When Pulp Fiction opened in theaters 20 years ago today, the mainstream moviegoing audience was introduced to a dynamic new Hollywood talent. Quentin Tarantino was a 31-year-old hipster whose formal film education never rose much higher than working as a clerk in a Manhattan Beach video store. A walking encyclopedia of film history who fetishized some of the more obscure genres, Tarantino had a gift for dialog and his own visual toolbox that expanded the language of cinematic storytelling. Pulp Fiction was the culmination of a two-year stretch where the director went from Nobody to Wunderkind, beginning with the Sundance premiere of Reservoir Dogs in 1992. That splashy debut established Tarantino’s bonafides with actors, critics, and insiders, and the idea of John Travolta dropping by his house to play board games and talk shop suddenly became feasible. His scripts for True Romance and Natural Born Killers made it to the screen—though not in the form he envisioned—but for a guy who most Americans still didn’t know, he had already earned an artistic reputation: He was cool.
Pulp Fiction was the culmination of all that creative build-up and industry goodwill. Tarantino attracted an amazing ensemble cast, one that looks even better in hindsight, in part because of what Pulp did for each of their respective careers, from Samuel L. Jackson to John Travolta to Uma Thurman. The film premiered at Cannes in the spring and was pronounced an instant classic. So even before it opened on Oct. 14 to win the weekend box office, Hollywood executives were barking into phones, “Get me the next Pulp Fiction!” or “Rewrite the single-dad as a samurai hitman!” and “Make sure there’s a snazzy soundtrack and at least one hipster dance sequence!”
Unfortunately, simply making something Tarantino-esque wasn’t the same because it lacked that certain thing… Tarantino. And more often than not, trying to imitate the new master’s superficial tics—without the elaborate and sturdy scripts that were also his trademark—just exposed a film and its director’s fatal flaws. But that didn’t stop studios from trying. Pulp Fiction sent ripples across Hollywood, and in the five years that followed, there were dozens of wannabes and knockoffs. Many were shameless ripoffs, some were decent imitations, and a few actually stand on their own merit.
‘DOES HE LOOK LIKE A BITCH?’
Lazy, uninspired wannabes
The Immortals (1995)
dir. Brian Grant
starring Eric Roberts, Joe Pantoliano, Tia Carrere, Tony Curtis
This crime drama borrows heavily from both Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, with Roberts playing the man with a plan for a huge heist. He recruits a colorful B-team that includes Pantoliano, Carrere (and Chris Rock!). Bullets fly, suitcases of riches are exchanged, bad dialogue is delivered, and it features a Mexican stand-off.
8 Heads in a Duffle Bag (1997)
dir. Tom Schulman
starring Joe Pesci, David Spade
It’s a screwball comedy! About a hitman who loses his luggage! Who chases down the stupid kid who has it because his duffle bag was full of human heads! Hilarity! Note the Pulp Fiction music that plays over portions of the trailer…
Feeling Minnesota (1996)
dir. Steven Baigelman
starring Keanu Reeves, Cameron Diaz
A stripper is being forced to marry a schlep in order to pay off some debt to a local nightclub owner, but when she meets her handsome future brother-in-law, she decides he’s the one for her instead. Or maybe he’s just the key to her escape…? Chaos ensues: armed robbery, a bitten-off ear, a rollicking soundtrack.
ROYALE WITH CHEESE
Knockoffs for sure, but at least they’re fun
Very Bad Things (1998)
dir. Peter Berg
starring Christian Slater, Cameron Diaz, Jeremy Piven, Jon Favreau
See, grotesque violence can be funny—like Marvin’s head getting blown off in Pulp Fiction. In Peter Berg’s directorial debut, a bachelor party goes haywire when a Las Vegas prostitute is accidentally killed and the fellas decide to dispose of the body in the desert. It only gets worse as they have to cover their tracks, leading up to some extremely dark ultaviolence. As EW‘s Owen Gleiberman wrote in his review, “The scrub-the-car episode of Pulp Fiction now seemed a cozy bedtime story.”
Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead (1995)
dir. Gary Fleder
starring Andy Garcia, Treat Williams, Christopher Walken
Miramax, which distributed Pulp Fiction, tried to capture lightning in a bottle again the next year. Steve Buscemi and Christopher Walken lend their Pulp prestige as tough guys, and Andy Garcia played a reluctant hitman who screws up a crucial job that makes him expendable. Things to Do in Denver also premiered at Cannes, but it was D.O.A when it opened in U.S. theaters in December 1995.
2 Days in the Valley (1996)
dir. John Herzfeld
starring Teri Hatcher, James Spader, Danny Aiello, Charlize Theron, Jeff Daniels, Eric Stoltz
As in Pulp Fiction, the film’s hitmen have fascinating personal lives. Similar to Uma Thurman’s Mia, this film’s ladies are tall, beautiful, and potentially dangerous. “Ten people in L.A, one moment in time,” intones the trailer’s narrator. 2 Days unabashedly plunders the Tarantino formula, but at least it has fun doing so.
Suicide Kings (1997)
dir. Peter O’Fallon
starring Christopher Walken, Jay Mohr, Denis Leary
Some rich white kids kidnap a high-profile gangster in order to negotiate the release of of the boys’ sister, who’s being held for $2 million by some underworld figures. But is one of the boys also behind the girl’s disappearance? It’s Pulp Fiction-y, with a splash of The Usual Suspects.
Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)
dir. George Armitage
starring John Cusack, Minnie Driver, Dan Aykroyd
The obsession with hitmen’s private lives rolled into rom-com territory with this very funny high-school reunion romance. Martin Blank dresses like a Tarantino character and just has to knock off one white-collar whisteblower while he’s trying to win back his first love. It’s violent, of course, especially when corrupt feds and nasty rivals descend on the reunion, but it’s Tarantino-light for the multiplex.
“THAT’S A PRETTY F–KIN’ GOOD MILKSHAKE.”
Spiritual descendants that bring something fresh to the table
Run Lola Run (1998)
dir. Tom Tykwer
starring Franka Potente
Not every post-Tarantino filmmaker focused merely on the superficial aspects of his films. Tykwer’s accelerating action film, which follows a Honeybunny-haired heroine as she races through Berlin to get her no-good boyfriend 100,000 marks, shares a spirit and sensibility. Moreover, though Tarantino didn’t invent narrative distortion, Pulp‘s success certainly gave license for other filmmakers to toy with structure, and Tykwer really ran with it.
Get Shorty (1995)
dir Barry Sonnenfeld
starring John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, Delroy Lindo, Danny DeVito, Dennis Farina
Perhaps it’s a combination of Travolta’s cool tough guy and the fact that Tarantino followed up Pulp Fiction with a different Elmore Leonard adaptation (Jackie Brown), but Get Shorty can almost be confused for one of his films. Sonnenfield leaned heavier on the laughs, though, and his film stands on its own as one of the funniest Hollywood farces ever made.
Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
dir. Guy Ritchie
starring Jason Flemyng, Dexter Fletcher, Nick Moran
Ritchie has now been around long enough to establish himself and his own style, but it’s difficult to ignore the numerous similarities between Pulp Fiction and his well-regarded debut film. It was immediately labeled the “British Pulp Fiction“—which is better than being called the “British 2 Days in the Valley.”
dir. Doug Liman
starring Sarah Polley, Katie Holmes, Timothy Olyphant
Take Liman’s Swingers and inject it with some unsavory Tarantino-esque characters, wild drug orgies, and a fractured narrative, and you’ve got Go. If Tarantino was making films at age 23, Go might have been it.
dir. the Wachowski brothers
starring Jen Tilly, Gina Gershon, Joe Pantoliano
Bound is more a distant cousin of Pulp Fiction than a direct descendent, with equal nods to the Coen brothers and Hitchcock. But it’s easy to recognize how and where Tarantino pushed open the boundaries of noir and pulp storytelling and cultivated a mainstream taste for stylistic violence. The Wachowskis followed his cue, with a dark tale of a mob moneyman’s girlfriend who takes a lesbian lover and then tries to steal $2 million of the mob’s money.