Early on in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, there’s a transporting sequence in which veteran Los Angeles hit man Vincent Vega (John Travolta) takes Mia (Uma Thurman), the wife of his criminal boss, to Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a faux-1950s diner so shiny and sprawling it’s like a mall out of your dreams. Vincent is supposed to be Mia’s chaperon, but she’s a cocaine-fueled party girl who keeps throwing him seductive looks, and this makes him a little nervous: According to legend, Mia’s husband, the all-powerful Marsellus (Ving Rhames), had someone tossed off a balcony merely for giving Mia a foot massage. Friendly and slightly bloated, with long stringy black hair, Travolta still has his ingenuously goofy charisma, but he also lets us see that Vincent — a man of sharpened instincts — is making moves, doing everything in his power not to flirt.
Before long, Mia announces that she wants to compete in the Jack Rabbit Slim’s dance contest. As the two begin twisting away on stage to Chuck Berry’s ”You Never Can Tell,” the dance becomes an extension of their dialogue — but what lifts the scene into the stratosphere is the way it taps our buried desire to see John Travolta dance again, to see his goofiness redeemed by swagger. You get the feeling that Tarantino staged this scene because he had to stage it. He’s in thrall to the ecstasy, the pop delirium of the moment, and that’s the sensation that courses through the entire movie.
Watching Pulp Fiction, you don’t just get engrossed in what’s happening on screen. You get intoxicated by it — high on the rediscovery of how pleasurable a movie can be. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a filmmaker who combined discipline and control with sheer wild-ass joy the way that Tarantino does. For 2 hours and 35 minutes, we’re drawn into the lives of violently impassioned underworld characters — hit men, drug dealers, lethal vamps — who become figments of fury and grace and desire. We’re caught up in dialogue of such fiendishly elaborate wit it suggests a Martin Scorsese film written by Preston Sturges, in plot twists — they’re closer to zigzags — that are like whims bubbling up from the director’s unconscious. Pulp Fiction is the work of a new-style punk virtuoso. It is, quite simply, the most exhilarating piece of filmmaking to come along in the nearly five years I’ve been writing for this magazine.
The movie is an amalgam of three stories, but the characters are overlapped in the ingenious, lapidary style of Robert Altman. It’s really one big story — a pulp symphony in three movements. (Tarantino even goes Altman one better: He overlaps the time frame.) The first section, which centers on Vincent and Mia’s night out, also features Vincent’s partner, Jules (Samuel L. Jackson). The two thugs entertain themselves by engaging in rapid-fire combative exchanges on every subject from McDonald’s restaurants in Paris to the relative cleanliness of pigs and dogs.
Tarantino’s dialogue, with its densely propulsive, almost lawyerly fervor, its peppery comic blend of literacy and funk, has more snap and fight than most directors’ action scenes; the laugh lines come bursting off the screen like shrapnel. Yet Tarantino also loves the intricate pleasures of narrative. In every scene of Pulp Fiction he has devised a way to make us ask, ”What’s going to happen next?” The question emerges less from suspense-movie trickery than from an intermingling of hope, dread, and fate — from Tarantino’s vision of the world as a brightly colored existential playground.
This notion is realized most spectacularly in the second episode, in which a palooka named Butch (Bruce Willis), having been ordered to throw a fight, wins it instead, then tries to escape with his European baby-doll girlfriend (Maria de Medeiros). The scenes between these two have a piquant intimacy. It turns out, though, that the director is softening us for the kill. For Butch is soon plunged into a predicament so nightmarish, so deliriously lurid, that it has us reeling in shock even as we’re laughing at the bad-boy audacity of Tarantino’s vision.
Willis, his emotions as exposed as his nearly shaved scalp, makes Butch a complexly sympathetic hero: now dim, now brutal, now tender, now an avenging samurai returning to hell to save the man who’d sworn to kill him. The thrill — and originality — of Pulp Fiction is the way it shows us characters acting far better than we expected in situations more threatening than we could have imagined.
Coming after this, the third episode is like dessert — an outrageous black-comic confection. We return to Vincent and Jules, who’ve accidentally splattered some kid’s brains all over the inside of their car. Arriving in suburban L.A., they’re introduced to the Zen damage-control efforts of Winston Wolf (Harvey Keitel), a criminal fixer whose genius efficiency boils down to … ordering the two of them to clean up the mess. The story plays as a deviously logical extension of GoodFellas: It’s a riff on the ways that even violent crime, in the banal detail of its execution, remains domestic. Holding everything together is Keitel’s impeccably droll, dry-ice performance. His delivery of the line in which he tells Vincent and Jules not to congratulate each other just yet (he uses a phrase I can’t begin to print here) is the movie’s comic highlight.
As superb as Travolta, Willis, and Keitel are, the actor who reigns over Pulp Fiction is Samuel L. Jackson. If you think his Jheri Kurled hair looks silly, the film is one step ahead of you: That hair is a tacit comic statement about the ghettoization of blacks in movies. Yet the joke is undercut by the raw ferocity of Jackson’s performance. He just about lights fires with his gremlin eyes, and he transforms his speeches into hypnotic bebop soliloquies. Jules the loquacious hit man is the soul and spirit of Pulp Fiction — fury reined in by order. During the final sequence, when he holds his gun on a scruffy thief and tells him, ”You’re the weak, and I’m the tyranny of evil men … But I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd,” it’s enough to give you a shiver. Here, in a flash, is the film’s theme: the closet morality of scoundrels. In Pulp Fiction, Tarantino creates a dizzying spectacle of life at its darkest, only to release us, with a wink, into the light.