A Royale With Cheese: ‘Pulp Fiction' Turns 25

A quarter of a century after its release, Quentin Tarantino's non-linear crime mash-up remains as fresh as ever.

A quarter of a century ago "Pulp Fiction" splashed onto screens across the United States. All primary colors, explosive violence and rapid-fire, yet spare and essential dialogue, this non-linear crime story elevated director Quentin Tarantino from promising filmmaker to auteur almost overnight.

Audience expectation for the film was running high ahead of its October 14, 1994 debut. "Pulp Fiction" was Tarantino’s follow-up to his lauded "Reservoir Dogs"(1992) and had already won the Palme d’Or – the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. An independent film made for $8.5 million, it grossed $9 million over its opening weekend ahead of an eventual domestic take of more than $107 million, which would be added to an international haul of another $106 million, according to Box Office Mojo.

Nominated for seven Academy Awards, its only win was for Tarantino and Roger Avary for best screenplay. "Forrest Gump" beat it for best picture, and "Gump" star Tom Hanks was chosen over Travolta in the best actor category. Twenty-five years later, it’s fair to say "Pulp Fiction" has had a more lasting, far-reaching effect on the entertainment landscape than "Gump" and his box of chocolates.

What helped make "Pulp Fiction" such a hit with audiences in the mid-nineties – and the decades since – was that it appeared entirely original, yet also utterly familiar. Tarantino’s characters are drawn from the movie-going popular conscious. John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s mob hitmen are stock characters straight from gangster films of the 1930s and 1940s. They even dress in simple black and white suits.

Uma Thurman smokes and dances her way into film lore as a troubled gangland moll married to Travolta and Jackson’s character’s boss. Thurman’s character Mia Wallace has direct links to film noir crime, along with a nod to Michelle Pfeiffer as Elvira in Brain De Palma’s 1983 cult movie "Scarface." Bruce Willis plays a boxer-on-the-take who double crosses the mob boss, leading to a scene featuring the rape of one of the male characters.

Tarantino deliberately chose such recognizable characters, even placing them in scenes reminiscent of older films. "Part of the fun of 'Pulp' is that if you’re hip to movies, you’re watching the [1947] boxing movie 'Body and Soul' and then suddenly the characters turn a corner and they’re in the middle of [1972’s] 'Deliverance,'" Tarantino once said to Rolling Stone.

Keeping the audience off-balance was key for Tarantino, from his use of a time-jumping script to sly winks at characters and genres plucked from Hollywood’s golden-era. And don't forget the endlessly quotable dialogue, including such gems as "five-dollar milkshake," "Royale with cheese," "Zed’s dead" and "Get the Gimp."

Eloquent in its sparseness, Tarantino’s script for "Pulp Fiction" creates humor without characters having to deliver an obvious joke. Dread and tension are amped up, yet voices are rarely raised. Nothing feels superfluous when it comes to the dialogue, which is paired with a soundtrack bursting with classic American rock and roll, pop and soul.

It all combines to make a movie Roger Ebert declared "the most influential film of the decade." So influential in fact that echoes of "Pulp Fiction" can be found in films such as "Very Bad Things" (1998), "Suicide Kings" (1997), "The Usual Suspects" (1995), "Get Shorty"(1995) and "Go" (1999), as well as British director Guy Ritchie’s "Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" (1998) and Christopher Nolan’s "Memento" (2000).

The "Pulp" effect also filtered to the small screen, informing cable series "The Sopranos," "Breaking Bad" and even "Game of Thrones" with its blood-gushing violence layered with comedic one-liners. 

"'Pulp Fiction' is the work of a film maker whose avid embrace of pop culture manifests itself in fresh, amazing ways," Janet Maslin wrote in her 1994 review of the film for The New York Times. "From surf-guitar music on the soundtrack to allusions to film noir, television, teen-age B movies and Jean Luc Godard (note Ms. Thurman’s wig), 'Pulp Fiction' smacks of the second-hand. Yet these references are exuberantly playful, never pretentious. Despite its fascination with the familiar, this film is absolutely new." 

As viewers, we may now be desensitized to Tarantino's use of language and graphic violence that shocked audiences in 1994. Yet at age 25, "Pulp Fiction" maintains a modernity and watchability other films also considered a classic sorely lack.

Contact Us