With the release of Tarantino’s latest feature in the UK around the corner, we look at the remarkable career of Hollywood’s self-reflexive maestro. Expect blood and guts a-plenty.
Are we facing an irrevocable split in cinema between snobbish critics and nostalgia-hungry audiences? As we crest another summer defined by an excess of CGI spandex and well-rendered but uncannily lifeless fur, it feels like that gulf is wider than ever.
But the problem isn’t simply to do with tone or content. More and more, the multiplexes lack clearly defined directorial voices. It barely even matters that Jon Favreau directed The Lion King, because it was all built digitally from a design by committee. Of course, CGI can give birth to creative endeavours, but it’s the lack of facility for singular creative voices that’s most concerning.
That’s what still makes Quentin Tarantino such a thrilling prospect, regardless of your feelings on his homage-heavy splatterfests. As the prototypical postmodern example of the blockbuster auteur, the rampant success of his films flies in the face of concepts of demographics and four-quadrant marketing.
As we gear up to the release of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, supposedly his ninth feature (we stand by tenth), it felt like as good a time as any to look back on what made the exploitation flick-loving, n-word flaunting, bloody bastard such a household name. So here it is. A definitive (ha) ranking of each of the 9 films he’s directed that we’re sure you’ll all agree with…
9. Death Proof
Even the only outright stinker on this list has some redeeming qualities, though the moments of schlock-y enjoyment are few and far between. Kurt Russell has some fun as the mysterious maniac stuntman, but it’s in service of some of the worst dialogue Tarantino has put to paper (however knowingly guff it’s supposed to be).
Tarantino even seems to drop his grindhouse cinema-aping visual cues halfway through and then just sleepwalks through to the final car chase. Spoilers: even that gets kind of tiresome after a while. Not much else to say really – next.
How bad is Tarantino’s cameo? His turn as a sleazy barman is rough, but thankfully it’s brief.
8. Django Unchained
Django Unchained is solid – much, much more so than Death Proof – but it’s also surprisingly dull, and the one time Tarantino really feels like he bites down on his own tail too hard. Christoph Waltz is back doing his Landa schtick in another alternate history tale, but slavery requires a little more commentary than butchering Nazis does. Tarantino, characteristically, just shrugs it off.
As for Django himself…I feel conflicted. He’s one of a select handful of Tarantino characters motivated by something other than revenge, but I’m not convinced Tarantino has a decent handle on these purer motivations. DiCaprio’s campy Candie is surprisingly fun, but by the time we reach the second climactic gunfight the entertainment value has all bit slipped away.
How bad is Tarantino’s cameo? The worst of the lot. That “Australian” accent…
7. Kill Bill Vol. 2
It’s hard to imagine Kill Bill was ever one movie, so severe is the shift in mood between the two. Sadly, there’s also a downturn in quality. Despite a great bookend of opening and final sequences that centre on Uma Thurman’s Bride and David Carradine’s eponymous Bill, there’s a decent portion of sag here, and a degree of listlessness to the digressions.
Perhaps more of an issue is that Vol. 2 feels tonally inconsistent rather than well balanced. Where Vol. 1 throws all care to the wind and floors the throttle, Vol. 2 attempts to flesh out the characters before descending into madcap violence. The quieter character moments work well, but the meditations on violence don’t mesh smoothly with the Shaw Brothers-style thwips and thwacks.
How bad is Tarantino’s cameo? Nope. Nada. Zilch.
6. Jackie Brown
Likely Tarantino’s most mature feature, Jackie Brown is the first legitimately great film on this list. Despite a muted initial reception, it’s increasingly grown in stature, largely due to its remarkable restraint when compared with the comical explosions of blood that have since followed. What could’ve been a turning point into formalism for Tarantino instead now seems like an errant footnote.
Pam Grier’s take on the title role is stellar, with a perfect foil in Samuel L. Jackson’s weaselly Ordell Robbie. There are plenty of Tarantino hallmarks here – sudden acts of violence, and a penchant for the moments of dialogue-stuffed stillness around them – but there’s a focus on character and internal conflict that feels uncharacteristic now. If nothing else, Jackie Brown is an interesting window into what might have been.
How bad is Tarantino’s cameo? His disembodied voice calls out from Jackie’s answering machine. Impressively, he doesn’t flub the line.
5. Reservoir Dogs
The film that started it all might seem rougher round the edges than you remember, but it still wholeheartedly pops, not least because of its ultra-lean running time. What’s more, it still feels remarkably subversive in its delivery of the ultimate vicarious thrill: a heist movie without the heist. This is the one that inspired a million failed rip-offs by student filmmakers the globe over.
When this premise works, which is most of the time, it works great. Structurally it’s a little shaggy, and sometimes you can feel Tarantino stretching and contorting around the confines of his conceit, but damn if it doesn’t zip along. More than anything else though, it’s Tarantino’s dorky brand of pop culture cool that shines out still. What a brilliant first script.
How bad is Tarantino’s cameo? His fullest role on this list is also his best. You’ll never look at Madonna the same way again.
4. Inglourious Basterds
Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino’s unfettered excess done right. What evidently started out as a Dirty Dozen-style war movie instead becomes a nail-chattering thriller, eschewing plot for a series of tightly constructed stripped-back set pieces where the ticking time bomb is simply a slip of the tongue, even if it’s quickly met with a razor.
Really though this is Christoph Waltz’s fairground ride. From that opening scene onward, Hans Landa is simply electric, especially when contrasted with the lacklustre macho camp of Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine (okay, the ‘Bonjourno’ bit is pretty good). Not only is it a seat-of-your-pants ride, it’s probably Tarantino’s outright funniest work. Entertaining through and through.
How bad is Tarantino’s cameo? Playing dead for a scalping is the only time a Tarantino performance has been fully convincing. I’m actually pretty sure it’s a dummy…
3. The Hateful Eight
Despite its slightly frosty initial reception (including from myself) on rewatch The Hateful Eight reveals to be a far more subtle and nuanced film beneath the foregrounded mystery. The deeper you dig, the more you realise that the predictable twists and turns are just subterfuge that unfortunately cloak Tarantino’s most interesting cavalcade of characters since Pulp.
The real drama isn’t found in the narrative beats, it’s found in the simmering resentment of a post-Civil War nation that hasn’t managed to cease tearing itself apart. Not only does Tarantino genuinely seem interested here in the racial politics he so often dismisses glibly, he still manages to have his cake and eat it by rendering each of his core cast mostly unlikable. It might be a carefully measured crawl to the finish line, but the final moment shared between two deeply divided men makes the whole endeavour worthwhile.
How bad is Tarantino’s cameo? All we get is a wink-wink meta voiceover joke. Tarantino sure has a face for narration.
2. Kill Bill Vol. 1
Each time I revisit the first volume of Tarantino’s wuxia-indebted masterwork it finds a new way to surprise me. After the more muted tone of Jackie Brown, Kill Bill is a swift kick in the balls overdubbed with an exaggerated crunching sound and a giant crash zoom into your groin. Not only was the Hong Kong-aping choreography a decade ahead of anything in Hollywood, but every technicolour frame is just dripping with pure cinematic glee.
What separates Vol. 1 from the rest of the pack is there’s no pretence. This isn’t just style over substance, it’s style as substance. The whole endeavour clips along with such a delirious vicious energy that there’s really not a moment to breathe. As soon as you hit the anime backstory you know it’s a classic. Once you hit the House of Blue Leaves, it’s an all-timer.
How bad is Tarantino’s cameo? He’s one of the masked Crazy 88 members supposedly. Isn’t it telling Tarantino’s second best film doesn’t feature any of his acting?
1. Pulp Fiction
God dammit. You knew it was coming, and I knew it was coming, but it’s basically impossible to deny. Not only is Pulp Fiction Tarantino’s best work out of a genuinely impressive oeuvre, what’s more impressive is that it still manages to feel a league or two ahead of the rest. Every line of dialogue, every side-winding digression, every wryly delivered moment of extreme violence… it all feels effortless.
The fever pitch surrounding this film off the back of its Palme d’Or win at Cannes Film Festival is the stuff of legend, and it’s easy to see why. Building on Reservoir Dogs’ clever-clever narrative structure, Tarantino effortlessly flicks between plot threads like the pages of the titular influence, but he never loses sight of the characters in amongst the quips. It’s funny how tame the violence seems now comparatively, but that doesn’t mean its capacity to shock and thrill is any less.
What’s most frustrating is that it’s hard to imagine a film of this ilk getting anywhere near the legs it once did. It’s gratifying to see a bizarro genre romp like Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood receiving acclaim and a wide release (proof those things weren’t always antithetical) but paradoxically it’s not what we need right now. What we need is someone the now 56-year-old Tarantino could throw his backing behind. What we need is another breakout.
How bad is Tarantino’s cameo? His whiny coffee aficionado is less a performance than a mirror image of Tarantino. That makes it just about tolerable.
Want to find out for yourself where Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood sits in the rankings? You can buy tickets for it at The Electric Cinema in Birmingham here, and The Mockingbird, also in Birmingham here. Fancy a Tarantino-themed boogie instead? Why not check out Pulp Killers at the Night Owl!
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Film editor, occasional writer, and sporadically coherent ranter. Bear in mind that if it stars Robert Pattinson or is directed by Bong Joon-Ho it’s probably getting an extra star off the bat.