!).

Told in three parts, out of order, Pulp Fiction follows the people working for gangster Marsellus Wallace in Los Angeles. Marsellus employs two hitmen, Jules and Vincent, who are sent to recover a briefcase. The briefcase contains a mysterious artifact that belongs to Marsellus and in recovering the briefcase, Jules and Vincent end up in a bind when Vincent’s gun goes off and kills Marvin. Following a pretty terrible day, Vincent Vega is charged with taking Marsellus Wallace’s wife, Mia, out for the evening. When he does, she gets into Vincent’s heroin and has an overdose, so Vincent is in a race to save her life lest his life become forfeit by the gangster, who seems ruthless (as characterized by the rumor that Marsellus Wallace through a man off a building for giving his wife a foot massage).

Also working for Marsellus is the washed-up boxer, Butch Coolidge, who is paid by Marsellus to take a dive in the fifth round of his prize fight. When Butch resists, he flees with his girlfriend, Fabienne, who accidentally left his father’s watch behind. When recovering his father’s watch, Butch gets into a conflict with Wallace that results in them imprisoned by two male rapists who want to have their way with them. Given all they see and experience, Jules is put to the test when he and Vincent are out at a diner and the restaurant is taken hostage by two petty criminals.

The thrust of the character growth in Pulp Fiction comes in the form of Jules and to a lesser extent Butch. Jules is a trained killer who has had no trouble working for Marsellus until this particular day. After musing on how ruthless Marsellus is, Jules sees how fragile life is, has an epiphany and pledges to go in a different direction with his life. Writer and director Quentin Tarantino puts the story out of order, at least in part, to illustrate character development in Jules’s storyline.

It is somewhat ambiguous if Butch actually develops – certainly in a positive way – in Pulp Fiction. Butch is characterized as a generally decent guy who simply is blooming late and may have missed his chance to be a contender. When asked, he admits he has never killed another person, but when he refuses to take a dive, he accidentally kills his opponent. In the hours that follow, Butch consciously kills at least three people (one only over a watch!). While fans of the film might argue that Butch develops as a character because he goes back into his captive’s lair, but that fits with his initial characterization of being a good guy who is just trying to make his way through the world.

Unlike many of Tarantino’s works, Pulp Fiction is laugh-out-loud funny in many places. Instead of just being gory or disturbing (though the rape scene in Pulp Fiction is quite disturbing, though it leads to a very Tarantino catharsis), Pulp Fiction is actually funny. A lot of the humor comes from straightlaced tough guys talking about ridiculous and mundane topics and the odd nonsequitors they experience enforcing the will of the gangster.

Tarantino stacks the deck by populating Pulp Fiction with pretty incredible actors. While John Travolta is delightfully goofy as Vincent Vega, Samuel L. Jackson and Ving Rhames are completely badass as Jules and Marsellus. Jackson is a credible killer going through an enlightenment, just as Bruce Willis is entirely believable as a prize fighter who might have peaked too late in his career to be taken seriously. Willis and Maria De Medeiros play off one another to be a credible couple who might run off with each other after all other hope is gone.

Ultimately, Pulp Fiction is enjoyable and different and it showcases some impressive acting talent. Even as the lines amuse and the situation intrigues and the actors perform, it becomes difficult to become invested in how the characters will resolve their various problems. That makes Pulp Fiction more entertaining than substantive.

For other works by Quentin Tarantino, please visit my reviews of:
Kill Bill, Volume 2
Kill Bill, Volume 1
Jackie Brown
Reservoir Dogs


Check out how this film stacks up against others I have reviewed by visiting my Movie Review Index Page for a listing of movies from best to worst!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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