October 14 marks the 20th anniversary of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. The influence of Tarantino’s second feature was almost immediately felt, and we don’t just mean in your dorm room, where your college roommate would try to quote the Book of Ezekiel, or during the 18 months when everyone tried to order a Royale With Cheese at McDonald’s. Pulp Fiction changed movies when it was released in the fall of 1994 — seemingly every director, screenwriter, and producer who saw it became pregnant with an idea for a talky, hip, meta, violent shoot-’em-up. Over the next five or six years, ensemble casts were assembled, ornate monologues were delivered, and a new comic noir was born.
Twenty years later, Pulp Fiction still stands alone. But some of its imitators had their charms. A few of us — Rafe Bartholomew, Mark Lisanti, Sean Fennessey, Alex Pappademas, and Chris Ryan — decided to revisit these imitators to see how they held up and what they owed to the originator.
Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead (1995)
Rafe Bartholomew: Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead might be the most overwritten movie I’ve ever seen, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
If you watch it enough times, you’ll find yourself absorbing bits of vocabulary from the film’s Colorado-by-way-of-Brooklyn gangster argot. Here’s a quick list of the terms that have infiltrated my speech (and confused pretty much everyone who’s heard me use them in conservation):
buckwheats — When the Man With the Plan, the paralyzed crime boss played by Christopher Walken (right at the moment he decided to dive headlong into the caricature of himself he’s been portraying ever since), wants someone killed in the worst imaginable way, he orders a “buckwheats” hit on them.
This means the hit man will shoot his quarry up the ass, leading to a slow death that will feel like the victim is “crapping white-hot razor blades.” I tend to threaten my cats with “buckwheats” whenever I accidentally tread barefoot in a pile of feline yack.
boat drinks — To quote Jack Warden’s never-explained grandfather/narrator figure: “At the end of a long, bad life, there you are, on a big cabin cruiser somewhere in the Florida Keys, having boat drinks.” That sounds pretty good to me. It’s also nice to know that when we go to heaven, Christopher Lloyd will be there, smoking a cigarillo and wearing a “Where’s Waldo?” shirt.
“I am Godzilla, you are Japan” — In retrospect, this line might not even crack the top five awesome moments in Treat Williams’s gonzo turn as the corpse-punching, dookie-tasting Critical Bill. But it’s hard for me to backtrack on since I had it engraved on my third-generation iPod in 2004.
I got pressure sores; they leak pus — Alas, my favorite line of all is the only one I can’t dig up on YouTube. When Andy Garcia’s gangster with a heart of gold, Jimmy the Saint, asks Walken’s underworld kingpin why Walken went back on his word and ordered the killing of a man he promised he would spare, the Man With the Plan answers, “I got pressure sores, Jimmy. They leak pus.” It’s a non sequitur that makes a lot of sense. We do horrible things, sometimes just because we feel like it.
2 Days in the Valley (1996)
Mark Lisanti: I want to tell you that all you need to know about 2 Days in the Valley — TV veteran John Herzfeld’s (The Preppie Murder, The Ryan White Story, A Father’s Revenge) 1996 entry into the Tarantino Knockoff canon — is that Danny Aiello plays an aging hit man named Dosmo Pizzo, who also does time at a local pizza joint. But that doesn’t quite get it done. There’s James Spader, still brimming with the carnal menace of his sex, lies prime as the icy assassin who brings Aiello on a job just to frame him for the murder. There’s Jeff Daniels as a hand-job-obsessed vice cop who wants to nothing more than to bust the new Japanese massage parlor in the neighborhood, because those places are OK for downtown and similar pockets of disrepute on the other side of the hill, but not a nice family area like the Valley. There’s Eric Stoltz as his reluctant partner in handy-preventive justice, too much of a pro to look embarrassed by the sub-Quentin shenanigans unfolding and clumsily interlocking around him. There’s Paul Mazursky playing, of course, a director, but one who uses his Emmy as a toilet-paper holder, because he’s still aching from the string of big-screen flops that confined him to TV-movie jail. There’s also a self-identifying asshole art dealer with kidney stones, a yapping Yorkie who thwarts the depressed helmer’s suicide, and a Peter Horton. There was a lot going on in the 818 in that 48 hours in 1996.
And I remembered none of it until I rewatched it last night. Well, not none of it. I remembered this:
Teri Hatcher and Charlize Theron trying to tear one another apart in a cheap motel tends to stick with you. Not in the way Vincent and Jules getting hosed down in motormouth Jimmie’s backyard or Mia getting resurrected in Lance and Jody’s living room does, but a memory’s a memory, I guess. Let’s meet back here in another 18 years and see if I can still call up Dosmo Pizzo’s name on demand.
Albino Alligator (1996)
Sean Fennessey: Here’s a good run for an actor:
Swimming With Sharks (1994)
The Usual Suspects (1995)
Your Fancy Directorial Debut (1996)
A Time to Kill (1996)
L.A. Confidential (1997)
No one had more momentum in the ’90s than Kevin Spacey. He could have done anything. He wanted to direct. Unfortunately, that directorial effort was Albino Alligator. An all-in-one-night, single-location crime drama in the vein of The Petrified Forest and Hitchcock’s Rope, Spacey’s first feature is talky, stupid, and stagey. I love it.
It all happens at a New Orleans bar, where a trio of thieves are forced to hole up and take hostages after a heist gone wrong. There’s the leader (Matt Dillon), the wounded cohort (Gary Sinise), the wild-card sociopath (William Fichtner), the shadowy figure with secrets (Viggo Mortensen), the crotchety barkeep (M. Emmet Walsh), his worldly, wise barmaid (Faye Dunaway), the doe-eyed innocent (Skeet Ulrich), and the frustrated fed (Joe Mantegna) trying to penetrate the action. If that’s not the ne plus ultra of ’90s casts, I have a trundle of Frank Whaley trading cards to offload.
I’m not sure what Spacey liked about Christian Forte’s script — it’s dime-store Tarantino featuring not so much characters or motives as affectations and shouting. (Dillon’s character yells stuff like, “Lip is what I don’t need! I asked you a simple question!”) I choose to see this as knowing cheese. There’s a Humphrey Bogart poster featured prominently in the bar, Spacey’s “I swear I know how derivative we’re being” evidence. When the twist arrives, it’s been telegraphed so many times that it’s a surprise Charles Woodson didn’t pick it off and return it for a touchdown.
Is it possible I’m wrong about Spacey’s intentions to lovingly lampoon these kinds of movies? Sure. (I’m definitely wrong.) But Albino Alligator — the title of which is explained in a brutally obvious metaphorical diegesis — could have used another title. May I suggest Reservoir Pogs?
U Turn (1997)
Alex Pappademas: Three reasons why it’s almost (almost!) unfair to call Oliver Stone’s 1997 movie U Turn, starring Sean Penn and Jennifer Lopez, a post-Tarantino film:
1. The script is by John Ridley, adapting his own then-unpublished novel Stray Dogs, written years before QT’s rise to ubiquity.
2. The setup is straightforward, cards-on-the-table neo-noir — here’s the desperate loner (Penn) with a broken radiator hose in his cool old car, here’s the seedy desert town he gets stranded in, here’s the bag of ill-gotten cash, here’s the femme fatale (Lopez), here’s her creepy husband (Nick Nolte) and his creepy teeth.
3. When the movie goes into the ditch, the eccentricities that derail it are identifiably the director’s own. Stone was coming off the box-office disappointment (and secret batshit-insane masterpiece) that was 1995’s Nixon; at times U Turn feels like he set out in earnest to reboot himself by executing a fast, cheapish (around $20 million) genre exercise, but couldn’t resist ceding final cut to Don Juan the Peyote Spirit. There may also have been bedside-manner issues: Sean Penn later said that U Turn should have been called Dr. Doolittle, because “talking to the director was like talking to a pig,” which really just makes me want to see Oliver Stone remake Animal Farm.
All that aside: This is a bloody, quippy modern crime movie that milks maximum ironic/sadistic effect from a dial-twisting pop soundtrack that includes Ricky Nelson’s “Lonesome Town” (as heard at Jack Rabbit Slim’s). There’s a Morricone score and a trunk shot of Sean Penn and a stickup where somebody won’t give up their bag because there’s a MacGuffin in it. Stone is never not the loudest voice in the room aesthetically, but this film has Tarantino on the brain even more than the Oliver Stone movie that Quentin Tarantino actually wrote. That’d be Natural Born Killers, which Tarantino claims he has never watched all the way through. The same year U Turn came out, Tarantino ran into one of the producers of Natural Born Killers at a restaurant and punched him so hard his watch flew off, which led to the B-minus Variety headline PUNCH FOR LUNCH BUNCH and was arguably the Young Jeeziest moment of Tarantino’s career.
Stone made a Tarantino movie and a pseudo-Tarantino movie in the space of three years, but never seemed to actually get Tarantino. Ray Manzarek once dismissed Stone’s The Doors by describing it as “really a white powder flick, as opposed to a psychedelic flick”; there’s a case to be made that Tarantino’s highly discursive and idiosyncratically structured screenplays, full of long hang-out scenes and digressions about pop culture, are meant to become weed movies, and Stone’s decision to shoot and cut and soundtrack Natural Born Killers so that every frame screams THIS SHIT IS CRAZY AND YOU ARE NOW FREAKING OUT is white-powder thinking. When Oliver Stone takes us to the Drug Zone, he wants us to know we’ve been taken to the Drug Zone. (“I ain’t never taken no drugs,” says Joaquin Phoenix’s U Turn character to Sean Penn. “Maybe you should,” Penn says.) Movie-as-drug-trip is a fine enough approach, if you’re making an over-the-top satire about our hallucinatory modern mediascape in which the heroes are serial killers. It’s maybe not the best way to go about making a gritty tightening-noose noir.
On the other hand: It is absolutely the best worst way to make such a movie. U Turn is incoherent and (even with Stone cutting every scene into lines on a mirror) kind of dull. But the reversal-stock photography (by future Tarantino collaborator and coke wizard Robert Richardson) gives the images a beautiful hypersaturated look that Tony Scott would push to the limit on Domino and Man on Fire a few years later. And as they pile up, the sheer volume and boldness of the bad decisions on display here starts to seem like a kind of courage. I mean, seriously: Human Anthropologie pillow-sham Claire Danes playing a dim-bulb hick! Joaquin Phoenix basically playing Vanilla Ice playing Elvis! A waitress named Flo! A Chinatown-indebted Big Reveal that Nick Nolte telegraphs from 100 miles away by doing John Huston’s voice the whole time! Billy Bob Thornton as a garage mechanic who likes “Piss Up a Rope” by Ween! Jon Voight playing half–Native American! A Russian hood whose name sounds like “Mr. Arkadin”! Jennifer Lopez stepping bravely outside the box by playing a half–Native American woman whose ass is portrayed as clouding men’s minds! A gross Penn/Lopez sex scene that is probably a faithful representation of what sex with Sean Penn is actually like! Plus, one truly classic dialogue exchange, given plenty of space to breathe by a script not exactly full of them:
CLAIRE DANES: “How come Patsy Cline don’t put out no more new records?”
[She is told the bad news about Patsy Cline.]
CLAIRE DANES: [to Sean Penn] “Don’t that make you sad?”
SEAN PENN: “I’ve had some time to get over it.”
The Way of the Gun (2000)
Chris Ryan: Christopher McQuarrie made The Way of the Gun in 2000, after years of trying to get an Alexander the Great biopic off the ground. He figured being the screenwriter behind The Usual Suspects meant he would get to make a sword-and-sandals epic with some modicum of creative control. Hollywood disagreed. McQuarrie sulked, relented, and, eventually, at Benicio Del Toro’s prompting, wrote this homage to Sam Peckinpah/middle finger to the studios. You want a crime movie? Here’s your fucking crime movie.
Hollywood loves nothing more than to celebrate an iconoclast, except maybe watching that iconoclast fail and then putting him in movie jail. The Way of the Gun, a truly bleak film, did Gigli numbers, and McQuarrie didn’t get behind a camera again for 12 years. And even then, he needed Tom Cruise to co-sign him.
The film’s box-office returns are pretty much the only thing wrong with it. It’s a savagely violent, totally nihilistic shoot ‘em up, starring a brooding Ryan Phillippe — in a truly bizarre/awesome performance that plays like a gambit to become his generation’s Montgomery Clift — and Del Toro, and is bolstered by a lion-in-winter turn from James Caan. There’s a pregnant lady (Juliette Lewis), a mobster, some hit men (Nicky Katt and Taye Diggs), and multiple Wild Bunch endings. It starts with Sarah Silverman calling Phillippe a baby fucker and him knocking her out. And then it gets darker.
When you watched Pulp Fiction for the first time, even if you were just a teenager, you were aware of it being a movie. It was a story (or stories) that delighted in the act of being filmed. The Way of the Gun borrows that, to an extent. Every character in the film is totally aware that he or she is in a film — they talk about it all the time. Characters comment on the veracity of dialogue, announce and then critique occupations (at one point Katt actually tells Caan, “You’re a bag man”). Even when the hail of bullets begins, the self-awareness never stops.
In Pulp Fiction, the self-awareness seems celebratory. In The Way of the Gun, it comes off as frustration — a filmmaker trapped in a crappy town with some men with guns. When [SPOILER] most of the characters die at the end, it isn’t shocking or rebellious — it feels like McQuarrie is wiping these types of people off his creative map. The Way of the Gun came on the tail end of the Pulp wave. It doesn’t just turn off the lights on its way out the door, it burns down the house.