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Blu-ray Review: Pulp Fiction

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Watching Pulp Fiction on Blu-ray is a mildly bittersweet experience. The movie was a true phenomenon upon its release in 1994. From its fracture narrative structure, to the unpredictable dialogue, to the treasure chest of brilliant performances, there was nothing else like it in theaters at the time. Though its freshness and originality have been dulled somewhat by the scores of imitators that followed, the movie remains bracingly entertaining. That’s the sweet part of the experience. The bitter aftertaste is realizing that writer-director Quentin Tarantino hasn’t come close to touching it in the seventeen years that followed.

After Pulp Fiction made him a household name, Tarantino squandered his talents on disposable garbage like Four Rooms (an atrocious four-part anthology that he was, to be fair, only one-quarter responsible for) and From Dusk Till Dawn (which he wrote and unfortunately co-starred in). Though not without virtues, his true Pulp follow-up, 1997’s Jackie Brown, was in some ways a tepid attempt to recapture past glories. Clocking in at an identical 154 minutes, Jackie Brown lacks the compulsive rewatchability of Pulp. Six years would pass before his next feature, the empty-headed two-part revenge epic Kill Bill. Death Proof, Tarantino’s dismal half of 2007’s Grindhouse, would’ve been lucky to find distribution had it been directed by an unknown.

A comeback for Tarantino occured in 2009 with Inglourious Basterds, but despite an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, the revisionist war flick had little to offer outside of some excellent performances. Sure, it was apparent from the movie’s best moments that Tarantino still knew how to stage a compelling scene. But as a whole, it never gelled into anything truly memorable. Looking at Tarantino’s oeuvre, from his outstanding 1992 debut Reservoir Dogs to Basterds, it has become clear that his work suffers from a pronounced case of arrested development. With the upcoming Django Unchained slated for a 2012 release, Tarantino’s sparse directorial filmography amounts to eight features over twenty years. This level of productivity would be fine if every film was uniquely interesting and worthwhile. But as it is, he’s been running on fumes since Jackie Brown.

None of this, however, erases the pleasures of revisiting Pulp Fiction for the umpteenth time. Or perhaps for the very first time, as the movie has a seemingly bottomless capacity for attracting new fans. Anyone too young to witness it the first time around might have difficulty putting into perspective just how revolutionary the writing really was. So much has been said about Tarantino’s dialogue that it’s become almost a cliché to carry on about it. But the truth is, Pulp Fiction, and Reservoir Dogs before it, were so startlingly unpredictable in the way its characters’ conversations meandered, it really did change the way screenwriters approached dialogue.

That’s not to say that literally every movie prior to Pulp featured strictly expository dialogue. But never before had the simple sights and sounds of two people talking to each been so utterly thrilling. Be it Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) talking about robbing a diner, Butch (Bruce Willis) and his wife Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros) contemplating the virtues of a woman’s pot belly, or any scene involving partners-in-crime Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta), Pulp Fiction simply doesn’t require special effects or over-the-top action scenes. The words emitting from the characters’ mouths are spectacle enough.

All the great dialogue in the world wouldn’t mean much without the right actors to speak it. The actors (perfectly cast, save for one notable exception) treat the script as equal parts playground and gymnasium. They exercise their craft while having such obvious fun digging into these roles that the whole 154 minute movie never wears out its welcome. The notable exception is Tarantino himself, self-indulgently cast as Jimmie, a friend of Jules who is called upon to help dispose of a dead body. It’s a shame that Tarantino couldn’t have suppressed his ego and given this minor role to an actual actor. After all, this is a movie with so many great actors that Steve Buscemi gets stuck in a thankless cameo as a Buddy Holly lookalike.

The storytelling is masterful as well, with three distinct stories coming together in unusual ways to complete the scrambled narrative. By no means did Pulp Fiction invent the idea of telling a story in non-chronological order. But it ended up being one of the more widely seen examples of such an unconventional form. And each individual story takes such wild turns, upending clichés in every instance possible, that the end result is a movie that compels the viewer to return for additional viewings.

The back of the case reads: “Stunning 1080p Transfer Approved by Quentin Tarantino.” The hyperbole proves entirely true, as Pulp Fiction looks extraordinarily great on Blu-ray. This is a considerable improvement over the standard DVD. The picture is razor sharp, with an incredible amount of detail. From the blood streaks in Jules’ car after Marvin is shot, to the individual strands in Travolta’s hairpiece, every aspect of Andrzej Sekua’s vivid cinematography is presented perfectly. Colors are bold and realistic, such as in the Jack Rabbit Slim’s sequence. Pulp Fiction hasn’t looked better since its theatrical release.

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is equally impressive. While not a big-budget action film by any means, Pulp Fiction has always been a sonically interesting movie. The celebrated dialogue is all-important, and this presentation doesn’t disappoint. Whether the actors are speaking in hushed tones or screaming their heads off, their dialogue is crystal clear. The music sounds satisfyingly full-bodied. Gunshots, squealing tires, and a wide variety of more subtle effects are well placed. Noisier set pieces, such as the Jack Rabbit Slim’s sequence, are perfectly balanced, with plenty of sound coming from the rear channels.

Anyone hoping for a bunch of new supplemental features is bound to be disappointed. There are two new high definition featurettes exclusive to the Blu-ray release. One is a 20-minute discussion between several critics, assessing the movie seventeen years after its release. The other is a 43-minute collection of new interviews with some of the cast members. This is a fun piece, with interesting reflections from John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, Eric Stolz, Amanda Plummer, and Rosanna Arquette. Too bad a few more of the key cast members didn’t participate, as it would’ve been great to hear from Bruce Willis, Uma Thurman, and Harvey Keitel. Presented in standard definition, the features from the DVD release have been ported over as well, which include deleted scenes and assorted featurettes.

Pulp Fiction on Blu-ray is simply a must-own release. The movie holds up exceedingly well after all these years, especially with this immaculate high definition presentation.

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About The Other Chad

Hi, I'm Chaz Lipp. An old co-worker of mine thought my name was Chad. Since we had two Chads working there at the time, I was "The Other Chad."
  • Before his fans show up and berate you for your heresy, I agree with almost your entire assessment of Tarantino’s work.

    The only differences being I find Reservoir to be a better film than Pulp, possibly in reaction to the hype. As good as it is, I have seen a lot of the same movies QT has so the references seemed obvious rather than revolutionary as some made out.

    I thought Jackie Brown would have been better received if QT’s name wasn’t on it because anything after Pulp was sure to be a letdown.

    After suffering through KB and DP, I as glad not to get angry during IB from wasting my time watching it.

  • Greg Barbrick

    I agree that QT has been in a holding pattern since Pulp. I remember how excited I was for Jackie Brown, and how disappointed I was at what a bland movie it turned out to be.

    Maybe I should see it again, to see if I missed anything. With Pulp however, one realized very quickly on that this was a truly great film. Bicho talks about the hype, and it was pretty over the top. But I still think Pulp is (slightly) superior to RD.

    Nice job OC.

  • The Other Chad

    Thanks for the comments, guys. It’s funny, regarding the hype — I remember there being arguably more hype for the other Tarantino-related release of ’94, “Natural Born Killers.” There was an incredible amount of pre-release publicity surrounding that movie. And in that case, I don’t think it lived up to it by a long shot.

    But with Pulp, I remember a lot of the hype kind of rising up after it had been out for a few weeks. Or even a few months. As a college student, studying film, I know there were plenty of people “in the know” – those who had seen Res Dogs, True Romance, and like myself had sought out the original Natural Born Killers screenplay – that were totally psyched for Pulp.

    But I also remember working at a movie theater at the time, and you could really kind of gauge the increasing interest in the movie as the weeks went on. I remember a lot of initial comments along the lines of “Who cares about John Travolta anymore” or “The only reason to see this movie is because Bruce Willis is in it.”

    Of course, this is just my specific experience but I just remember a lot of the “buzz” around the film building fairly organically as people started talking about it.

    Greg – I think Jackie definitely warrants a repeat viewing if you haven’t seen it since it came out. As Bicho said, anything QT did after Pulp was bound to be considered anti-climatic. But that said, the performances of Robert Forster and Pam Grier were very effective. Jackie Brown could’ve benefited from serious streamlining though – it’s the same length as Pulp but feels much longer. Scenes like the Chris Tucker cameo add nothing to the movie.

    But in some ways there is some real emotional growth displayed by QT in Jackie Brown that unfortunately didn’t really to continue…

  • A good review. This is definitely one I’ll be adding to my blu ray collection. Never really found Tarentino equalled it with any of his later films, though Inglorious Bastards came close.

    Wrote a review of what I felt the movie was truly about if you want to give it a read.