Picks and Pans Review: Pulp Fiction

updated 10/17/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/17/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

John Travolta, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman

It's hard to imagine any viewer leaving this extravagantly demented, 2½ hour low-life lalapalooza without carrying away at least a few indelible moments. Mine are 1) an unprintable line uttered by Harvey Keitel, a courtly but no-nonsense mob fixer called in to dispose of a badly disfigured corpse, urging his henchmen to get on with their work; and 2) a flashback sequence featuring Christopher Walken, that poker-faced totem of strangeness, as a Vietnam prison-camp veteran named Captain Koons. This scene, too, culminates in a punch line that is wildly profane and very, very funny.

But there's much more to enjoy in director-writer-costar Quentin Tarantino's anthology movie about smalltime, pea-brained crooks in L.A. Their tales all start slowly, then careen into outlandish twists. The two strongest stories involve Travolta, whose long, limp hair and thick body suggest Bryan Ferry in a gorilla suit, taking his gangster boss's wife (Thurman) to dinner while the big man is out of town; and Willis, as a boxer who has been paid to take a fall, deciding instead to take the money and flee with his girlfriend (moon-faced Maria de Medeiros, who talks with erotic dreaminess of blueberry pancakes).

The entire cast, like Tarantino, seems to revel in sloshing around in this muck, the knowingly hip distillation of several generations' worth of film noir, cheap crime novels and indifferently shot television shows. Travolta, charmingly dim, gets unexpected laughs from the slimmest bits of comedy, whether trying to answer the intercom while coked up or making his voice childishly tiny for the line, "Bacon is good. Pork is good." Jackson, as Travolta's partner, is perhaps the standout, frighteningly intense whether he's about to shoot a rival through the head or convinced that he has just witnessed a miracle. Willis, actually, is the only one who doesn't seem to quite get it. He's fine, technically—even enjoyable—but the performance has inappropriate hints of cool. No man dast enter Palookaville and keep his dignity.

If there is any other fault with Pulp Fiction, it's that—unlike, say, 1990's The Grifters—it never rises above pulp or at least the preposterously vivid brand of it that Tarantino has been developing with such movies as Reservoir Dogs and True Romance. But ultimately this is also what makes the movie so unexpectedly buoyant. Despite the drugs, the blood, the language, the grit, Pulp Fiction is fundamentally light-hearted. It's fluff. (R)

From Our Partners