Pulp Fiction Review
After Quentin Tarantino's startling 1992 debut Reservoir Dogs, the world was wondering whether this videostore clerk turned filmmaker would be able to follow it up with anything nearly as good. 1994's Pulp Fiction didn't just meet expectations, it smashed them out of the park. The film made the name of the fledgeling Miramax studio and blazed a trail through pop culture, making mega-stars out of some actors and rehabilitating the careers of others. Tarantino delivered "three stories about one story" (to quote the screenplay), written by him during his trip across Europe promoting Dogs and using a story by his friend Roger Avary as inspiration for one segment. The narrative doesn't play out in the usual linear fashion, using a jumbled chronology to depict a day or two in the life of some of L.A.'s more unsavoury characters, their stories intertwining and converging at key points. The main players in one segment have supporting roles in the next, with some characters even dying and then getting 'resurrected' in the next reel. While this device isn't a particularly rare cinematic occurance, it was something out of the ordinary for mainstream Western audiences at the time, and it gave the average cinemagoer a little more to think about.
The movie starts with a conversation in a coffee shop between Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, two career criminals madly in love with each other who decide to rob said eatery, and then we're introduced to Jules and Vincent, a couple of black-suited hitmen on their way to collect a briefcase and its mysterious contents for their boss, Marcellus Wallace. After they seemingly complete their job, Vincent has the dubious honour of having to take the boss's wife Mia to dinner later that evening. We then get treated to a '50s themed restaurant, a 5-dollar milkshake, a twist contest, a heroin overdose and a giant hyperdermic needle filled with adrenalin - and that's all from the one story.
The next tale covers the exploits of Butch, a boxer paid to throw a fight by Marcellus, who promptly kills his opponent (literally) and takes flight with the bribe. But all the fighter cares about is his gold watch, a cherished family heirloom, which is left behind by his girlfriend Fabian. When Butch returns to his apartment, he runs into Marsellus (again, quite literally) and after taking their fight into a pawn shop the two end up bound and ball-gagged in a dingy leather dungeon with a couple of rednecks. If you've seen Deliverance, you can probably guess what happens next.
The last story returns to Jules and Vincent, who've just managed to inadvertently kill their accomplice (from the first segment) in the back of their car and need to cover their tracks pronto. They pull in to the driveway of Jules' friend Jimmy, who's not best pleased at having a body stored in his garage. Marsellus' problem solver Winston Wolf arrives to save the day, and Jules and Vincent go for some breakfast. It just so happens that they end up at the same coffee shop seen in the first scene of the movie...
Once each scenario has been established, things tend to just happen to the characters, which is what gives the movie its sense of organised chaos, that feeling that anything could be around the corner. The fragmented timeline serves to amplify those feelings even more, and it lends the film a freshness which a linear telling of the story would perhaps lack. (I've been a fan of Pulp Fiction for years, yet I've watched it three times in as many days for this review and I've noticed new things every time.) There's a surprising amount of dark humour sprinkled throughout too, which helps to leaven the outbreaks of shocking violence and the more serious theological musings of the third act.
It's fair to say that one of the chief criticisms of Tarantino's work is that it's all style over substance, but I would counter that by saying that his style is his substance. His characters don't sit there and spout exposition to move the narrative along, they chat about any old rubbish like real people do, using a fragment of the story to go off on a tangent about putting mayonaise on french fries, or why you shouldn't mess with a man's automobile. It's a sort of heightened reality, somewhere between the über-realism of Altman and the slickly framed grandstanding of a big studio picture. As self-conscious as the dialogue may appear to be, it isn't reeled off perfectly, as there's always a little slip or a pause to remind us that these people are indeed mere mortals.
The performances are excellent across the board. Samuel L. Jackson (previously seen in such films as Goodfellas, Patriot Games and Jurassic Park) was propelled into the stratosphere by his stunning turn as Jules, equal parts righteous fury and outrageous jheri curl wig. John Travolta is superb as Vincent, playing him with a semi-stoned outlook, all heavy eye lids and a loping walk that's a world away from the strutting pretty-boys he was famous for. The key word being was, this former megastar reduced to slumming it in the Look Who's Talking Movies. But Pulp Fiction put him right back on the map, and he grabbed his second chance with both hands. The same could be said of Bruce Willis, Travolta's Look Who's Talking co-star, who puts in a decent turn as Butch. He's rarely far away from simply playing Bruce Willis and that proves to be the case here, but he's still good value for it as the tenacious boxer. Maria de Madeiros is great as Butch's delicate, wide-eyed girlfriend Fabian, and Christopher Walken has a magnificent cameo as Capt. Koons, an old buddy of Butch's dad who tells him all about his father's gold watch.
Uma Thurman is bewitching as Mia, all smokey eyes and black bob haircut; you can see why she became Tarantino's muse. Honey Bunny and Pumpkin are both essayed in nicely crazed fashion by Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth, the latter having ditched his phoney American accent heard in Dogs. Harvey Keitel oozes cool as the 'fixer' Winston Wolf who covers up Jules and Vincent's bloody little problem. Eric Stoltz gets a small but memorable role as Lance, Vincent's friendly neighbourhood drug dealer, with Rosanna Arquette as Jodie, his wife. Ving Rhames is almost unrecognisable as Marsellus Wallace, not because of his appearance (he's as big and as black as ever) but because we've gotten so used to seeing him play sympathetic characters in the intervening years. We don't actually see his face until we get to the second story, and this has the effect of building up the character in our mind's eye, making him all the more powerful and larger-than-life when we do finally see him.
The camera work is outstanding. Tarantino and his Director of Photography Andrzej Sekula took a leaf out of Scorsese's book and created a number of superb Steadicam shots, none quite as technically accomplished as that restaurant scene in Goodfellas, but they're all entrancing in their own way. It establishes the scene in a way that no other shot can do, giving us a sense that these are real people in a real space (whether you're consciously aware of it or not). It's not all Steadicam of course, as Tarantino knows when to keep the camera still, when to use the intimacy of a close-up, when to use hand-held etc. But for all the immediate realism which these methods bring to the table, Tarantino also uses certain techniques that draw attention to themselves and remind us we're watching a movie, like the back-projection process shots used for some of the in-car sequences.
It's the combination of exaggerated reality and subtle fourth-wall breakage which makes the film such a joy to watch, Tarantino delighting in using cinematic conventions to simultaneously support and satirise what we see on-screen. Even the endlessly cool black-suited look, parodied to death after Dogs, is replaced with garish T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops by the end of the film. Tarantino also loves to leave us with things to think about, but - crucially - this stuff is not designed to confuse for the sake of it. It's an almost Kubrickian conceit, letting the audience come up with their own answers as to what's in the briefcase, why Marsellus has the plaster on the back of his neck, whether Vincent and Jules were saved by divine intervention, and so on.
There are times when the movie does drag, especially at the beginning of Butch's story when he and Fabian are holed up at the hotel, because they really are waffling on about nothing - but I suppose that's merely the calm before the storm in that particular segment. Tarantino's fascination with the 'n' word has always been cringe-worthy, and it's even more glaring in this PC-conscious world we live in today. Still, he got it out of his system after Jackie Brown, and with the upcoming Django Unchained he'll get the chance to actually use it in the proper historical context.
However, those are minor complaints and Pulp Fiction remains Tarantino's best film (although Inglourious Basterds runs it very, very close in this reviewer's opinion). Like Reservoir Dogs, it's a remarkeably polished and astonishingly confident piece of work from a very young director and that makes it all the more powerful. The comparisons between a young Orson Welles and Tarantino were not so far-fetched. Everything about the film reeks of the bold, aggressive filmmaking style which is Tarantino's trademark, and the Academy's fawning over Forrest Gump at the 1995 Oscars looks like an even bigger misstep with each passing year.
We're given a theatrically correct widescreen transfer framed at approx. 2.35, encoded with AVC. For something that's supposed to be a new transfer there's some noticeable gate weave, which is typical of a telecine rather than a scan. That's not to say it couldn't be a new telecine, but with everyone and their brother scanning films these days, it's odd that Lionsgate would've chosen the older method. The gate weave does give the image a kind of familiar old-school instability, and there's a subtle but noticeable flicker throughout the show too. Knowing Tarantino's affectation for the grindhouse aesthetic, perhaps he didn't want a scan because it would've looked too stable - or perhaps that's giving Lionsgate far too much credit. The picture is mostly free of dirt, scratches or other such imperfections.
Anyhoo, what's here is very pleasing to my eyes. The high key lighting which gives the film that stagey look is in full effect, casting big pools of light all over the place. Blacks are rich and deep for the most part, and while the colour definitely has a more up-to-date orange cast to it, skin tones are naturally varied and you can still see where the make-up ends on people's faces. Detail levels are excellent, especially for an anamorphic show like this (although the usual distortion at the periphery of the frame is evident throughout). There is just a touch of visible edge enhancement, casting very thin halos around high-contrast edges like the black suits of Jules and Vincent, yet it's not intrusive at all. No encoding artefacts to report.
It's the little things that stand out when you watch a favourite movie remastered in HD. People's eyes are so clear in the close-ups; you can see the subtle colour variations in Tim Roth's irises during the opening scene, and the baby blues of John Travolta and Uma Thurman are quite striking. You can see the strand of saliva on the cherry that Mia pulls away from her mouth, just before she powders her nose at Jack Rabbit Slim's, and the tyre tracks of the stunt car that's supposed to have crashed into Lance's house - but has in fact driven past, with the 'crashed' hero car already in place - are just visible on the lawn outside. They all add up to provide a richly detailed visual experience that's like watching the movie again - for the first time. (© Star Wars Special Edition trailer.)
Folks online have been hard at work comparing this director-approved transfer to older versions and complaining about the differences, however I've never seen any of those older HD editions and I can only take this Blu-ray on its own merits. Yes, the colour is more modern, yes it's got quite a contrasty look at times, but it's still the film I fell in love with nearly 20 years ago and that's good enough for me. Heck, if it weren't for the EE I'd be skating close to giving this a 10.
The movie is given the regulation DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 encode and it sounds utterly superb, giving us aural treatment that's just as revelatory as the visuals are on this disc because the track feels so open and alive. Right from the opening scene you're placed smack-bang in the middle of the coffee shop with Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, as waitresses hustle past, traffic zooms by outside and the patrons chatter over their breakfast. You can even catch fragments of Jules and Vincent's discussion (look out for Travolta in the background as he makes his way to the can), and the reverse is true later on in the film: while the two hitmen talk you can hear little snippets of Tim Roth chuntering away.
It's got a densely textured sound field which you seldom find on a verbose drama/thriller such as this one, and the lossless encoding lets even the tiniest nuance through. Dialogue is always intelligible, and has been expertly balanced with the other elements. When Mia's singing away to Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon, her voice is never lost against the booming music track. The music itself sounds good, with a nice spread across the front speakers and respectable support from the subwoofer. It's not as clean or as punchy as I'd like it to be, but filmmakers have to make do with the masters they are given when dealing with licensed music. With that in mind the presentation is fairly consistent, and it bleeds through to the rears where appropriate to the setting. Tarantino's knack for rescuing obscure or forgotten songs is in full flow here! What few 'action' moments there are don't carry a lot of heft. This I can forgive because the film is more about the build-up to and consequences of these violent acts, rather than the acts themselves (the latter viewpoint being a common misconception of Tarantino's work).
Most of what we get here has been recycled from earlier DVD editions, but Lionsgate have made it worth our while by including some half-decent new material.
New stuff first: Not The Usual Mindless Boring Getting To Know You Chit Chat (16:9, HD) is a 43-minute collection of recently-recorded interviews with Travolta, Jackson, Stoltz, Arquette, Roth and Plummer. Familiar anecdotes about Sam Jackson's wig and Travolta's career being resuscitated are trotted out, but I loved the bit about a scene which was scripted but never filmed, where we would've seen Jules kill Pumpkin and Honey Bunny in the restaurant which then cuts back to them being held at gunpoint - the shooting having been played out in Jules' mind. Jackson keeps grumbling about it, which makes for a funny little moment later on.
Here Are Some Facts On The Fiction (16:9, HD) rounds up five critics whom I've never heard of (I'm sure they'd say the same about me) who discuss the film for 20 minutes, talking about what the film means to them, their favourite moments, the usual stuff.
The Enhanced Trivia Track sounds like it's one of those newfangled PiP commentary things, but thankfully it's a simple subtitle stream that's basically a commentary without the audio, explaining the significance of the framing, the lighting, the music, Tarantino's thoughts on various aspects of the film and so on. It's obvious that it's the original 2002 DVD track, as it mentions Kill Bill in the future tense (amongst other things). It's undoubtedly interesting, but updating it for 2011 wouldn't have hurt.
Pulp Fiction: The Facts (4:3, SD) is a 2002 documentary made for the DVD release, and while it's edited in an annoyingly 'hip' style, all quirky graphics and trendy music, it's got some interesting on-set interviews with the actors and filmmakers that don't appear anywhere else on this Blu-ray. Runs for 30 minutes.
The Deleted Scenes (4:3 letterboxed, SD) are a holdover from the Criterion edition Laserdisc. All but the last one come with an introduction by Tarantino, and while there's nothing Earth-shattering it's great to see Dick Miller's cameo as Joe (of Monster Joe's Truck and Tow). The quality's pretty poor, but for a laserdisc port I expected nothing more. They are: The Drug Deal Monologue, Mia Interviewing Vincent, The Esmerelda Cab Scene, Monster Joe's Truck and Tow and Extended Jack Rabbit Slim's Scene.
There's a 6-minute Production Design Featurette (4:3 SD) about the contribution of David Wasco and his wife to the film. The short montages of behind the scenes footage (one for Jack Rabbit Slim's, the other for Butch Hits Marsellus, both 4:3 SD) are among the most interesting things on this entire set, because it's great seeing these scenes take place and what the process was. Tarantino and Andrzej Sekula both helm the behind the scenes camcorder at certain points, and the bit where Bruce Willis tells Quentin with absolute conviction that someday, some kid is gonna take a camcorder and shoot a mega-successful movie with it is a neat little moment.
We then get a series of features devoted to the critical reaction to the film. Siskel and Ebert At The Movies: The Tarantino Generation (4:3, SD) is a 16-minute look at Tarantino's career up to that point and the two critics' opinion of the movie. The Charlie Rose Show (4:3, SD) is a 55-minute TV special in which the titular host also looks over Tarantino's work, with the man himself present this time. There's 11 minutes of raw footage from the Independent Spirit Awards (4:3, SD) in which Tarantino is interviewed by Michael Moore, but it's more about them goofing off and doing Beavis & Butthead impressions than getting any real insight. Last up is the 5-minute Palme d'Or Acceptance Speech (4:3, SD), in which Tarantino is heckled rather amusingly by an outraged Cannes attendee (this incident is also mentioned in the new interviews).
The last lot of goodies is the marketing gallery, which encompasses the following: Theatrical Trailers, TV spots, and Stills Galleries. The 5 trailers (UK, US, French, German and Japanese) are all variations on the same theme, while the 13 (count 'em!) TV spots are mere curios. It's all in SD and some of this stuff looks like it's been taken off of a VHS copy. The stills galleries are worth ploughing through, featuring lots of behind the scenes shots, cast portraits, promo shots, poster galleries, concept galleries and the Academy Award print campaign. Unfortunately they're presented in a very small window on-screen, framed by a graphic from the movie, which means some details are very hard to make out. I find it incredibly annoying that the studios still do this because the borders aren't cool, they're just annoying because we can't see the pictures full-frame.
Please note: The BBFC edit which reframed the shot of heroin injection has been waived for this new release. This UK disc is locked to Region B, although the US Region A locked disc is all but identical, save for the addition of Spanish subtitles. Pick your poison accordingly.
Pulp Fiction is quite simply a modern classic, and this HD makeover has been a long time in coming. It was worth the wait, as the remastered picture and stunning sound have breathed new life into the film. The roster of extras will be familiar to those who had the SE DVD or indeed the Criterion Laserdisc, but I'd rather have the existing features than not (unlike another recent release, *cough* Star Wars *cough*) and the new set of interviews are a welcome addition.