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-]