For all of Tarantino’s amazingly unique dialogue, riddled with amusing and surprising pop culture references, lines that double back on each other, alternately setting unnerving tension amidst whimsical banter, I find that Tarantino the hopeless romantic is Tarantino at his very best.
Because, however, Tarantino did not direct the film True Romance (Tony Scott), I cannot list it officially in my favorite Quentin Tarantino collection. But I still must use the film as an example of when I think the director is at his best.
True Romance (1993) works on so many levels. Christian Slater (‘Clarence’) and Patricia Arquette (‘Alabama’) do the best work of their careers. Then there’s the crazy rich performances from Gary Oldman as the setup villainous pimp ‘Drexl,’ Dennis Hopper as ‘Clarence’s’ security guard pops, Brad Pitt as the bong-smokin’, toilet paper bogartin’ ‘Floyd’ (my opinion, Pitt’s best work too!), and the inimitable (yes, all you impersonators, inimitable) Chistopher Walken as ‘Vincenzo Coccotti,’ right hand man to ‘Blue Lou.’ His scene with Hopper is on the shortest of short lists of all-time great heavy weight cat and mouse fights. Movie magic at its absolute best. And Bronson Pinchot? Inspired casting for sure. Why does it all work so damn well in True Romance? Because the love story works. We love ‘Clarence’ and ‘Alabama!’ Their scene together up on the billboard platform outside ‘Clarence’s’ shitty little apartment is one of the sweetest, most heartfelt dialogue exchanges ever. When ‘Alabama’ looks sideways at ‘Clarence,’ wrapped in her blanket, shivering from the cold, sniffling from her epiphany, and says to him “Just shut up a minute, ok? I’ve been a prostitue for all of three days and you’re my first trick. I am NOT what they call Florida white trash – I’m a really good person.” Then “This is gonna seem weird, only knowing you three days and me being a call girl and all, but I think I love you.”
Now it’s on! ‘Clarence’ goes to ‘Drexel’ to stake his claim and says with absolute certainty “Alabama’s movin’ on to greener pastures.”
High stakes, young bold love, lots of super charged sexual energy – all in the first 15 minutes of the film – sets the table beautifully for a wild ride where we are pulling for this couple every step of the way. Excellent writing. Solid direction from Tony Scott. Great acting all over the place. But really excellent writing. Tarantino’s best script.
Here are his best films.
Reservoir Dogs For my money, Res Dogs (for those of us who love this film) was a far more influential and significant cinematic achievement in the wild wild west landscape of independent films from the early 1990’s. It was fresher than fresh, funny as hell, violent as all getout, nonlinear in a way that challenged its audience but never intimidated, unfolding with an almost giddy sense of purpose. What that purpose was is still up for debate. Tarantino doesn’t make message pictures. He barely explores themes with any real sense of mature intellectual curiosity. He writes cool scenes for cool characters and slaps it up on the screen and dares you not to like it. The cast here is stellar, Harvey Keitel as ‘Mr. White’ (“You shoot me in your dreams you better wake up and apologize.”), Steve Buscemi as ‘Mr. Pink’ (“I’m very sad about that but some fellas are lucky and some fellas aint.”), Tim Roth as ‘Mr. Orange’ (“Bless your heart for what yer tryin’ to do.”), the late Lawrence Tierney (“Two minutes tops, but it’s a tough two minutes.”), and Michael Madsen’s ‘Mr. Blonde’ – his grinning, restrained, sadistic menace really got me – forcing me to step out of the theatre before he really got down and dirty on that poor cop held hostage. I now have a queezy pavlovian response to “Stuck in the Middle With You” when it comes on the radio.
Reservoir Dogs (1992) made me not only want to jump in feet first and make films, it gave me a strange new confidence that it could be done with a limited budget and a fresh idea. Not quite as easy as all that, as it turns out, because what Tarantino was doing was utterly unique to him, even taking into consideration his notorious thievery from directors and cinema he was influenced by. The downside to Tarantino’s arrival on the scene has been all the bogus imitators his quirky and often hysterically juxtaposed dialogue inspired.
“Alright ramblers, let’s get ramblin.”
Jackie Brown So smoothe. Pam Grier as the title character gliding into frame on an airport people mover to the retro funky “Across 110th Street” (Bobby Womack) and then a classic Tarantino cut to a tv screen reading “Chicks Who Love Guns,” with a stoned out Robert DeNiro and Samuel L. Jackson discussing the finer points of firearms. “AK-47, when you absolutely, positively have to kill every last mother*$*#er in the room, accept no substitutes,” says Jackson’s ‘Ordell Robbie’ to DeNiro’s ‘Louis,’ who is too preoccupied with Bridget Fonda’s toes (Tarantino clearly has a foot fetish) to listen to the tutorial. Jackie Brown (1997), adapted from Elmore Leonard’s slight novel Rum Punch, is not much more than a love story, albeit a mature adult love story, with a bunch of very funny (Chris Tucker’s ‘Beaumont’) and predictably violent window dressing set pieces along the way. ‘Jackie Brown’s’ mid-life longing for something more meshing into Robert Forster’s resigned yet romantic low rent bail bondsman (‘Max Cherry’) is so sincere and thoughtful, it shows the softer, gentler side of Tarantino’s soul – and I absolutely loved it. Res Dogs grabbed me by the throat and fired me up, Jackie Brown tugged at my heart and gave me a sense of comfort and hope for middle-aged losers. The love story works and gives us a reason to care about these characters, often not the case in Tarantino’s films. ‘Max’ says to ‘Jackie Brown’ in one of the sweeter moments “I bet, besides the afro, you look exactly how you did at age 29,” to which she responds “Well, my ass ain’t the same.” ‘Max’ “Bigger?” ‘Jackie Brown’ “Yeah.” ‘Max’ “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that!”
Pulp Fiction An undeniably super stylish movie with a few landmark scenes and characters that influenced AFI’s decision to name Pulp Fiction (1994) in it’s amazing collection of top 100 American films of all time. This selection shocked me when the list came out, but I get it. If for no other reason than just how vast the impact Tarantino has had on pop culture, both in cinema and more impressively (in my humble opinion) advertising. The resurrection of John Travolta and his goofy Big Mac banter with Samuel L. Jackson and snappy dance scene with Uma Thurman, Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer’s cheeky hold up scene at the diner, ‘Mr. Wolf,’ Christopher Walken’s charming story about ‘the watch,’ and the poor misunderstood ‘gimp’ in the basement of the pawn shop – all not only memorable but off the charts unique in this non-linear mish mosh of stories and characters. But the Bruce Willis ‘Butch’ storyline bogs the film down considerably in the middle when it could have been gaining momentum, and ultimately Pulp Fiction is a not much more than a spectacular collection of crazy cool scenes, slick and snappy dialogue, and sexy degenerates acting without scruples.
Kill Bill Vol. II I like this one more than Vol. I (2004) because it was heavier on dialogue and considerably lighter on chop suey violence. Casting Michael Parks to appear this time around as a Colombian drug lord was a stroke of brilliance (remember he was Sheriff ‘Earl McGraw’ in Vol. I) and yet another example of Tarantino’s freshness as a ‘casting’ director. And the final showdown between Uma’s ‘Bride’ and the late David Carradine’s ‘Bill’ is so good and well worth the wait, unfolding with the surehandedness that Tarantino shows glimpses of every so often in his storytelling. Fun stuff.
Death Proof Grindhouse is how it was pitched, zipping that drive-in reference right over people’s heads, in retrospect it almost seemed like a qualifying disclaimer that the film should not be taken very seriously. And it’s not a serious film at all, but it’s got some vintage Tarantino banter and all of the actors look as though they’re having a blast, including a nasty and misogynistic Kurt Russell as ‘Stuntman Mike,’ tearing up the highway and tormenting a group of young travelers who gleefully decide to return the favor. Rosario Dawson and Sydney Poitier (yes, the daughter of) particularly stand out, both in the looks department and in their snappy retorts. I probably wasn’t supposed to like Death Proof (2007), but it was hard not to, and a quick tip: don’t turn it off too soon.
Kill Bill Vol. I What a great role for Uma Thurman. Can’t really think of another actress who could have pulled it off – maybe Charlize Theron? Nah, Uma’s tough, sexy, funny, and from all accounts, a pretty wicked quick study in the martial arts and can definitely handle a Hanzo sword. Just ask Lucy Liu, their showdown in the snow at the conclusion of this half of the revenge tale is pretty satisfying. Vol. I (2003), like Pulp Fiction before it, heavily influenced other filmmakers as well as advertisers who love to copycat Tarantino’s use of obscure musical treasures.
Inglourious Basterds Much like Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds (2009) is more a collection of really cools scenes than a complete film. The opening farmhouse scene is Tarantino at his very best, building tension with clever and unpredictable dialogue. And man, do Nazis make for great villains. Christoph Waltz chews it up as ‘Col. Hans Landa,’ eating key lime pie and relishing every moment on his way to a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Well deserved. Brad Pitt doesn’t come out as well, pushing too hard and mugging like he’s doing dinner theatre on a Carnival Cruise, but it’s a relatively fun film for such a brutal subject matter.