You are old. 20 years ago this very day (OK, yesterday to be exact), a 31-year-old wunderkind with only one previous film to his name stepped onto the Palais stage in Cannes to accept the Palme d’Or for his modest kitchen-sink drama “Pulp Fiction.” As momentous as that evening must have been for Quentin Tarantino, it’s hard to believe that even he, not exactly legendary for his humility, could have envisaged just how influential his film would be in subsequent years, and just how rabidly lesser talents would rush to try and replicate its success. Because, without wanting to overstate anything, “Pulp Fiction” changed everything.
The landscape of Hollywood was remade, the mini-major Miramax become the preeminent force in independent film (a major-mini-major?) and Quentin Tarantino was a household name overnight (and seemingly was handed a lifetime directorial carte blanche that very evening). But this wasn’t simply a marketing success or a coup for the industry. “Pulp Fiction” changed what was seen as viable in terms of storytelling, pushing envelopes all over the place: narrative structure (loosely connected but separate story strands); chronology (messed with); dialogue (non-naturalistic, verbose, pop-culture inflected, wildly profane); even casting (has-been John Travolta, Bruce Willis in a ball gag, ingenue Uma Thurman as a femme fatale etc., etc.). For any aspiring filmmaker at the time, hell, for a lot of critics and cineliterate observers, it was a heady explosion of joyously referential but irreverent filmmaking and it felt like anything was possible.
But so few Tarantinos come along in a generation (maybe for the better—how many more could we handle?) that in fact what did happen, despite the sense of wide-open potential, was that rather than necessarily being inspired to go off and do their own thing like Tarantino did, studios and fledgling directors took the path of least resistance and tried to make a movie like Tarantino’s. And so the film industry over the next decade and a bit became something of an echo chamber, as blackly comedic, multi-stranded, extremely violent, wordy crime flicks started to crop up, first one at a time, but pretty soon in whole batches.
We’ve assembled 17 of those slipstream films below, and some are of course better than others, but what’s interesting is to examine just which ones did manage to put their own twist on the formula, and which, well, didn’t. Because having now waded through an awful lot of copycat dross, we’ve gained an even higher respect for the film that started it all, and noticed a throughline in the worst efforts which seems to be that their writers and directors have simply assumed that by assembling something that is brash, amoral, slickly violent, peppered with n- and c-words (and liberally salted with “fucks”) and populated with male characters of a racist, homophobic and/or sexist, criminal bent, voila! you’ve got ‘Pulp.’ But Tarantino, and it’s something even we are sometimes guilty of forgetting, is much, much smarter than that, and underneath the glossy, slick surface of “Pulp Fiction” is an absolutely rigorous, even classical, adherence to the storytelling basics of character building and coherent plotting, the more effective for seeming so effortless, malleable and invisible.
So in celebration of the real deal, here they are: the knock-offs, the rip-offs, the me-toos and the also rans, all vying for a sliver of that “Pulp Fiction” magic but more often than not unable to escape the long, long shadow of the film that defined the ’90s, and beyond.
“Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” (1995)
Playing something like a romanticized elegy for gentlemen gangsters, ‘Denver‘ fizzled in theaters, despite boasting Andy Garcia backed by a cast of notables and several Tarantino alumni. Garcia plays Jimmy The Saint, an ex-con forced into doing a final favor for a slumming Christopher Walken, who proceeds to assemble a team of That Guy Actors. The plan goes sour and Steve Buscemi is dispatched to stalk and kill the men. The echoes of Tarantino are heard far and wide—Buscemi’s contract killer is named Mr. Shhh, nearly every character bears a humorous moniker, the dialogue is akin to a mashup of sixty years of gangster movies, and the tone shifts between graphic violence and humor. You’d be wrong to write off the picture though, since all artifice aside, the filmmaking is hardly pedestrian. The actors deliver, in particular a gentle Christopher Lloyd and a certifiably demented Treat Williams, while Buscemi cements his presence without so much as a word. It’s stylized, artificial even, but there’s no denying screenwriter Scott Rosenberg (who also penned last year’s “Pain & Gain”) has a sense for the kind of tough guy talk that belongs on the silver screen (and only there). If nothing else, embrace the spoilers and enjoy this scene—the source of fan favorite line: “I am Godzilla, you are Japan!” [B-]
“American Strays” (1996)
If there’s one single element of Tarantino’s style that is most frequently copied across this list, and most frequently falls absolutely flat, it’s the snappy, digressionary, pop-culture-obsessed dialogue he wrote with such fluidity and wit in “Pulp Fiction.” “American Strays,” a direct-to-dvd film starring a direct-to-dvd cast of Luke Perry, Eric Roberts and Jennifer Tilly from writer/director Michael Covert, is a case in point. The characters snip and spar at each other over the benefits of 8-tracks over CDs, or “old” Aerosmith over “new” Aerosmith, without ever convincing us that they’re doing anything but reciting a lot of words that a young writer had thought would sound real cool all strung together. And the Tarantino love-in doesn’t end there: ‘Strays’ is a multi-stranded supposedly blackly comic, semi-parodic take on the desert/road movie, populated by oddball characters who have quirks instead of personalities (this old guy collects dolls! This suicidal dude has taken out a hit … on himself!) and who only collide in, what else, a big ol’ gunfight in the Oasis diner. Perry is extraordinarily wooden, and Tilly seems to have been playing the role of sociopathic sexpot forever, but Roberts is a minor redeeming feature of the film, cast against type as a family man who has lost his job. Still there’s nothing he can really do to rescue the shoddiness of the endeavor, with Covert’s movie right down to the prevalence of low angle shots, at best an example of ventriloquism. Unfortunately, we can see his lips move. [C-/D+]
“The Way of the Gun” (2000)
As great as ‘Pulp’ is, the majority of the films that tried to emulate it ain’t in the same ballpark, the same league, they ain’t even the same fucking sport. Some get closer though, as in this beautifully crass (for the first half at least) Christopher McQuarrie crime film. Sure, “The Way of the Gun” is hyper-violent and has a coterie of vulgar, bad people making up its cast of characters. It’s talky and very much “written.” But it’s not so much a knockoff of the QT style as that it shares a similar sensibility for dialogue and genre subversion. It’s even fair to say that McQuarrie was ahead of Tarantino here in terms of heavily aping spaghetti western tropes and style (“Kill Bill” came three years later). It’s a twisty, ‘70s throwback tale of two low-lifes (Benicio Del Toro and a gravelly-voiced Ryan Phillippe) who kidnap a surrogate mother to a rich couple in hopes of a big score. Things spiral out of control on the way to a brutal gun fight in a dusty old Mexican town. The characterizations and dialogue really sing, especially coming from the two leads and James Caan as a veteran cleaner of sorts, who puts on an acting clinic in ultimate grizzled old man badassery. There’s a lot of memorable moments, acting choices and sequences: the hilarious, vulgar opening scene sets the tone and establishes these “heroes”; Del Toro slapping a prostitute in the ass before a gun fight; and Phillippe unwittingly leaping into a pile of broken glass (goddammit anyway!), until it all comes way unmoored in the final act. The success of “Pulp Fiction” allowed for the existence of “The Way of the Gun,” but perhaps unusually for this list, its successes and failures feel mostly its own. [B-]
“Go” (Doug Liman, 1999)
When Roger Ebert reviewed “Go” back in 1999, he used the first paragraph to talk about the lasting legacy of “Pulp Fiction,” including the fact that “sooner or later the statute of limitations has to run out” on comparisons between new movies and Tarantino’s game-changing masterpiece. And the critical consensus was pretty much in agreement: even though, as Ebert said, “the shadow of Q.T. falls on many scenes,” Doug Liman‘s energetic, candy-colored follow-up to “Swingers” was a deeply entertaining ride in its own right. (It was also, with the country’s youth currently under the spell of a dance music renaissance, ahead of its time.) The biggest debt “Go” pays to “Pulp Fiction” is in its shifty, interlocking narrative that follows a trio of threads, all loosely connected back to a Christmas-themed rave in Los Angeles, and in its cooler-than-thou attitude, with snappy, tough-talking drug dealers, kooky cops and a coolly detached view of violence and its real-world repercussions. (It’s also worth noting that Liman was once again latching onto contemporary urban hipster tropes.) The power of “Go,” which unfolds with a nearly hallucinogenic vividness (like “American Graffiti” on ecstasy), is that you aren’t actively attributing this debt to Tarantino as the movie is going on. It’s hilarious and involving and warm on its own terms. “Go” is one of the rare son-of-“Pulp Fiction” movies where it didn’t matter if the influence was obvious; it was that damn good. [B+]
“The Big Hit” (1998)
Tarantino is famous (or is it infamous) for liberally borrowing from a whole host of cult Hong Kong action movies—everything from Ringo Lam‘s “City on Fire” (which he appropriated large swaths of for “Reservoir Dogs“) to John Woo‘s immortal classic “The Killer“—and everything in between. The weird boomerang effect was that because Tarantino was ripping off Hong Kong cinema, then Hong Kong cinema must be cool in America now too. Tarantino did a fair share of this himself, introducing American audiences to a plucky performer by the name of Jackie Chan via “Rumble in the Bronx” and releasing Wong Kar-Wai‘s “Chungking Express” through his distribution imprint. Of course the downside to this was that other, less tasteful producers and studios thought that since Tarantino had made it cool, they could also try and import that very specific Hong Kong aesthetic for American audiences … which resulted in heaping piles of shit like Che-Kirk Wong‘s nearly unwatchable schlock-a-thon “The Big Hit.” Wong, who directed the hit Chan film “Crime Story” in 1993, leaves any traces of subtlety or substance behind, in this bloody, garish tale about a hitman (Mark Wahlberg) who gets involved in a bumbling kidnapping scheme. It’s loud, it’s obnoxious, it’s sexist, and worst of all … it’s boring. What makes the whole failed enterprise even more baffling is the fact that John Woo produced this piece of shit, a year after making his best American film “Face/Off.” You can’t blame him for wanting the Hong Kong aesthetic to become viable domestically, but sadly something major was lost in the translation. [D]
“2 Days In The Valley” (1996)
One of the more self-evident “Pulp Fiction” rip-offs, although presumably written after a double-bill of that and “Short Cuts,” with a disparate group of characters, including a pair of hitmen and a few femme fatales, clashing over the titular 48 hours in LA, John Herzfeld’s film is mostly forgettable, joyless and overly convoluted, and correctly remembered really only for introducing the world to future Oscar-winner Charlize Theron. The plot kicks off with hitmen Lee (James Spader, at his most sleepy-eyed disinterested) and Dosmo (Danny Aiello) killing Peter Horton, at the behest of his wife (Teri Hatcher), only for Lee to shoot Dosmo so he can run off and split the cash with his girlfriend Helga (Theron). But Dosmo survives, taking shelter at the house of a British artist (Greg Cruttwell, from “Naked”) and various others gathered there, including suicidal TV producer Paul Mazursky. It’s the kind of movie where no characters really act like human beings, but just perform actions to move the plot along, and the performances, with a few exceptions, are about as memorable as you could get from cogs in a machine. The dialogue thuds rather than sparkles, Herzfeld (last heard of directing “The Making Of ‘The Expendables’ ” ouch) helms with little-to-no flair, and there’s an icky tone of misogyny even for this genre. Really the only reason to watch is the first glimpse of Theron’s impressive screen presence, poured into an even more impressive white catsuit, if for nothing else than a reminder that she’s gone on to much, much better things over the years. [D]
“Amores Perros” (2000)
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu has his foibles—oppressive seriousness, and an at-times comically dour tonal and thematic palette—but the man is still a gifted filmmaker, one of the best of an impressive roster of modern Mexican directors, in fact. That talent was evident from the beginning in his first, and still best, feature to date. Its similarities to “Pulp Fiction” are pretty clear but mostly surface: three interlocking stories that see characters occasionally cross over; a criminal element; harsh violence. But beyond that, “Amores Perros” (aka “Love’s A Bitch”) is its own beast—a gritty, unflinchingly hard-edged portrayal of loyalty and disloyalty, painful cosmic jokes, fate, and the way love can evolve so fluidly into hatred (and vice versa). The film’s success led to two more projects between Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (the also great “21 Grams” and the just OK-with-moments-of-greatness “Babel” which made up their loosely connected Death Trilogy) before they went their own creative ways. Arriaga continued his obsession with the hyperlink film when he wrote and directed “The Burning Plain” whereas Iñárritu left it behind to make the more focused “Biutiful,” so perhaps it was the screenwriter who was more influenced by ‘Pulp’. Regardless, “Amores Perros” is a fantastic film that rises well above any Tarantino rip-off labels. [A-]
“Get Shorty” (1995)
Not so much ripping off “Pulp Fiction” as betting heavily on its success (it was one of John Travolta‘s first post-comeback bookings, producers Jersey Films having partly backed ‘Pulp’ and having the inside track), “Get Shorty” also turned out to be one of the very best of the wave of comic crime pictures that came in the years after Tarantino’s game-changer, in part because it directly adapted one of the director’s favorites, Elmore Leonard. Scripted by Scott Frank and helmed by Barry Sonnenfeld, the film sees Travolta play Chili Palmer, a Miami loan shark who pursues Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman), a B-movie producer, only to end up entering the business by pitching a movie based on his life. They set out to land A-lister Martin Weir (Danny DeVito, who also produced), even as Chili woos Weir’s ex-wife (Rene Russo) and fends off both a local drug dealer (Delroy Lindo) and his boss from home (Dennis Farina). It’s convoluted stuff with multiple players, just like all of Leonard’s best work, but Frank’s smart, snappy screenplay manages to make it all comprehensible, and Sonnenfeld’s zippy, career-best direction keeps proceedings light on their feet. Plus the cast are all aces: not just the starry ensemble (with Travolta arguably even better here than in ‘Fiction’), but also the stacked supporting cast that includes James Gandolfini, Jon Gries and, in an unbilled cameo, Bette Midler. Shame about the sequel, though… [B+]
“Be Cool” (2005)
“Get Shorty” was one of the best of the “Pulp Fiction” follow-ups, and, as we wrote a year or so ago, one of the best-ever Elmore Leonard adaptations. Its dismal, decade-later sequel “Be Cool” was one of the worst of both categories. In fairness, “The Negotiator” helmer F. Gary Gray didn’t have one of Leonard’s best books to work with, but the source material is masterful when compared to the tone-deaf, pleasure-free mess that ended up on screen in 2005. Chilli Palmer is now an established movie name who takes a left turn into the record business when a friend (James Woods) is gunned down in front of him by the Russian mob, and the widow (Uma Thurman) asks him to help save his label by signing a hotly-tipped new singer (Christina Milian), even though she’s already been bagged by two scumbag execs from across town (Harvey Keitel and Vince Vaughn). “Get Shorty” was hardly an inside-Hollywood expose, but felt authentic in a heightened away, whereas no-one involved here seems to have ever even thought about the music industry, and in place of the earlier film’s cast of ringers, we have the wooden Milian, Cedric The Entertainer and, in a performance that remains the lowest ebb of his career (really saying something), Vaughn. Worse, Travolta and Thurman seem to have lost their “Pulp Fiction”-era chemistry, which is only exposed further by the way the film re-enacts their famous dance sequence, but scored to the Black Eyed Peas. That serves as a pretty good metaphor for the movie in general, to be honest. The only redeeming factor is a fine performance from Dwayne Johnson as a gay Samoan bodyguard, but it’s still not enough to make this worth sitting through. [F]
“Suicide Kings” (1997)
If there’s one marker that helps you identify a late-’90s “Pulp Fiction” copycat, it’s the appearance of Christopher Walken, who after only cameoing in the real deal, seemingly refused to turn down any work at all so long as there was some kind of involved, possibly blackly comedic murder or kidnapping. Here, Walken is the victim himself: a former crime boss, Charlie Barret, who’s nabbed by a quartet of college friends hoping to get $2 million from him so they can in turn retrieve one of their kidnapped sisters. Walken manages to get word to his bodyguard/enforcer Lono (Denis Leary), who sets out to track the boys down. It’s not a bad set-up, perhaps more Coens than Tarantino in premise, but certainly indebted to the latter more with its lengthy, would-be comic monologues. And Walken’s great, as ever, owning the screen every moment he’s on it. But that’s not entirely surprising, because his kidnappers are played by the universally bland quartet of Henry Thomas, Sean Patrick Flanery (two-time offender on this list), Jay Mohr, Jeremy Sisto and Johnny Galecki (the only one to make something even close to an impression, mainly because of how annoying he is). There are a few twists and turns that are mildly surprising, but there’s a truly painful sense of dancing in the footsteps of better films throughout. Mostly ignored on release, it’s picked up a tiny cult audience in subsequent years, presumably of bros who can’t find their “Boondock Saints” DVD (see below)—enough so that a sequel is supposedly in development, though we wouldn’t hold our breath in terms of actually seeing the thing. [D+]
“8 Heads In A Duffel Bag” (1997)
In 1999, Oscar-winning “Goodfellas” and “Raging Bull” star Joe Pesci announced his retirement from acting (he’s mostly been good to his word since, bar a cameo in “The Good Shepherd” and a more substantial role in the little-seen “Love Ranch”). After the trio he went out on, you wouldn’t blame him: dire crime comedy “8 Heads In A Duffel Bag” was the first in a trifecta of terrible completed by J.J. Abrams-scripted slapstick comedy “Gone Fishin’ ” and diminishing-returns sequel “Lethal Weapon 4.” But the first of the three was very much the worst: a tonally bonkers comedy with the trappings of a post-Tarantino black comedy, but the soul of “Weekend At Bernie’s.” Pesci plays a mob hitman hired to transport the titular eight bonces across the country, only to lose them in a baggage mix-up with innocent Charlie (Andy Comeau), who’s en route to meet his girlfriend’s parents for the first time. His life threatened if he can’t find the missing cargo, Pesci enlists the aid of Charlie’s roommates (David Spade and Todd Louiso), while Charlie has to convince his prospective in-laws that he’s not a serial killer, and keep the heads intact until Pesci can come pick them up. The result is a broad, deeply unfunny picture caught between several stools, none of which are very entertaining. It makes sense, then, that it’s the lone directorial outing of screenwriter Tom Schulman, whose schizophrenic credits include the very funny “What About Bob?” and winning an Oscar for writing “Dead Poets Society,” along with worthless comedies “Holy Man” and “Welcome To Mooseport.” [F]
Often overshadowed by not only “Pulp Fiction” but also the somewhat similar “Bottle Rocket,” “Palookaville” is now probably best remembered as the first feature from director Alan Taylor, who went on to be a key director for golden age TV dramas like “Oz,” “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men” (of which he helmed the pilot), and “Game Of Thrones,” before recently making a move into the blockbuster world with “Thor: The Dark World” and the upcoming “Terminator: Genesis.” That’s a shame, because while “Palookaville” couldn’t possibly be more different from the latter two tentpoles, it’s a rather charming, low-key crime comedy that deserves a much better reputation. The film focuses on a trio of small-town pals, Sid (William Forsythe), Jerry (Adam Trese) and Russell (Vincent Gallo), who are fed up of their dire economic straits and collapsing personal lives, and plan an armored car robbery together, the only problem being that they don’t have violent bones in their bodies, and are entirely unsuited to lives of crime. Unlike most of the crime movies of this era, there’s no pretense at “cool,” no cutting-edge soundtrack or over-written dialogue: it’s mostly using the crime set-up to examine these three warm, slightly dim fellas, the people around them, and their relationships together. Taylor does handle the final robbery well, though, and there’s such a sweetness to the film (and in particular the often underrated Forsythe’s performance) that it’s able to coast along quite happily on that. Despite winning the Best First Film prize at Venice, it wasn’t able to gain much of an audience, but it’s better than the majority of the films on this list. [B]
“Very Bad Things” (1998)
Time is a wondrous thing. Consider Peter Berg’s coal-black-hearted theatrical debut, “Very Bad Things,” the story of a bachelor party, a dead hooker and a body count that just won’t quit. The divisive picture remains capable of minor moral outrage and there’s little to redeem it—the familiar misogyny of the genre hands the two major female roles to the stripper (Kobe Tai) and venomous bridezilla Cameron Diaz, who is positively chilling. The male cast, consisting of Christian Slater, Jon Favreau, Daniel Stern, Leland Orser and Jeremy Piven, do a fine job of berating one another but there’s little to recommend unless you’re a fan of the actors, and even then, there are a handful of pictures that put their respective talents to far better use. “Very Bad Things” holds humanity in contempt and aims to deliver laughs as violent outbursts claim the lives of caricatures, as a hat tip to the far better film that inspired this feature. That Berg would mount a comeback with 2003’s shamelessly commercial The Rock-starrer “The Rundown” and strike gold with “Friday Night Lights” is a testament to Hollywood’s persistent short-term memory. [C-]
“The Boondock Saints” (1999)
Has it been a while since you wished you were dead? Well, put on this “cult hit” and try to make it through even the first twenty minutes without longing for the sweet embrace of oblivion. While contractually obliged, for the purposes of this feature, to sit through every tedious second we confess our mind did wander to the story behind the film, mainly as a way of protecting itself from the graceless, toxic stupidity of what was unfolding onscreen. Because as filmmaking lore, it’s interesting: the script was briefly the hottest thing in town, and was bought by Miramax to be directed by writer/bartender Troy Duffy despite his lack of filmmaking credentials (clearly hoping for a similar discovery as with ex-video store employee Quentin Tarantino). Duffy, according to the 2003 documentary “Overnight,” was pretty much fueled by delusional egotism and riled everybody involved, resulting in Miramax abandoning the project. But the devil can foil any righteous plan, and the film got made anyway, in all its inanely violent, overlit, derivative, meatheaded glory. The story of two precariously accented Catholic brothers from Boston (Norman Reedus and Sean Patrick Flanery) who randomly start offing people they deem “evil” while pursued by Willem Dafoe’s self-parodic FBI agent, there’s not a single scene you haven’t seen done better in another film, most often “Pulp Fiction.” But what’s most repellant is the lunkheaded glee the film takes in its unthinking endorsement of vigilantism, and how it practically ejaculates over itself about how edgy and hip it is, when in fact it’s just straight-up racist, homophobic, misogynistic and consistently dumb as fuck. This has to be the nadir of the “Pulp Fiction” me-toos, and so of course is the only one aside from “Get Shorty” to have thus far spawned a sequel. A million thumbs down, no stars, [F]
Irish crime drama in the 1990s was dominated by John Boorman‘s excellent, Cannes-lauded “The General,” but the knock-on effect of “Pulp Fiction” finally arrived in 2003 with “Intermission,” an unexpectedly charming multi-character, multi-stranded affair (also riffing on “Magnolia” as much as anything else). Penned by playwright Mark O’Rowe, and helmed by theater director John Crowley, making his feature debut, it follows the aftermath of the break-up between long-term couple Cillian Murphy and Kelly Macdonald, and of a fairly spectacular double-decker bus crash, events that somehow combine as Murphy teams with thuggish criminal Colin Farrell and disgruntled bus driver Brian F. O’Byrne to kidnap Macdonald’s new beau, a married bank manager, while various other characters—including Colm Meaney’s delusional copper, and Shirley Henderson’s insecure, mustached loner—circle them. Nothing here is especially groundbreaking, bar perhaps Henderson’s storyline, but from its arresting opening, there’s a real verve and energy to proceedings that doesn’t preclude the film from slowing down and entering more contemplative modes. O’Rowe’s writing is warm and witty, and Crowley juggles tone impressively, going from charming rom-com to grittier drama in a space of a few scenes without it feeling incongruous. The performances are strong, too: Farrell’s having a blast, and Murphy and Macdonald in particular lend texture to performances that could have felt a little bland otherwise. Crowley and O’Rowe would reteam again to much greater effect a few years later for “Boy A,” which introduced Andrew Garfield to the screen, but this is a pretty decent little movie on its own. [B]
“Reindeer Games” (2000)
John Frankenheimer had a long and storied career that spanned over 40 years, full of dizzying highs (“The Manchurian Candidate,” “The Train,” “Seconds”), some crashing lows (“The Island Of Doctor Moreau,” “Prophecy”), and plenty in between. But it’s a shame, having revived his career with 1998’s gripping “Ronin,” that his final film was one as generic and anemic as “Reindeer Games” (Frankenheimer was to have directed “Exorcist: The Beginning,” but became ill and died in 2002, a month after pulling out of the production). Penned by future “Transformers” writer Ehren Kruger, it sees ex-convict Ben Affleck released from jail and hooking up with Ashley (Charlize Theron), a young woman who’d been corresponding with his late cellmate. They fall for each other, but Ashley’s psychotic brother (Gary Sinise) turns up and forces Affleck to aid in a casino robbery, thinking that he had inside knowledge of the place. In theory, it’s not a bad set-up, but Kruger’s script piles ludicrous twist upon ludicrous twist, not so much stretching credibility as tearing it apart, and while there’s some welcome color to be found in the supporting cast (which includes Dennis Farina, Danny Trejo, Clarence Williams III and Donal Logue—who replaced Vin Diesel at the last minute, the only time in history that that will ever happen), Affleck, Sinise and even the usually reliable Theron make for pretty terrible leads. Frankenheimer’s sense of suspense eludes him too: the action sequences seem to be taking their cue from “Die Hard 2” rather than his vintage ’60s work, and the whole film looks kind of cheap. Barely a year later, the film was already a punchline when Affleck played himself in “Jay & Silent Bob Strikes Back,” and in a way, it’s lucky to be even remembered as that. [D-]
A film no one remembers from a director everyone forgets, “Phoenix” feels a little like what might result if you pasted together alternate lines from the “Pulp Fiction” and “Reservoir Dogs” screenplays, then Google translated the whole into Mandarin and back. And then got Danny Cannon (“Judge Dredd,” “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer”) to direct. Well, maybe we’re being harsh on Cannon, who seems to have found his level helming TV procedurals (25 episodes of “CSI,” etc.) because this was a poorly conceived knock-off from the get-go, the type of would-be amoral thriller in which people are given lisps instead of character details, and the hero quotes Dostoevsky because it sounds cool. Ray Liotta, Anthony LaPaglia, Jeremy Piven and Daniel Baldwin are four corrupt cops in yes, Phoenix, (whose presumably full-time jobs seem to encroach very little on their extra-curricular activities) held together by unexplained bonds of brotherhood despite the fact that the LaPaglia character is clearly a sociopath. Liotta, the decent one, is a hyper-superstitious gambler, Piven plays a cuckolded husband and Baldwin, much, we fear like his position within his famous clan, plays The Other One. Having no such thing as a coherent character to cling to, the derivative plot spins its wheels, and potentially promising elements, like Angelica Huston and Brittany Murphy, fall by the wayside in favor of more macho posturing, hardboiled cussin’ and casually sexist exchanges between the lead quartet and their sketched-in adversaries. “Pulp Fiction” is a film more open to having its surface mistaken for its substance than most, which is why attempts like “Phoenix” to replicate the ‘Pulp’ formula without any of Tarantino’s spiky talent end up such colorless lame ducks by comparison. [D]
And the Rest…
Class of ’94
Now while ‘Pulp’ does feel like something of a lightning strike, it didn’t quite come out of nowhere, in fact 1993/1994 saw several films released that contained some of its elements. There’s a good reason for that: most had some sort of Tarantino involvement, from “Killing Zoe,” directed by Tarantino’s ‘Pulp’ co-writer Roger Avary and exec produced by QT, to Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” which was based on a Tarantino story idea, to Tony Scott’s “True Romance,” which Tarantino wrote. Also notable from this peri-“Pulp Fiction” period was CM Talkington‘s “Love and a .45” which stars Renee Zellweger in a boneheaded, overcooked “Bonnie & Clyde” story, and seems designed for viewers who found “Natural Born Killers” just too rife with nuance and subtext.
The Not Really Rip-Offs
And then there were those films that may well have found it easier to get funding due to the success of “Pulp Fiction,” or to see their way to find an audience, but that were much more their own things, and in some cases became influential, career-making films of themselves, like Bryan Singer‘s “The Usual Suspects” and Christopher Nolan‘s “Memento.” You can even at a pinch include Soderbergh‘s terrific “Out of Sight” and extremely enjoyable John Cusack vehicle “Grosse Point Blank” in this category.
‘Lock Stock’ and the Rebirth of the British Gangster film
And finally, the true mark of a deeply influential film is that sometimes even its copycats spawn copycats, and the influence of Tarantino on Guy Ritchie, who made “Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” in 1998 can’t really be overstated. Even if he’d eventually try to slip the noose of the “British Tarantino” tag, the deeply QT-indebted Ritchie pioneered the return of the British gangster film that saw films of variant quality like “Snatch,” “Sexy Beast” “Love Honor & Obey,” “Layer Cake” and “The Limey” all released within five years of each other, constituting a subgenre all of their own.
Anything you feel we missed on our tumble down the rabbit hole? Want to berate us for underrating “8 Heads in a Duffel Bag” or congratulate us for making it all the way through “The Boondock Saints”? Leave your comments below, we’ll be at Big Kahuna Burger. – Jessica Kiang, Oli Lyttelton, Drew Taylor, Erik McClanahan, Mark Zhuravsky