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HIT AFTER HIT

For my money, the savage and savagely funny crime films of Quentin Tarantino are a welcome antidote not only to those witless action heroes who give off baby talk as they tear up the joint, but also to Hollywood's current wave of sweetness, its creeping Gumpmania.

Let the self-appointed morals squad generalize about movie violence: Not only does Tarantino know how to spill blood, he provides smart observation and surpassing dialogue in the bargain. His nickel-dime killers may be scum, but they are also real, full-bodied characters. That kind of depth is in short supply these days, but you find it in Tarantino's earlier work, too--the failed-jewel-heist caper Reservoir Dogs (which he wrote and directed) and True Romance (which he wrote).

The surprise winner of the Palme D'Or at last May's Cannes Film Festival, Pulp Fiction is a cleverly interwoven triptych of tales about small-time Los Angeles crooks. There's nothing new in that, but here the hard-boiled style of Thirties and Forties crime fiction is processed through the overheated imagination of a hip Eighties kid who grew up gorging on TV, movies and pop culture. That kid is Tarantino himself, of course, and somewhere in there, he learned to write.

That's the continual fascination of this whole down-and-dirty business. Whether we're watching the reinvention of John Travolta as an edgy hit man out for an evening of unparalleled drug hell with his dangerous boss's wacky wife (Uma Thurman), or Bruce Willis digging deep into the role of an aging club fighter who double-crosses the fixers, or the sublime Harvey Keitel holding forth as The Wolf, an expert at cleaning up messes, we're always in the presence of originality.

Samuel L. Jackson, too often mired in cliche parts, gets to stretch out as a philosophical killer who suddenly hears God telling him to find other work. Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth are Honey Bunny and Pumpkin, a pair of stick-up artists who want a change of venue. Christopher Walken pops in wearing an Air Force captain's uniform and almost steals the movie with a bizarre five-minute speech about the fate of a gold wristwatch.

Tarantino may have the soul of an artist, but he's still got the manners of a wiseguy, and he never fails to keep audiences on their toes. If you thought Michael Madsen's ear-slashing scene in Reservoir Dogs was dark, dark humor, wait 'til you see the syringe sticking out of a woman's chest here, or the trouble Willis and kingpin Ving Rhames get themselves into when their brutal fight carries them into the world's weirdest pawn shop. This filmmaker is not afraid to shock, and he's not afraid to laugh at life's grotesqueries.

Travolta, pudgier these days but clearly on the comeback trail, even does a little reprise of his discotheque numbers from Saturday Night Fever--in a hilariously retro L.A. diner gotten up as a bad dream of the Fifties. That's Steve Buscemi as the rude Buddy Holly waiter.

As always, Tarantino (who wrote Pulp Fiction's three linked stories with Roger Avary) maintains the comic tension between small talk and murder, and the monologues he provides his grateful actors are as gorgeous as ever, whether they concern what the French call the Quarter-Pounder With Cheese or what the Bible has to say about power, mercy and revenge.

While he's rubbing our nerves raw, Quentin Tarantino's also keeping us in stitches, and who could ask any more than that from America's most original young filmmaker?

 
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