Pulp Fiction is more than a mere masterpiece. It’s a force that produced new stars (Quentin Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson) and revitalized careers (John Travolta and Uma Thurman). It kicked open Hollywood’s doors to a new breed of writers and directors—wannabes aiming to duplicate the magic Tarantino created.
It generated more than $200 million at the box office, yet achieved a cult-like anti-mainstream status for millions of obsessive fans. Indeed, it became an arbiter of cool for the post-Boomer generation. Nearly two decades after its release, its characters, music and especially its dialogue are iconic.
Time ranked Pulp Fiction among the 100 best movies ever made. Entertainment Weekly named it the best film of the quarter-century between 1984-2008. Top critics Roger Ebert and Richard Corliss both called it the most influential film of the 1990s. And the American Film Institute ranked it No. 7 all-time among gangster films.
We think that’s too low.
Pulp’s brilliance is in how it draws you into the world of fundamentally dislikeable characters—hit men, dealers, and other assorted criminals—so that for two hours and 35 minutes, you are willing to suspend your moral judgment. They become sympathetic figures, regular folk debating the same mundane topics the rest of us argue about—although their exchanges are much wittier.
And, in a comedy that is darker than Michael Corleone’s heart, you find yourself delighted at the most inappropriate moments. People are shot, raped and tortured, and you ask yourself: Should I be laughing? Should I be appalled? Sometimes, it’s like chuckling at a gun being pointed at your face.
There’s no real message to Pulp Fiction, which may be why some fans love it. It’s not about family, like The Godfather. Or loyalty, like Donnie Brasco. Some of its bad guys win, some lose. Really, it’s more amoral than immoral.
Part of the joy is not always knowing who the good guys are. Tarantino shot Pulp Fiction as a time-twisting weave of stories where villains can become heroes, or a guy peppered with bullets in one scene comes back from the dead, so to speak, in the next.
Behind it all is a hipness in everything from the wardrobe to the set design to the beat-heavy soundtrack that kicks off with Dick Dale’s guitar classic “Misirlou” in the opening credits.
Pulp Fiction is a zigzagging symphony of three plots, none of them particularly original. “I wanted to start with the oldest chestnuts in the world,” Tarantino told film writer Gerald Peary. “You’ve seen them a zillion times. The guy goes out with the mobster’s wife—but don’t touch her. The boxer who is supposed to throw the fight, but doesn’t. Two characters go to kill someone.”
What makes it work is the ingenious way the characters overlap, sliding from one segment to another. You don’t really know how the puzzle is going to fit together until the end—so that you need to learn the legacy of Butch’s gold watch to understand why he risks his life to retrieve it, which leads to Vince Vega’s death and that nightmarish scene in the basement of that pawn shop.
What really makes it work is the dialogue written by Tarantino and coauthor Roger Avary. The characters here are in bizarre situations (cleaning brains and skull from a car, for example), but their conversation is rarely used to explain what’s going on. Instead, they engage in rapid-fire literate exchanges on everything from gourmet coffee to the relative cleanliness of pigs and dogs.
Samuel L. Jackson, who costars as hit man Jules Winnfield, recalled to Total Film magazine in 2006 his original reaction to seeing the screenplay. “I read it straight through, which normally I don’t do,” he said. “Then I took a breath and read it again, which I never do. Just to make sure it was true. It was the best script I’d ever read.”
For our money, Jackson steals the movie as the Old Testament-quoting assassin who believes he has received a message from God. His eyes glow with ferocity, even as he delivers soliloquies that make him the deepest-thinking mobster you’ve ever heard. Plus, his comic teamwork with Travolta is the best we’ve seen since the heyday of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.
Tarantino began writing the script in 1992 with a $900,000 advance he received based on the critical—if not box-office—success of Reservoir Dogs. He holed up in Amsterdam (thus all the references in Pulp), taking an apartment with no telephone. He spent nights in Holland’s legal hash bars and days immersing himself in French gangster films.
Pulp Fiction was originally contracted to TriStar Pictures. But just before production was to begin, studio chief Michael Medavoy dropped the project, calling the script—according to coauthor Avary—“the worst thing ever written . . . too long, violent, and unfilmable.”
Fortunately, Miramax Films did not feel the same way about it. That studio, just taken over by Disney, of all corporate entities, picked up the project and assigned it an $8.5 million budget.
Typically, a budget that size would preclude signing major stars. But Bruce Willis, among the highest-paid actors at the time, viewed Pulp (wisely) as a chance to change his Hollywood image by appearing in a quirky indie film. He signed for a minimum salary to play Butch, the end-of-the-line boxer with his own plan to rip off the mob.
Tarantino wanted Uma Thurman for the role of mob wife Mia Wallace, partly, he said, because he fell in love with her feet (she does walk around barefoot a lot and there is that subplot about foot massages). Thurman was reluctant, having been shocked by the brutality she saw in Reservoir Dogs. “I found it rather terrifying,” she said. “But I was just overwhelmed by Quentin’s incredible energy.”
The big casting surprise was Travolta, who had, by then, been reduced to playing second banana to a baby in the Look Who’s Talking trilogy. Tarantino—over everyone’s objections—insisted on hiring the faded Saturday Night Fever star to portray the coolest-of-cool gangsters. He even gave Travolta a dance scene, twisting away at Jack Rabbit Slim’s.
A black tie and jacket replace Tony Manero’s white polyester suit. And Vince Vega carries both a paunch and a heroin habit. But the role revived Travolta’s career like The Godfather revived Brando’s. He earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination (an award taken by Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump) and his per-picture salary grew from $140,000 in Pulp to $20 million for A Civil Action in 1998.
“Quentin will always be my guardian angel,” Travolta later told Cinecon.com.
Pulp Fiction was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture. It won just one, with Tarantino and Avary taking the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. It was also awarded the top prize at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival—an announcement that sparked some booing in the audience. Tarantino gave his critics the finger.
Its $212 million box-office gross is huge considering its dark nature. And, as we said, it launched some careers and revived others. More than anything, it made Tarantino into a pop icon.
All these years later, it still shines. The interwoven stories of junkies and murderers and petty thieves remains fresh and original. The quotable dialogue, the pumping soundtrack, the twists and turns still offer revelations upon each viewing. This is one Big Kahuna of a movie.
HIT: Among all the great performances in Pulp Fiction, two actors who do cameos deserve special mention. First is Harvey Keitel as the tuxedoed Winston Wolfe, the Zen-like fixer whose specialty is getting rid of unwanted gore. “You’ve got a corpse in a car minus a head in a garage,” he tells Vincent and Jules in his icy manner. “Take me to it.”
Second is Christopher Walken as Vietnam POW camp survivor Capt. Koons, who hands young Butch Coolidge the gold wristwatch passed down four generations—and hidden for five years up Butch’s dad’s rectum and another two up the captain’s. Walken rehearsed his three-minute monologue for eight weeks, creating a rhythm and cadence that makes it a spooky tweak of his role in The Deer Hunter. Brilliant.
MISS: We cringe every time Maria de Medeiros comes on screen as Butch’s girlfriend Fabienne (a.k.a. Lemon Pop), baby-talking about her desires for a pot belly and “bloooberry penkecks.”
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “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.”—Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
REALITY CHECK: Most of Jules’ Ezekiel 25:17 speech (“The path of the righteous man. . .”) is nowhere in the Bible. Rather, it is largely cribbed from the 1973 Japanese movie The Bodyguard, starring Sonny Chiba—one of Tarantino’s all-time favorites.
Still, it’s a really cool speech.
GOOF: According to two doctors we consulted, injecting someone’s heart with adrenaline to revive her from a heroin overdose (as Vincent does with Mia) would do no good. First, heroin overuse causes your respiratory system to shut down—not your heart to stop. Second, it’s not the appropriate medicine for the problem. And even if it did work, the patient would not spring up like an alarm clock just went off, but slowly regain consciousness and sobriety.
Still, it’s a really cool scene.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Watch it three or four times to fully comprehend the intertwined, time-arcing plotlines. After that, just watch it again for its sheer brilliance.
PIVOTAL SCENE: The first scene of Vincent and Jules is mind-blowing. You see them driving, gabbing about McDonald’s and foot-massage etiquette until they arrive at a nondescript apartment building. You know they’re up to no good (especially when they pull guns from the trunk), but you’re not sure exactly what.
They arrive at the apartment of the young dealers who have stolen from their boss, Marsellus Wallace. As a nervous Brett tries to talk his way out of trouble, Jules calmly samples his burger and Sprite. Then, almost as an aside, Jules shoots Brett’s reclining cohort (“Flock of Seagulls”) through the chest. This, of course, leads up to the brimstone Bible speech and the execution of poor Brett.
Chances are, you’ve seen the scene enough that its shock value is gone. But try to recall the first time. Vincent and Jules are two guys nattering about the topics guys talk about—food, sex, other guys’ wives—when suddenly, without warning, they turn into brutal assassins. It’s a stunner. And you realize, at that moment that Pulp Fiction isn’t going to be like any movie you’ve seen before.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: At the end, you learn that Vincent and Jules are present in the diner while Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) and Pumpkin (Tim Roth) are scheming to rob it. This, of course, circles back to Pulp’s opening scene.
But if you view that opening scene carefully, you learn right then that our hit men are in the house. Turn up the volume as Pumpkin talks about how easy it would be to rob a restaurant. You’ll hear Jules in the background talking about quitting the gangster life and “walking the Earth.” Then watch over Yolanda’s right shoulder as Pumpkin suggests that no restaurant worker would “take a bullet for the owner.” You’ll spot Vincent, in his blue T-shirt, walking to the men’s room.
CASTING CALL: Co-executive producer Harvey Weinstein favored Daniel Day-Lewis for the role of Vincent and either Holly Hunter or Meg Ryan for the role of Mia. Fortunately, Tarantino ignored him.
Sylvester Stallone was considered for Butch—like he needed another boxing gig. And Ellen DeGeneres read for the role of Jody, the heroin dealer’s wife. We would have loved to see her with all those piercings.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Well, other than the bondage and the rape and Jules driving with poor Marvin’s brains splattered in his Jheri curls . . . other than that, yeah, it’s still as violent as it gets.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: For the scene in which he is high on heroin, Travolta wanted to know what the experience was like without, you know, actually trying the drug. A recovering-addict friend of Tarantino’s told Travolta to drink ten shots of tequila and lie down in a hot tub. Travolta later joked that this became his all-time favorite scene to rehearse for.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW II: There has been much speculation about the mysterious orange-glowing contents of the briefcase that Jules describes as “my boss’s dirty laundry.” Essayists have suggested it contains everything from atomic explosives to diamonds to Marsellus Wallace’s lost soul. According to Tarantino, however, the case is nothing more than a plot device and offers no explanation for its contents. “It’s whatever the viewer wants it to be,” he said during an appearance on Inside the Actors Studio.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW III: The movie briefly became an issue in the 1996 presidential election when Republican candidate Bob Dole cited it as an example of Hollywood “peddling nightmares of depravity.” Dole accused Pulp Fiction—which he had not seen—of “promoting the romance of heroin.”
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: That’s Steve Buscemi as the Buddy Holly waiter in Jack Rabbit Slim’s, taking the order for burgers—“bloody as hell”—and a $5 Martin and Lewis milkshake.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: Pulp Fiction spawned myriad copycats, as we said. Another good one is Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, a 1995 ensemble film directed by Gary Fleder about an underworld caper gone bad.
BODY COUNT: Seven. We can only imagine the offscreen ending met by poor Zed.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”