1994 - Miramax Films
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino
Samuel L Jackson Jules Winnfield
John Travolta Vincent Vega
Bruce Willis Butch Coolidge
Uma Thurman Mia Wallace
Ving Rhames Marsellus Wallace
Harvey Keitel Winston Wolfe
Tim Roth Pumpkin
Amanda Plummer Honey Bunny
Eric Stolz Lance
Maria de Medeiros Fabienne; Chistopher Walken Captain Koons
Rosanna Arquette Jody
Angela Jones Esmarelda Villalobos
Peter Greene Zed
Duane Whitaker Maynard
Steve Buscemi Buddy Holly
Quentin Tarantino as Jimmy
" This has been without a doubt the single weirdest fucking day of my life! "
- Butch Coolidge
Ah! the tricky second movie. Despite a mesmerising debut with Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino’s follow up, Pulp Fiction (written while promoting ‘Dogs’ across Europe) was arguably the movie of the decade (oh and I am prepared to argue that point). In fact I’ve seen this movie more times than any other, which pretty much makes it my favourite movie.
So what’s it all about then. Well Jules Winnfield talks about “A bunch of gangsters… doing a bunch of gangster shit”, but that doesn’t quite cover it.
Pulp Fiction is a cornucopia of blood, violence, black humour, devious plot twists and generous lashings of bad language; told through three non-linear vignettes expertly interwoven around loquacious gangsters and other equally verbose characters who inhabit the fringe of the underworld.
The three stories are elegantly book ended, by Bonnie and Clyde wannabes, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, who have grown tired of robbing liquor stores and graduate to robbing restaurants instead. The movie opens with the pair, in the Hawthorn Grill diner being served breakfast, talking each other into sticking up the joint. “Garcon! Coffee!” Pumpkin shouts requesting another refill, but also bookmarking a timeframe in the movie. As they jump up from their seats “OK be cool this is a robbery”. “None of you fucking pricks move, or I’ll execute every mother fucking last one of ya’” the frame freezes and the surfer rock tune Misirlou from Dick Dale & his Del Tones kicks in and the start credits roles.
The proceeding two hours then rocks through the seedy underbelly of the LA underworld, where we’re treated to sordid scenes of drug-taking, murder and overdose. We’re peering down into the rabbit-hole into which Pumpkin and Honey Bunny’s escalating crimes will surely see them tumbling.
Redemption for the restaurant robbers comes from the most unlikely of sources. The movie’s climax neatly brings us back to see how the stick up unfolds; however, we (as the audience) now know that gangsters Jules and Vincent are two of the diners and by good fortune Pumpkin and Honey Bunny “pull this shit” on the day that Jules is in a “transitional period”. Any other day their “asses would be dead as fuckin' fried chicken”, but influenced by a near death experience Jules is in a reflective mood. He calms the potentially explosive situation down and then decides to cut the robbers loose. While likely still falling short of saving his own soul from eternal damnation, Jules appears to have sent Pumpkin and Honey Bunny down the long road to personal redemption.
For a movie with central themes of drugs, violence and murder it is surprising that redemption plays such a major role for all the major characters, but that’s what's so fuckin' cool about it.
The three main stories revolve around four stock genre characters: two hitmen working for crime boss Marsellus Wallace; his new young bride Mia Wallace; and an aging journeyman boxer paid to throw a fight by… yes you’ve guessed it Marsellus Wallace. While not featuring heavily in screen time, the Big Man’s shadow looms long over the movie. The essence and the brilliance of Pulp Fiction comes from the subversion of these genre characters taking them from the predictable stock situations to somewhere unique and entirely unpredictable.
After the start credits we pick up the story of the two hitmen Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega. They’ve been dispatched by their boss Marsellus Wallace to retrieve a briefcase, stolen by some young turks who have gotten in over their heads and are holed up in a grubby apartment eating Big Kahuna burgers and drinking Sprite for breakfast. On the drive to the apartment dressed in their Tarantino gangster uniforms - black suits, white shirts and black ties, Jules and Vincent casually converse, like any two regular Joes on their way to work. Vincent has recently returned from a couple of years in Amsterdam and is regaling Jules with the “little details” that makes Europe different. The repartee between the two has since become a classic scene in modern cinema as they discuss the French calling a MacDonald’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese a ‘Royale with Cheese’ “they got the metric system, they wouldn't know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is” and the Dutch putting mayonnaise on their fries instead of ketchup “I've seen 'em do it, man. They fuckin' drown 'em in that shit”
When they pull up at the apartment and load up on weapons stashed in the boot, conversation turns to the big man’s wife. Marsellus has asked Vincent to take Mia out while he’s away in Florida to stop her getting bored. Jules regales his fellow hitman with the tale of the brilliantly nicknamed Tony Rocky-Horror who allegedly had the audacity to give Mia a foot massage; the consequences of which were being thrown “off a building into a glass-motherfuckin-house, fuckin' up the way the n1gger talks”. It may be an overreaction on Marsellus' part but “that's his fuckin' wife, man. He ain't gonna have a sense of humor about that shit.” If Vincent wasn’t already wary about having the responsibility of taking the boss’s new wife out, then he is now.
The good natured humour ends at the apartment door as they ‘get into character’. Once inside Jules toys with the leader of the gang, Brett, much like a young boy pulling the legs off a Daddy-Longlegs. Clearly menacing, but enjoying the power, Jules takes his time getting to the point, happily discussing hamburgers and the metric system. Once Vincent takes possession of the briefcase, and confirms he’s happy, Jules escalates the tension. He casually pulls out his pistol and shoots the guy lying on the sofa, stopping Brett in mid-sentence. Jules then terrorises Brett further flipping the table over leaving Brett exposed, sat on a lone chair in the middle of the room in front of Jules, before he slips into his death ritual - the now infamous macabre quasi bible passage Ezekiel 25:17 which ends with Vincent and Jules emptying their guns into him.
The hitmen have done what they came to do, retrieve the briefcase and execute Brett, but this is where the predictable ends and the unpredictable begins. The movie leaves this scene, but returns to this exact moment about an hour or so later.
When it does return, we see a hitherto unknown gang member in the bathroom listening to Jules reciting Ezekiel 25:17 . At the moment at which the gunfire ends, he bursts out of the bathroom with a “Goddamn hand cannon” and empties it in the direction of Jules and Vincent. Bemused that they’ve not been hit when he runs out of bullets they quickly put him out of his misery. Whilst Vincent is thanking his lucky stars, Jules believes he’s just witnessed a miracle – God came down from Heaven and stopped the bullets.
They continue their theological discussion in the car, where the unpredictable descends into surreal. Marvin who was the fourth member of Brett’s gang, but who leaked their whereabouts to Marsellus and is therefore allowed to live, is in the backseat of the car. The reward of his life for ratting out his crew is short-lived. Vincent with his .45 in his hand turns around to talk to Marvin in the back seat, but accidently shoots him in the head. Now “Cops tend to notice shit like you're driving a car drenched in fuckin' blood”, so Jules takes the car to Jimmie’s, a buddy of his in nearby Toluca Lake.
Jimmie is played by Quentin Tarantino, who has received some criticism for his acting performance. The way I look at it is let's cut the dude some slack, afterall he's written and directed this cool ganster flick - let him indulge himsaelf a little. (Robert Rodriguez directed the scenes where QT is in front of the camera). Anyway as much as Jimmie wants to help his gangster pals, he’s got a problem. What’s on his mind “isn't the coffee in my kitchen, it's the dead n1gger in my garage” he says and it’s a fair point. His wife Bonnie, a nurse, returns home from work in an hour and half so they’ve got that time to sort this mess out – after all storin' dead n1ggers ain't Jimmie’s fuckin' business.
Jules rings Marsellus to explain the Bonnie Situation to him and a man of Marcellus’s status knows how to put out the odd fire or two. He tells Jules “You ain't got no problems, Jules. I'm on the motherfucker. Go back in there, chill them n1ggers out and wait for The Wolf, who should be comin' directly.” Winston Wolf aka The Wolf is a fixer, a professional cleaner of fucked up situations. It just so happens The Wolf has been to an all-night illegal casino and befitting the ridiculous nature of the whole situation turns up clad in a pristine tuxedo. He thinks fast and talks fast and has Jules and Vincent clean up the blood in the car and cover it in blankets. Next he cleans the hitmen, making them strip out of their blood soaked black and white gangster uniforms and sprays them down with the garden hose. Having lost the cool factor of their black suits, they’re given geeky t-shirts and Bermuda shorts, rocking the dork look. The Wolf then has the car, the body and everything else associated with the Bonnie situation away from Jimmie’s house before his wife returns home and crushed into a tiny cube at Monster Joe's Truck and Tow “Like it never happened”.
Jules and Vincent are left on the sidewalk outside of Monster Joes dressed in their geek-chic still clutching Marcellus’ briefcase, having moved from the predicable to the unpredictable to the downright surreal and it’s still early morning. Expecting the mayhem to be over they decide to go for breakfast. But of all the diners in all of LA they choose the Hawthorne Grill. Despite some light-hearted conversation about the merits of eating pork, Jules has ‘what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity’. He is coming to terms with the miracle he witnessed in the apartment and he realises he’s felt the touch of God. He decides he’s retiring from the gangster life and is going to walk the Earth getting in adventures until God decides where he wants to put him. “So you decided to be a bum?” Vincent helpfully summarises. At this point we hear in the background “Garçon! Coffee!” – if we hadn’t realised already, we’re in the same diner as Pumpkin and Honey Bunny and they’re getting ready to stickup the joint. Moments after Vincent gets up to go to the bathroom, Hunny Bunny jumps up from her seat and shouts “Any of you fuckin' pricks move and I'll execute every one of you motherfuckers!” which brings us full circle to the opening scene of the movie, but Honey Bunny’s words are ever so slightly different. Continuity error? Script typo? It’s neither. The second time we hear Hunny Bunny screaming about executing motherfuckers, it’s from a different perspective – Jules' - who is still sat in his booth eating his muffin and drinking his coffee. This variation in perspective of overlapping scenes helps at various points in the movie as we alternate between vignettes. For example, Vincent is the bad guy in Butch’s Gold Watch story and we don’t feel the same sense of loss when he’s killed as we would if he’d died during the Bonnie Situation.
Earlier in the movie we see Jules and Vincent dressed in their geek-chic shorts and t-shirts arriving at Sally LeRoy’s – Marsellus Wallace’s Titty bar– the events that occur after the shooting of Brett appear later in the film. This is the start of the “Vincent Vega and Marsellus Wallace's Wife” episode. Jules and Vincent patiently wait for Wallace to finish his conversation with aging boxer Butch Coolidge. Butch is receiving his final orders for throwing a fight and being paid handsomely for it “In the fifth, my ass goes down” he obediently repeats. At the bar Vincent and Butch meet for the first time and take an instant dislike to each other. Butch as it turns out keys Vincent’s 1964 Chevy Malibu parked in the car park as he leaves.
The following evening, date night, Vincent heads over to Mia’s house, but not before stopping off at Lance’s place, the home of his friendly neighbourhood drug dealer. This is actually a great scene between Vincent and Lance, but it was cut short in the editing as it was slowing down the momentum of the movie and the introduction to Mia. Vincent fills his veins full of madman – heroin from the Hartz Mountains of Germany – the good shit. He gets the rest to take away in a baggie, Lance is outta balloons - the normal packaging for heroin – they don’t burst in your stomach when you’ve got to swallow your stash!
Vincent clearly does not hold high hopes for the evening with Mia when he deems it necessary to fill his veins full of madman to get him through it. He arrives at Mia’s house and she plays Dusty Springfield’s Son of a Preacher Man while she watches him on the CCTV for “two shakes of a lamb’s tail”. The song of course tells the story of a secret and forbidden romance, foreshadowing the later tension palpable between the loyal employee and the boss’s wife. Quentin Tarantino was prepared to cut this whole scene from his movie if he was unable to secure the copyright for the song; it holds the scene for almost two minutes while nothing much happens on screen other than seeing Vincent high on heroin and Mia fill her nose with cocaine, but Dusty herself builds the tension that continues to crackle throughout the date.
Mia takes Vincent to Jack Rabbit Slims - it’s like a wax museum with a pulse, with restaurant staff dressed as 1950’s pop icons and décor to match. The long tracking shot of Vincent winding his way through the restaurant is reminiscent of Scorsese’s epic Copacabana shot in Goodfellas. The evening is punctuated with uncomfortable silences and forced conversation, Vincent is even tasked with coming up with something to talk about while Mia goes to the bathroom. There are moments of intimacy between the two which hint at perfidious thoughts (if not deeds) such as when Mia allows Vincent to use her straw “Goddamn, that's a pretty fuckin' good milkshake! I don't know if it was worth $5, but it's pretty fuckin' good”. The tension is finally broken by Mia’s insistence that she “wants to dance and wants to win” the twist contest announced by the Ed Sullivan clone. The sight of Travolta and Thurman dancing in their socks to Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell - a twist influenced by Adam West’s Batman and the Duchess from The Aristocats - is just as memorable as any clever dialogue or bloody violence. The dance clearly had a profound effect on the pair as next time we see them they’re a lot more comfortable with each other as they dance the Tango, clutching the dance trophy, while returning to Mia’s home.
Mia puts on Urge Overkill’s version of Neil Diamond’s Girl You’ll be a Woman Soon – hinting at the inappropriateness that feels imminent. Vincent goes to the bathroom and stands in front of a full length mirror reflecting on his own behaviour and perhaps thinking about what happened to Tony Rocky-Horror just for allegedly touching Mia’s feet. “You're gonna go out there and you're gonna say, "Good night. I've had a very lovely evening." Walk out the door, get in the car, go home, jerk off, and that's all you gonna do” he says to himself. Ready to make his excuses and leave, the entirely predictable boss’s wife scenario is about to suddenly take a turn to the entirely unpredictable. Vincent leaves the bathroom only to find Mia slumped on the floor like a rag doll with blood and puke down her. She found the baggie in Vincent’s coat pocket and mistook it for coke – what else would you put in a baggie? After all everyone knows heroin comes in a balloon, right? Vincent is immediately thinking as far as the wrath of Marsellus goes he would have been better sleeping with his wife then kill her. He thinks fast though, summoning his own inner Winston Wolf and once again the unpredictable descends into the total surreal. He picks her up and instead of taking her to a friendly doctor he drives her to Lance’s house. The logic being, I assume, a drug dealer knows how to reverse an overdose. Reluctant to help until Vincent informs him that the “fucked-up bitch is Marsellus Wallace's wife”, Lance goes in comical search of his Little Black Medical Book, a textbook they give to nurses. This whole scene like so many in the movie ramps up the dark humour levels just as the movie is at its most tense. Lance instructs Vincent to give her an adrenalin shot to her heart which should bring her round. The plunging of the needle into Mia’s chest on first viewing is a gruesome scene, but even though we think we see it, we don’t actually see the needle entering her body – in fact the shot is filmed backwards and the needle is actually pulled out of the chest. Sure enough Mia does snap out of it. Asked to say something if she’s OK Mia manages to glibly utter “Something”, to which Lance’s wife who was watching with macabre fascination says “That was fuckin’ trippy.” Following this unbelievably lucky escape, Vincent drops Mia home with a small request “I'm of the opinion, that if Marsellus lived his whole life, he doesn't need to know nothing about this incident”, because he knows that even though he saved her life, what went down will not be cool with him. However, “if Marsellus knew about this incident, I'd be in as much trouble as you” Mia replies, perhaps not fully appreciating the level of malevolence her new husband is capable of.
At the top of the page I failed to mention that this review is so damn long I needed to split it in to two parts. If I told you at the start you might not have read on. My editing skills just weren't up to the challenge... lets call this my Kill Bill moment.
Written by Bada Bing