The Big 2-9

Aside from the fact that this day sealed my fate as the “Never Gets a ‘Happy Birthday’ from the Teacher or Your Classmates Because School’s Out for Summer Kid,” June 28 never seemed like a terribly interesting day to be born.

Until I realized that’s also the day sublimely talented actors Kathy Bates, John Cusack, the late Gilda Radner and the late Pat “Wax On, Wax Off” Morita headed toward the light of the birth canal. June 28 also gave King Henry VIII to England (bet that’s one pregnant lady the Great Holy Aardvark wishes he could have uninseminated). And June 28 happens to be the only day every year where the month and the day are different perfect numbers*.

But really, the only reason I ever get all jacked up is because the 28th of June is when the World’s Greatest Director — the reason I love movies and the reason I have such a warped, wacko sense of humor — Mel “Lepetomane” Brooks classed up Planet Earth’s population.

This year, though, looks be far more exciting because Andy at Fandango Groovers hatched a brilliant idea: Write a post listing favorite films for every year I’ve been breathing. Later in 2010 Andy’s planning a blog event on this theme, so start thinking about your choices, readers. Without further adieu, here are my favorites from 1981-2010:

Ash will saw off your nose.

1981: “The Evil Dead” — Maybe directors did horror-comedy before Sam Raimi’s cult classic, but those movies did not feature the unstoppable Bruce Campbell as erstwhile hero Ash, who would later go on to coin the phrases “boomstick” and “hail to the king, baby.”

1982: “First Blood” — The first in the Rambo franchise, Sly Stallone’s “First Blood” combines jaw-dropping action, buckets of bloodshed and a surprisingly poignant message about the treatment of Vietnam vets in America.

1983: “The Big Chill” — College pals Glenn Close, Tom Berenger, William Hurt, Kevin Kline and Jeff Goldblum reunite to mourn a friend’s suicide. This much acting talent on one set is a recipe for goodness.

1984: “Blood Simple” (full review) — The fact that this is Joel and Ethan Coen’s first film is almost as astounding as the film itself. Almost.

1985: “The Breakfast Club” — The late John Hughes showed us, in this poignant ode to real teen issues, that lurking inside everyone there’s a princess, a jock, a brain, a basket case and a criminal in search of connection. And a little doobage.

1986: “Aliens” (full review) — Twenty-four years later and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) remains a female action hero with smarts, guts and muscles. What a novel idea.

1987: “The Untouchables” — Most gangster movies offer plenty of bloody shoot-em-ups, slick double-crosses, dark double-breasted suits and bank accounts stuffed like you wouldn’t believe. Brian De Palma’s “Untouchables” also has something else: a conscience.

Velcome to vaxwork...

1988: “Waxwork” (full review) — There are crappy films, and then there are films that revel and delight in their own crappiness. Guess which kind “Waxwork” is.

1989: “Heathers” (full review) — No matter how cruel the queen bees in your school were, they don’t hold a candle to Idi Amin wannabe Heather Chandler.

1990: “GoodFellas” (full review) — Powered by the performances of Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco, Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta, “GoodFellas” set the bar for gangster movies impossibly high.

1991: “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” – The follow-up to Cameron’s impressive “Terminator,” the sequel blasted the volume up to 11, boasted some thrilling chase scenes (the semi rundown is iconic) and reached the level of Whoa, I’ve Never Seen That Before! with its ice-cool villain T-1000 (Robert Patrick). 

1992: “Reservoir Dogs” (full review) — Quentin Tarantino gives the Cuisinart treatment to the traditional caper-gone-wrong and ends up making one of the most inventive films of the ’90s.

1993: “Schindler’s List” — Steven Spielberg’s sweeping, horrifying and heartbreaking retelling of the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) mission to rescue Jews during the Holocaust is emotionally punishing, but it’s a film that must be seen. It can change your life if you let it.

1994: “Pulp Fiction” (full review) — It’s got John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as hitmen, a booty-shaking soundtrack and scene about Christopher Walken wearing a watch up his ass two years. That’s all you need to know. 

Will the real Keyser Soze please stand up?

1995: “The Usual Suspects” (full review) — Not only does Bryan Singer’s noirish, twisty thriller feature a killer-good ensemble cast (Kevin Spacey AND Gabriel Byrne AND Benicio del Toro AND Chazz Palminteri), “The Usual Suspects” also has the best twist ending. Ever written.

1996: “Fargo” (full review) — Dear Coen brothers: Thank you for showing me that it’s never impossible to take an old formula (best-laid plans gone to hell) and put a devious, violent spin on them. Sincerely, M. Carter @ the Movies

1997: “Chasing Amy” – Too few directors of romantic comedies have no interest in showing relationships as they actually are. Kevin Smith is not one of these directors. His “Chasing Amy” is raw, frank to the point of crudeness and deeply heartfelt, and it examines the problems all lovers — gay and straight — face.

1998: “The Opposite of Sex” – “The Opposite of Sex” is the best black comedy you’ve never seen. Don Roos puts the screws to the traditional narrated film formula with Dee Dee (Christina Ricci), a heroine who may be plucky but isn’t the least bit lovable. She’ll ransom your dead gay lover’s ashes and not think twice about it. 

Move Milton's (Stephen Root) desk to Storage Room B and see where that gets you.

1999: “Office Space” (full review) — Mike Judge takes a maze of cubicles and turns it into a feature-length film that’s the personification of Dante’s limbo, then sets it to a fantastic rap soundtrack. It’s good to be a gangsta.

2000: “Quills” (full review) — No other actors slips so effortlessly into the part of the villain as Geoffrey Rush can, and that mirthful, slightly evil glint in his eyes makes him the perfect (and only acceptable) choice to play the infamous Marquis de Sade.

2001: “The Believer” – Based on the true story of Dan Burros, a Jew who became a Neo-Nazi, Henry Bean’s “The Believer” looks unflinchingly at all aspects of faith and features what may be Ryan Gosling’s most gripping performance. Ever. 

2002: “City of God” – Fernando Meirelles’ crime drama plays out like an elegaic marriage of the best parts of Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas”  and Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” capturing the bloody, grim realities of a life lived in Brazil’s rough Cidade de Deus (City of God) favela.

2003: “Mystic River” – Author Dennis Lehane understands, deep down in his soul, the rhythms of Boston’s shady, bleak underworld. Director Clint Eastwood understands the people who have fallen through the cracks. Together, “Mystic River,” about three childhood friends dealing with a murder, they make an unbeatable team.

Javier Bardem's performance is anything but bleak.

2004: “Mar adentro” (full review) — Is it possible to make a film about a quadriplegic (Javier Bardem) who wants nothing more than to die and have that film turn out to be an affirmation of life? Look to “Mar adentro” for the answer.

2005: “The Constant Gardener” – Taut political/medical conspiracy thrillers ordinarily don’t offer emotions as complex as the plotlines. But director Fernando Meirelles etches characters (Rachel Weisz, Ralph Fiennes) who matter to each other, and so they matter to us.

2006: “The Lives of Others” (full review) — Movies about Big Brother rarely take the time to humanize the enemy, but director Henckel von Donnersmarck finds humanity even in the most ardent supporter (Ulrich Mühe) of suppressing free will.

2007: “No Country for Old Men” (full review) — Call it the Coens’ Law: Every time you think they’ve made their best movie ever, they top themselves. How they’ll top this gritty, violent and blackly funny caper is something this reviewer has gotta see.

2008: “The Dark Knight” – With “Batman Begins,” Christopher Nolan single-handedly revived a years-ailing franchise; in the inspired sequel — part Greek tragedy, part action flick, part sweeping character drama — he let Heath Ledger reinvent the iconic Joker in the spirit of creation.

Get in my bell-ay, Jew Hunter!

2009: “Inglourious Basterds” (full review) — In terms of sheer imagination and cojones, almost no director working today can match Quentin Tarantino, who in this misspelled epic rewrites the ending to WWII and gives cinema one of its greatest villains (Christoph Waltz).

2010: So far? “Shutter Island.” The predicted winner? “True Grit.”

*It’s my birthday and I’m giving you a math lesson. Can you say “nerd”?

Review: “Iron Man” (2008)

Truth likes to hide in triteness; great responsibility does trail on the heels of great power. Along the way, people tried to tell billionaire weapons inventor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) that. With all that ice clinking in his lowball of Scotch, he had trouble hearing them — and that’s not counting the times Tony was embarking on his mission to do the horizontal mambo with all 12 Maxim cover models (pity about Miss March). Whatever honorable qualities comic books have taught us to expect in superheroes, they don’t exist in Tony Stark. He’s a horndog with a smart mouth.

Hallelujah! After years of do-gooder types (even the tortured Batman abided a moral), Downey fashions a different hero: a likable jackass who gives his id full control; who flaunts his wealth instead of hiding it; who gives new meaning to the phrase “doing a piece for Vanity Fair.” And if just any old actor played him, that’s all the character would amount to. Because Downey has a Ph.D. in likable jackassery, he goes beyond the surface and dredges up pathos that catches us unaware. The end result is a hero who reinvents himself because he has to, then lets that new persona slowly change his heart. That’s no novel concept, but in a comic book movie it feels like one.

Unforseen circumstances necessitate the reinvention, and director Jon Favreau wastes no time setting up the expected superhero origin story. “Iron Man” hints the ground running: Tony makes an appearance before the U.S. military — including friend Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Terrence Howard) — in Afghanistan to test out the Jericho, the latest Stark Industries-manufactured weapon. (The expectedly laconic Tony describes it as “the weapon you only have to fire once.”) Afterward, insurgents attack the humvee, igniting an explosion that embeds shrapnel in Tony’s chest and dragging him off to a cave in the desert. Fellow captive Yinsen (Shaun Toub, compelling in a small role) saves his life by implanting an electromagnet in his chest to draw the shrapnel away from his organs. The attack’s mastermind, Raza (Faran Tahir), charges the pair with creating a new missile. Knowing they won’t leave the cave alive, they construct an iron suit that paves the way for escape. The experience leaves Tony with emotional scars that alter his perceptions about war, and he shuts down Stark Industries — to the dismay of his business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) and his assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).

None of the remaining action sequences in “Iron Man” — all credibly done, with seams-hidden CGI — match the taut, nerve-snapping tension of Tony’s capture/escape. Since Favreau is shrewd enough to let Downey advance Tony as he sees fit, it barely matters. If anything, the precisely dispersed action helps because it allows for a degree of humor normally not found in the standard bells-and-whistles superhero film. For much of “Iron Man,” the action is played for chuckles, with Downey slinging one-liners only to take crazy pratfalls during disastrous test runs of his suit. (He warns his fire-control robot, called “Dummy,” not to douse him again or he’ll donate him to a city college.) His wit, bemused smirk and impeccable comic timing keep the momentum high and supply a surprisingly in-depth look into Stark’s personality, quirks and all. There’s a line between “witty” and “talky,” and Robert Downey Jr. is an actor who knows how to tease both sides of the tape without ever overstepping.

So Downey is money; this soil has been tilled before. What else makes “Iron Man” a horse of different color? Favreau. He handles the timely backstory with a welcome level of maturity, giving “Iron Man” the feel of a grown-up superhero movie. He doesn’t bully the chemistry between Paltrow and Downey into the obligatory sex scene, nor does Favreau give up the major villain within the first half hour. Favreau also has a script that gives the supporting characters more to do than be props, particularly Obadiah. Bridges would seem a strange choice for a supervillain — until you see him in action. He imbues a question about a newspaper with more menace than Hannibal Lecter’s “Hello, Clarice.” His presence in “Iron Man” is all we need to know that subtlety goes farther than an exploding missile.

Grade: A

Downey, Rourke power second “Iron Man” installment

Only a true friend (Don Cheadle) would stick around for an army drone smackdown.

Self-effacing superheroes are so 20th century, and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is a man who belongs firmly to the 21st. The “just doing my job” routine isn’t in his repertoire. Tony’s a megalomaniac who rockets onto the Stark Expo stage with fireworks, blaring arena rock and scantily clad dancers. There’s a dire shortage of superheroes who stare up the skirts of their own cheerleaders, if you ask me. 

The Downey we love does not do humble. He does do cocky, self-destructive and sarcastic. Because he does them better than any actor working today, “Iron Man 2″ soars when it should falter. Downey’s rakish charm has carried smaller ventures than this, but the fact that they can prop up a gigantic comic book franchise movie like this is astounding. Two years after Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man,” the more fully-rounded film, “Iron Man 2″ falls into the same trap “Spider-Man 3″ did. Think of it as the Lure of Too Muchness: too much plot, too many explosions and villains (note: both are unassailably cool). Any actor could be forgiven for getting lost in the smoke. Downey knows what he’s doing, though, and he’s mostly all the fuel “Iron Man 2″ needs.

Where “Iron Man” ended in 2008 is where “Iron Man 2″ begins. The opening credits belong to Mickey Rourke (terrifying in his “Russian villain suit”) as Ivan Vanko, an ex-con physicist who watches Tony Stark strut like a peacock at the expo. Grief over his father’s death turns to rage as Ivan watches Tony don the suit Ivan believes his father helped create. But Ivan isn’t the only foe Iron Man faces. On his case are the head of a congressional committee (Gary Shandling, funny as ever), who’s pressuring Tony — and confidante Lt. Col. Rhodes 2.0 (Don Cheadle) — to relinquish his Iron Man suit to the government, and Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), keen to design a suit to “make Iron Man look like an antique.” There’s a new assistant, Natalie (Scarlett Johansson), too mysterious to be legit. And there’s something else: The electromagnet in Tony’s chest is poisoning his blood. He tells no one, not even colleague-or-lover? Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), convinced he has to keep up what Rhodey calls his “lone gunslinger act.” It may be this act, not his blood toxicity, that really gets him.

Speaking of “getting,” let’s declare Mickey Rourke’s comeback a flaming success. True, in “Iron Man 2″ Ivan sometimes comes across as a caricature. The Russian accent (it makes Cate Blanchett’s “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” brogue seem tame), the 44-karat smile, the hair — it all hollers supervillain in Big Capital Letters, the opposite of what Jeff Bridges did with Obadiah Stane. Still, that was another movie, and Rourke puts his own menacing stamp on Ivan (that sinister chuckle was made for supervillainy). His showdown with Iron Man at the Grand Prix in Monaco is thrilling, a superb combination of great CGI and great acting. Another reason this scene resonates is because the parts are tailored for the actors; both have lived the histories, to some extent, that their characters have: beaten down by circumstance or bad choices, then resurrected through sheer force of will. Rourke and Downey bring a raw, bruised humanity to their parts few other actors could. Who better to rise from the ashes than these two?

Remaining cast members are all over the map. Despite Sam Rockwell’s inherent coolness, Hammer is less interesting. He feels thrown in for comic relief. Johansson fills out that zippered bodysuit fetchingly … and that’s all. Samuel L. Jackson, as Nick Fury, is suave personified; only a pirate could wear the eye patch better. Paltrow’s part is whittled down to nothing, though her chemistry with Downey doesn’t suffer for it. I was unsure of Cheadle’s replacement of Terrence Howard as Rhodey, but a rewatch of “Iron Man” sold me. Never showy, the new Rhodey brings a quieter energy to the part that makes the character more nuanced, so some might mistake his performance as bland. And while “Iron Man 2″ as a film has the opposite problem, it’s still the kind of ride you want to take more than once.

Grade: B+

TTC: “Deep Blue Sea” (1999)

“I hate to interrupt this moment of burgeoning intimacy, but can we get the fuck out of here?” ~~Preacher

It’s fair to assume that, at any given moment in life, when someone utters the words “as a side effect, the sharks got smarter,” many cans of whoop-ass are about to be opened … and it won’t be the bipeds with the opposable thumbs who are popping the tabs. No, they’ll be the ones screeching like banshees, churning water with all the fluidity, grace and power of drunken cows. Or they’ll be chum.

As “Deep Blue Sea” progresses, the Foolish Scientists/Corporate Bigwigs/Token Brothers aboard the isolated ship Aquatica, a floating facility that uses Mako sharks’ brains for Alzheimer’s research, find themselves in both situations, sometimes simultaneously. Boy oh boy what cheerfully cheesy fun it is to watch. Hardly “Jaws,” or even “Jaws XI: I Know Who You Ate 25 Years Ago,” Renny Harlin’s CGI-enhanced battle royale between sharks and humans is terrifically terrible fun of the highest order — heavy on effects and state-the-obvious dialogue and happily light on subtlety. In point of fact, “hammy” might be the watchword, since subtle movies don’t ordinarily have people (LL Cool J, renaissance man extraordinaire) go around saying things like “Ooh, I’m done! Brothers never make it out of situations like this! Not ever!” Hating a movie this comically aware of its own gouda-ness is a capital crime.

And bless my dairy-gulping heart there’s plenty more where that came from in “Deep Blue Sea.” The plot promises as much and delivers: Aquatica floats way, way out in the ocean, so far that it might be appropriate to apply the “Alien” tagline to the ocean (i.e., scream if you want, but it’ll just tell the sharks where you are). Dr. Sarah McAllister (Saffron Burrows in a breath-taking don’t-quit-your-day-job role) is a researcher hoping to woo wealthy businessman Russell Franklin (Samuel L. Jackson) to invest in her highly controversial research: She’s injecting shark’s brains with a protein complex to determine if she can reanimate brain cells lost to Alzheimer’s. Her crack team — all brightly capable of whipping out gems like “Beneath this glassy surface, a world of gliding monsters” — includes Carter (Thomas Jane), a surly shark wrangler; project leader Jim “I’m So Smart I Piss into the Wind” Whitlock (Stellan Skarsgård); Jim’s main squeeze Janice (Jacqueline McKenzie); an engineer, Tom (Michael Rapaport); and the scripture-quoting chef “Preacher” (LL Cool J), whom we intuitively understand to be 1,921 times smarter than the researchers fannying about with genetically manipulating shark brains.

As detailed earlier, naturally everything goes whop-jollyed* 15-20 minutes into “Deep Blue Sea” (proof of the age-old adage: “Make sharks smarter and they’ll, like, eat you and stuff”). The makos, not surprisingly, don’t relish getting brain injections and being cooped up in pens, so they use those big new brains to outsmart the humans, eat a few of them — wouldn’t get emotionally attached to too many characters if I were you — and just toy around with the rest. This leads to quite a few heated arguments (most aimed at Dr. McAllister, because didn’t that “stupid bitch” know genetic testing is dangerous?), (sadly) no Biblical couplings, a smidge of PG-themed nudity and many thrilling chase scenes that mostly the sharks win, though sometimes they run the risk of getting blown into Mako McNuggets. The sharks, thanks to CGI, don’t look even the weensiest bit real; in a movie like this, however, that works in the director’s favor. Besides, does reality honestly belong in a movie where someone gets trapped inside an oven and the shark’s nose sets the dial to “broil”?

No, no, a million times no. Reality would be the ruination of “Deep Blue Sea.” Director Renny Harlin (he’s partial to nonsensical thrillers) knows this; thus, he helpfully has his actors explain all the plot points early, as if to get them out of the way so we can enjoy the shark-on-human action fest we’ve signed on for. The actors — particularly LL Cool J, likable in any part but especially funny as Preacher, and Jane, who looks alternately either very turned on or very constipated — only add to the salty fun. Bring on the sequel, says I.

*Or “wrong” to you non-Southerners.

Review: “True Romance” (1993)

“True Romance” has been called a fantasy, a violent, sexy fantasy. But let’s ix-nay P.C. talk and call the film what it really is: a violent, sexy teen boy’s wet dream. (Was it one from Quentin Tarantino’s personal collection? Don’t put it past him.) Not that there’s anything wrong with that, specifically if said dream is as action-packed and overstuffed with talent as “True Romance” is. Plus, there’s a flippant, postmodern cleverness to the script, which requires a character to say, while whipping his purple Cadillac into reverse in traffic, “We now return to ‘Bullit’ already in progress.”

That character is Clarence Worley (Christian Slater), an amiable guy who works in a Michigan comic book store, loves kung fu movies and waxes philosophic about Elvis. (“True Romance” begins with a conversation, this time about “Jailhouse Rock” showcasing the true essence of rockabilly, and Val Kilmer steps in as Clarence’s Guardian Elvis.) Clarence, like so many men in Tarantino’s movies, is a regular guy catapulted into extraordinary circumstances. What’s intriguing is that in every film the protagonists react differently to these gamechangers. In “True Romance,” it’s a chatty blonde named Alabama (Patricia Arquette) who upends Clarence’s life. They meet at a Sonny Chiba filmfest, there’s a shared moment over pie and soon they’re back at his place professing love. The trouble is that Alabama’s a prostitute — only four days in — with a pimp, Drexl (Gary Oldman) as delusional as he is sadistic. Oldman, barely recognizable in dreads, has a blast but doesn’t skimp on the sadism; Drexl is one scary hustler, even creepier than Harvey Keitel in “Taxi Driver.”

Since Clarence has been waiting his whole life for a twist like this, he seizes the opportunity to defend Alabama’s honor in a gleefully bloody fashion, a choice that leads to all manner of complications — including his accidental possession of a suitcase jammed with blow — that must be seen to be believed. Slater takes to the part with ease, glossing over Clarence’s good looks and getting right at his desire to be someone’s action hero. And that tango with Drexl provides him with plenty of opportunities. Into his quiet life come: a mafioso named Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken, witty perfection); a dealer missing his suitcase of coke (the always-intimidating James Gandolfini); Clarence’s estranged father Clifford (Dennis Hopper); Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek), a movie producer looking to buy the coke cheap and flip it; Lee’s squeamish assistant (Bronson Pinchot); and some cops (Tom Sizemore, Chris Penn) bent on busting up that deal. Mayhem abounds, and with more than a few scenes involving grisly violence (that Arquette, she can handle herself with a toilet seat).

What with all this bloodshed, energy and colorful types, “True Romance” has all the trappings of a zippy Tarantino trip. Script-wise, it is, but where the film falters is in its direction. Action man Tony Scott’s in control of this venture, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. There seems to be a sizable disconnect between the world Tarantino has designed and the way Scott presents that world. The action, designed with panache and scripted for überdark comedy, is played straight, with none of the sequences showing particular flair. Particularly during the third-act shootout/bloodbath, the obvious precursor to the finale of “Reservoir Dogs,” Scott seems content to stick to the sidewalk. “True Romance” suffers for it. A ballsy story like this deserves an Evel Knievel calling the shots. Sigh. Even Tarantino was once a starving artist dependent on play-it-safe established types, I suppose.

Leave it to Tarantino, though, to write a movie that rises above unimaginative direction. The who’s-who in 1990s cast — Samuel L. Jackson and Brad Pitt have cameos — also works like a dream, with Hopper accessing his subtle side (he has one?), Oldman devouring scenery and Walken stealing the show with a tête-à-tête (“I’m the Antichrist. You got me in a vendetta kind of mood,” he tells Hopper). And while feminist critics could have a field day with Alabama, somehow I don’t see her as a shrinking violet. She’s misguided, a little moony, but she’s tough and smart, an able Bonnie to Slater’s Clyde. And, besides, if you’re yearning for a megadose of reality, kindly refer back to Sentence No. 1.

Grade: B+

Review: “Pulp Fiction” (1994)

Quentin Tarantino may be many things — perverted, profane, whipsmart, cocky, a little too enamored with his own cleverness — but subtle he is not. He’s not even in the ballpark. Matter of fact, if that ballpark blew up, he wouldn’t hear the sound for another three days. Nah, Tarantino’s a guts-glory-chicks-and-explosions kind of director, and that imagination of his? In the name of Le Royale with Cheese does it dream up some wild-n-twisted trips.

Mark “Pulp Fiction” down as one of the wildest. Every nanosecond of this humdinger’s 154 minutes contains something warped/crazy/effortlessly cool to behold: philosophical discussions about foot massages, the nature of miracles and a gold watche that has been places no watch should go; murders both coolly calculated and comically accidental; a frightful drug overdose; kinky sex (think S&M with an Alabama drawl and a gimp); and, last but not least, a sinfully delicious $5 milkshake. Random as this catalogue seems, Tarantino’s film is far more scattershot. The action doesn’t adhere to a simple timeline; instead, there are three stories that run parallel, then smash together, then diverge only to reconnect in ways that boggle the mind upon repeat viewings. “Pulp Fiction” is a genius noir/gangster combo that keeps us guessing. Guess long enough, though, and patterns start to emerge from the madness.

Sort of. Since Tarantino makes it nearly impossible to understand how these stories pool into a cohesive ending, let’s tackle one beast at a time. First, there’s “Vincent Vega and Marcellus Wallace’s Wife,” the tale of L.A. hitmen Vince (John Travolta) and Jules (a perfectly cast Samuel L. Jackson) heading to do a job ordered by their loose-cannon boss Marsellus (Ving Rhames). Since Marsellus recently threw a guy out a high-rise window for giving his wife Mia (Uma Thurman) a foot massage, Vince has the jitters about taking her out on the town. His plan is simple: “Chew my food with my mouth closed, laugh at her fucking jokes, and that’s it.” Of course, trouble has a tendency to follow Vince, so things don’t go that smoothly.

Smoothness doesn’t much like Butch (Bruce Willis) either, which we discover in “The Gold Watch.” A talented boxer with a sweetly innocent girlfriend (Maria de Medeiros), Butch shovels some dirt on his own grave by winning the fight Marsellus paid him to throw. But his neat double-cross turns messy through a series of freak coincidences, the most interesting involving two pawn shop owners who plumb forgot to pack their manners (not to mention their morality) when they left the Deep South. “The Gold Watch” leads into “The Bonnie Situation,” a conclusion of sorts where Tarantino himself shows up as Jimmie Dimmick, a pal of Jules who begrudgingly agrees to help him clean up an accidental hit (“my gun went off! I don’t know why!” insists the a brain matter-spattered Vance) with help from Winston Wolf (Harvey Keitel). What’s on Wolfe’s business card we can’t be sure, since the terse mystery man only offers “I solve problems” as his job description.

It’s offhand comments like these that demonstrate one of Tarantino’s greatest strengths: revealing character traits with one or two stray lines of dialogue. He’s a student of human nature, and he knows the ways people fill time by arguing over whether foot massages are sensual or wondering what cheeseburgers are called in France (see above). And yet everything these characters say tells us something about themselves or the story. Christopher Walken, in his lone scene, delivers a howling-good speech that seems like comic relief, but the subject — the gold watch — comes back into play. Jules spouts a nonsensical version of Ezekiel 25:17, but it reveals his own moral code. Thurman, who finds jumpy loneliness in Mia, parlays a terrible joke about tomatoes into a real connection with Vince. Haphazard though they seem, these lines are the threads that knit everything together.

What else dazzles about “Pulp Fiction”? There’s the abundance of lurid violence — much of it comical (including an uncomfortably funny rape scene), some of it truly shocking, none of it gratuitious. Jackson and Travolta are one hell of two-man team, while Willis registers a pulse and Eric Stoltz has wit to burn. Ultimately, though, it’s the manic, fearless force of Tarantino that makes “Pulp Fiction” a sweet, sweet joyride, indeed.

Grade: A

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