Pulp Fiction (1994)
by Steve Habrat
Fresh off the success of the indie smash Reservoir Dogs and the vibrant script for True Romance, Quentin Tarantino returned to the big screen with a film that is widely considered the best film in his catalogue. To this day, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction remains a funky fresh blast of hilarious pop culture small talk and teeth-rattling violence. Reservoir Dogs certainly introduced the world to the Tarantino style of filmmaking but Pulp Fiction is the film that opened the copycat floodgates. Drawing inspiration from pulp magazines that dominated from the late 1800s until the 1950s, Pulp Fiction is certainly a film that is worthy of all the praise that is still handed to it. It holds up to multiple viewings, the jokes land every single time, it finds John Travolta giving one of the best performances of his career, it features dialogue that still makes my head spin with delight, and it still makes me jump when old Marvin gets his noggin blown to pieces. To this day, I still find myself rediscovering little moments that I have missed or forgotten about as the years pass. Yet what makes the film so great is the way that Tarantino irons out his characters, letting them really open up to the viewer and becoming almost like long lost friends. You genuinely feel like you are hanging out at Jack Rabbit Slims with these cats. And then there is the narrative, a jumbled collection of puzzle pieces that are reluctant to reveal themselves fully to us.
Pulp Fiction introduces us to a number of thugs, lowlifes, and small time crooks, who all collide at some point in the two and a half hours it is on the screen. We meet two hitmen, Vincent Vega (Played by John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Played by Samuel L. Jackson), who are sent by booming mob boss Marsellus Wallace (Played by Ving Rhames) to retrieve a mysterious briefcase from a trio of low-level crooks. These two hitmen meet an aging boxer named Butch Coolidge (Played by Bruce Willis), who has a price on his head after he refuses to throw a fight that Marsellus Wallace payed him to throw, a duo of jittery thieves who go by the named Pumpkin (Played by Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Played by Amanda Plummer), the junkie wife of Marsellus, Mia Wallace (Played by Uma Thurman), a hot shot problem solver named Winston Wolf (Played by Harvey Kietel), and three sadistic redneck freaks, Zed (Played by Peter Greene), Maynard (Played by Duane Whitaker), and the Gimp (Played by Stephen Hibbert), who enjoy kidnapping strangers and then sodomizing them. What plays out is a number of gruesome showdowns, hilarious exchanges, and plenty of drooling over a glowing briefcase.
While every single moment of Pulp Fiction is juicy, Tarantino spins a web of moments that are consistently in competition with one another. Ask anyone who has seen the film to name their favorite moment for you and I promise that everyone will answer differently. There is the dance number in Jack Rabbit Slims, where Thurman and Travolta boogie down to win a twist trophy (Travolta still has the moves). There is the adrenaline shot to the heart to revive the overdosing Thurman that will have you watching through cracked fingers. We also have the sequence where Willis and Rhames stumble upon a trio of sodomizing maniacs, only to fight back with a samurai sword. Or how about the scene where poor Marvin “accidentally” gets shot in the head as Jules and Vincent debate a miracle that just happened moments earlier? While connecting the plot points is a blast, it’s the thoughtful sequences connecting everything together that are ultimately more fun to talk about. Personally, my favorite moment is the sequence where Vince and Mia chow down at Jack Rabbit Slims, talking about awkward pauses on dates, debating how good a five dollar milkshake is, evaluating Buddy Holly on his skills as a waiter, and finally getting up to participate in the twist competition. And I just love Thurman as she draws that dotted line square. It’s a pop culture loaded scene that really springs to life. Plus, it comes with a Vanilla Coke!
As always, I have to discuss the performances, which are the heart and soul of Pulp Fiction. Everyone just loves Jackson’s Bible quoting hitman Jules, a real spitfire with a jheri curl. His exchanges with Travolta’s drawling Vincent Vega will have you chuckling through the first half hour or so of the film. Travolta, meanwhile, hasn’t felt this alive in a role since Grease. In a way, you almost feel like Travolta was born to play the role of Vince and I must say that he really disappears into the character, a rarity for Mr. Travolta. And then there is Rhames as Marsellus Wallace, the furious mob boss who will be your friend one minute and your worst enemy the next. Willis is the underdog here as the scrappy boxer who will stop at nothing to get his father’s prized watch back even if it means risking his life. The sequence where he comes up against the three sodomizing devils will really leave a mark. Thurman shows up only a half hour but she becomes the face of Pulp Fiction. She is crazy, sexy, cool as she calls Vince “Daddy-O” and shouts “I say goddamn. Goddamn!” while powdering her nose. Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer are hysterical as two thieves who think they’re tough but quickly realize they are nothing when put up against Jules and Vincent. Harvey Keitel and Quentin Tarantino round out the cast later in the film as two problem solvers trying to help out our two lovable and blood drenched hitmen. Christopher Walken also gets a very fine cameo but the less you know about him, the funnier it is.
As Pulp Fiction coasts along on the surf guitars that rumble over the soundtrack, you begin to realize that the film is all about conversations. Sure, all of these conversations are basically references to other crime flicks and forgotten exploitation cinema but they all just seem so effortless. It is dialogue that just rolls off the tongue and will have you and your buddies quoting it for days. I suppose that you could describe the overall big picture here as effortless and suave. It never seems to be trying too hard and yet it is maddeningly cool. No character seems like they are just taking up space and there is no one scene that feels like it is dragging on too long. The first time I saw the film, I was a bit thrown off with Butch’s sequence in the middle of the film but this stretch has really grown on me after seeing the film as many times as I have over the years. I also love the way Tarantino really allows the soundtrack to shine. You can just visualize Tarantino at a jukebox sorting through these surf rock ditties and tapping his toes along to the beat. Overall, you’ll be grinning from ear to ear as Pulp Fiction rounds the home stretch and reveals how all of these characters are connected. You’ll glow as Tarantino skips through sleaze land and pays tribute to all of his interests in some way, shape, or form. Believe me when I say you will fall in love with Pulp Fiction, a hyperactive and playful masterpiece that still manages to be one step ahead of all the copycats. Oh, and feel free to leave your thoughts about what is in that mysterious suitcase.
Pulp Fiction is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
by Steve Habrat
In 1992, the world was introduced to a jive talking video store clerk turned screenwriter, director, and actor. He made the uptight film snobs squirm (he still does) with the way he borrowed from 70’s trash cinema and made those searching high and low for a sleazy thrill giddy with delight. His name is Quentin Tarantino and the film that shot him into stardom was the bloody crime caper Reservoir Dogs, a film that has to rank as one of the best films from the 90’s. Extremely controversial with its violence (Wes Craven reportedly walked out of a screening of the film) and unapologetically funny (the analysis of Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’) even if it is incredibly crass, Reservoir Dogs is a smoothing talking throwback that doesn’t hide the fact that it is borrowing from forgotten cinema. Reservoir Dogs is a film that sucks the viewer in instantly; ripe with fast-talking criminals dressed in too-cool-for-school suits and black Wayfarers. Classic tunes from the 70’s blare over the soundtrack as these crooks, who look more like a 50’s rock n’ roll band than a bunch of jewelry thieves, strut in slow motion through a parking lot. It’s the sequence that is the epitome of cool, my dear readers, and it merely is setting the stage. That is the best way I can describe Reservoir Dogs, as a super cool caper that has the power to disturb and tickle, sometimes at the same time. I should also note that the film is incredibly influential, despite what some may say.
Reservoir Dogs introduces us to six thugs, Mr. White (Played by Harvey Keitel), Mr. Blonde (Played by Michael Madsen), Mr. Orange (Played by Tim Roth), Mr. Pink (Played by Steve Buscemi), Mr. Brown (Played by Quentin Tarantino), and Mr. Blue (Played by Eddie Bunker), who are all gearing up for the perfect heist. They find a leader in Joe Cabot (Played by Lawrence Tierney), a cranky and gravelly-voiced gangster, and his son, “Nice Guy” Eddie (Played by Chris Penn). Together, they plan to rob a jewelry store and it appears they have every angle covered. But something goes horribly wrong and the heist becomes a scene of stomach-churning carnage. Four of the thugs escape to a hideout where they begin to suspect that one member of the group may be an undercover police officer. Meanwhile, the police are gathering outside the hideout, ready to take the group down by any means necessary.
The overall setup of Reservoir Dogs is a pretty simple one but the film sets itself apart by never showing the viewer the heist. We only see the chaotic aftermath of it, allowing our imaginations to run wild. The small budget prevented Tarantino from showing us the heist but the dialogue is pretty graphic in its description to the point where I wasn’t sure I even WANTED to see it. The aftermath is disturbing, with Mr. Orange severely wounded by a gunshot to the gut, an injury that has him bleeding all over the joint. He squirms and shrieks in pain as Mr. White tries desperately to reassure him that he isn’t going to die. Meanwhile, two other group members were wasted in a hail of gunfire and we learn that the psychotic Mr. Blonde executed a handful of innocent civilians (one being only a young nineteen year old). If the bickering and the withering Mr. Orange isn’t enough to upset the viewer, Tarantino then delivers a terrifying and darkly comedic torture sequence that finds Mr. Blonde slashing a captured cop up with a blade and then hacking his ear off. It is a sequence that reportedly made Mr. Madsen a little queasy when he was filming it, especially when the cop adlibbed “I got a little kid at home!” Mr. Tarantino goes for the throat and he never even flinches while doing it.
Savagery aside, Reservoir Dogs is loaded with explosive performances from almost everyone involved. It is constant tug of war between Madsen’s Mr. Blonde, a psychopath who enjoys torturing his victims before he puts them out of their misery and Keitel’s Mr. White, a fatherly figure who isn’t afraid to get a little nasty himself when his back is against the wall. Madsen steals the show with his steely glares and you’d never guess that he got a queasy tummy while filming the notorious torture sequence. And then there is Buscemi, a smart but wimpy gangster who smells something rotten in the group. Buscemi is the king when it comes to playing oily low lives like this and I have to say Reservoir Dogs finds one of his best performances. Roth sends chills down your spine as the wounded Mr. Orange, really doing a lot with a role that demands he lay on the ground and bleed out. It never gets any easier to watch him shriek in pain in the back of a car and wither around in agony. All I can say is I hope I never, ever get shot in the gut. Penn and Tierney bring plenty of hotshot swagger as “Nice Guy” Eddie and Joe Cabot. Tierney is especially intense as Joe, the glaring don who does put up with any shenanigans or backtalk for his team. Tarantino and Bunker do well with the small roles they have but I would have liked to see a bit more from their characters, especially Mr. Blue. Tarantino gives rich back-stories for the thugs yet he leaves out ones for Mr. Brown and Mr. Blue, which doesn’t really make any sense to me. The only theory I have is possibly the tiny budget prevented him from doing anything further with the characters.
Reservoir Dogs is the film that introduced the world to the “Tarantino style” of filmmaking, which includes drawn out conversations and colorful exchanges between the characters, use of ironic music, nonstop film references, and chilling bursts of violence. Some say that this style has ruined film (mostly film professors that are steaming mad over the fact that Tarantino never went to film school and educated himself on film by taking trips to the local grindhouse) and made it unoriginal considering that Tarantino enjoys nabbing his favorite scenes from old exploitation cinema and stitching them all together. I have to disagree that his work is unoriginal considering that he fashions these references into unique creations that could only come from Tarantino’s mind. I really don’t think anyone else could have made Reservoir Dogs as likable as it is and trust me; this film contains some seriously shocking moments that make it a tough pill to swallow. Overall, Reservoir Dogs is maddeningly simple, wickedly funny, and waiting to spring one hell of a twist on the viewer near the end of the film (trust me, the reveal is really awesome). It is best going into the film with as little knowledge of the film as possible and it is one that you won’t soon forget after you’ve seen it. Good luck listening to ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ the same way ever again.
Reservoir Dogs is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
by Steve Habrat
After Ang Lee’s weighty Hulk, Marvel Studios wanted to cut out some of lengthy character development and restart the Hulk franchise to fit with their upcoming superhero mash-up The Avengers. The result was 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, a faster paced and action packed thrill ride that covers the Hulk’s origin in the opening credits and then jumps right into earth shaking battle sequences that aim to give both Hulk fans and average audience members exactly what they are looking for in a summer blockbuster. The Incredible Hulk is a major improvement over Lee’s slower character study in the action department, climaxing in a car-lobbing final showdown in the streets of New York City, but the film is hollow, never asking us to really use our brains in any way. With Lee’s Hulk, Marvel gave us too much of the big green guy and with director Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, it feels like not enough. What gives Leterrier’s film the upper hand is the strong presence of a much more effective and present villain to torment the Hulk.
The Incredible Hulk begins with a green tinted opening credit sequence where we see Bruce Banner (Played by Edward Norton) get exposed to the dreaded gamma radiation that causes him to turn into the Hulk. Banner ends up injuring the love of his life Betty Ross (Played by Liv Tyler), who is present during the accident. Banner flees the lab after the accident and Betty’s father General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (Played by William Hurt) sets out to arrest Banner for what he has done to Betty. The film then jets to Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro, where Banner hides out while he searches for a way to cure himself. Banner also works on ways to control his anger through breathing techniques that keep him without incident. Banner keeps in contact with a mysterious scientist that he calls Mr. Blue and communicates with him via the Internet. Mr. Blue claims to have a way to cure Banner but he needs information that would require Banner to return to the United States and risk being taken into custody by General Ross. After an accident in the bottling factory where Banner works, General Ross discovers Banner’s location and sends the deadly British Royal Marine Emil Blonsky (Played by Tim Roth) after Banner, who quickly flees and finds himself on a journey back home to meet the mysterious Mr. Blue. Blonsky, on the other hand, finds himself fascinated by Banner and his condition. General Ross agrees to “level the playing field” and inject Blonsky with a serum that can allow him to battle the Hulk but there are horrific side effects.
The Incredible Hulk tosses out Lee’s comic book panel aesthetic for a typical polished summer blockbuster look. We also don’t have to wait until about forty minutes in to catch a glimpse of the big green guy in action. Leterrier is just dying to unleash his new and improved Hulk on us and I must say he is impressive. Gone is the purple compression shorts wearing Hulk and present is a Hulk in tattered jeans with leathery looking skin. The action is also a bit grittier and in your face, just about everything in the Hulk’s way getting tossed, kicked, punched, or used as shields or, (awesomely) boxing gloves. The downside of all the teeth rattling action is that Leterrier focuses a little too much on it and not enough on developing a meaty story. I’ve heard talk that screenwriters Zak Penn and Edward Norton had a longer version with a bit more character development but Marvel rejected it in favor of a faster pace. It’s a shame because I would have liked to get to know a little bit more about Norton’s Banner.
In addition to beefed up action, The Incredible Hulk features a slightly stronger cast than Hulk did. Edward Norton doesn’t spend a good majority of the film moping over daddy issues from his past. Norton possesses a natural gangly and bird-like look to him than Bana’s Banner, which makes his transformation into the Hulk all the more shocking. Bana sort of looked like he could have held his own in a scuffle without transforming into a giant green muscle. Much like Jennifer Connelly, Liv Tyler isn’t given much to do as Betty Ross aside from run around from location to location with Banner. Tyler also happens to speak in a breathier tone than Connelly did. William Hurt as General Ross adds a bit more attitude than Sam Elliot did and when he unleashes his temper, you will want to run for cover. The real star here is Roth, who has a blast flashing a sinister grin as Blonsky, the deadly super soldier who becomes addicted to a serum that turns him into the slimy Abomination. Roth is clearly on top of the world in the role, his excitement level growing as he evolves into a truly formidable villain for the Hulk. With Abomination, Leterrier single handedly lays waste to Lee’s Hulk, just the mere presence of a clear-cut villain a huge bonus.
The Incredible Hulk is a shameless thrill ride that is more enamored with eye-popping CGI monsters and fiery destruction rather than the psychological study that its predecessor was so stuck on. It’s so obviously sugary summer fun but it does its job and you can’t fault it for it. If it boiled down to it, I would probably choose The Incredible Hulk for a Friday night movie if I ever had to make the decision. Norton is clearly the better choice for Bruce Banner and Roth is a devilish delight as the Abomination. You’ll thrill when they begin trading blows in the final stretch of the film. In a way, I wish that The Incredible Hulk had tacked on another fifteen minutes to develop this new Hulk universe and to allow me to warm up to these new interpretations of the characters that Lee introduced us to. The Incredible Hulk also gets a surprise visit from a certain Armored Avenger, which teases us for the epic upcoming mash-up and will drive Marvel fanatics wild. Even if moments of it are lopsided and a bulk of the story gets lost in all the rumble, The Incredible Hulk still manages to get your to be mindless, smashing fun for everyone.
The Incredible Hulk is available on Blu-ray and DVD.