Since making his debut with Reservoir Dogs 20 years ago, Quentin Tarantino has enjoyed one of the fastest-rising — and consistently critically lauded — careers of any director in modern Hollywood. He’s back this weekend with the Jamie Foxx-led revenge fantasy Western Django Unchained, and the reviews are typically solid — which means now is the perfect time to dedicate a feature to taking a fond look back at his earlier efforts. So cover the kids’ ears and keep an eye on Marvin in the back seat, because this week, we’re serving up Total Recall Tarantino style!
The appeal of anthology films — that audiences can see the work of multiple directors under one narrative umbrella — can also be one of their major drawbacks: The results, as in 1995’s Four Rooms, often strike some viewers as wildly, painfully uneven. As this particular outing proved, success isn’t guaranteed even if you bring together a handful of the industry’s most critically beloved and/or commercially ascendant filmmakers; although Four Rooms united Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Allison Anders, and Alexandre Rockwell to tell the promise-rich tale of a beleaguered bellhop (Tim Roth) making his way through a series of progressively weirder hotel rooms on New Year’s Eve, only Rodriguez’s segment escaped heaps of withering critical scorn, and the film barely eked out $4 million at the box office. But a 14 percent Tomatometer rating means that a few critics liked it — such as Boxoffice Magazine’s Shlomo Schwartzberg, who shrugged and said, “As a whole, Four Rooms is only diverting, and pretty mindless, but at its best it’s a lot of fun.”
Forged by the bond of friendship between Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez — as well as their shared love of sloppy, bloody, low-budget exploitation flicks — 2007’s Grindhouse found the two directors splitting a three-hour double bill that took audiences from cheeky zombie terror (Rodriguez’s Planet Terror) to seethingly violent high-octane action (Tarantino’s Death Proof). At 65 percent, Tarantino’s half of Grindhouse got the short end of the Tomatometer stick, but plenty of critics still enjoyed his gleefully depraved look at a homicidal stuntman (Kurt Russell) with a fondness for murdering young ladies. “I’ve rarely seen a filmmaker, in current Hollywood at least, expose his sexual and sadistic kinks on screen with such shameless glee,” observed an admiring Kevin N. Laforest for the Montreal Film Journal.
Six months after kicking off his Kill Bill revenge saga with Volume 1, Tarantino returned to theaters with its conclusion. Part kung fu brawl, part origin story, Kill Bill: Volume 2 fills in the blanks of its katana-wielding protagonist’s (Uma Thurman) past while she slices and dices her way to whatever passes for redemption. Clocking in at over four hours between the two installments, it’s a pretty hefty cinematic experience for something that boils down to a fairly simple tale, but most critics didn’t mind at all — in fact, Volume 2 performed nearly as well as its predecessor on the Tomatometer. As Jeremy Heilman of MovieMartyr argued, “The massive combination of the first and second Kill Bill movies stands as a testament to both Tarantino’s exceptional skill as a filmmaker and the possibilities of pop cinema.”
After an interminable-seeming six-year wait following Jackie Brown, Tarantino re-emerged with a blood-spattered martial arts epic so sprawling it needed to be chopped in half. Enter 2003’s Kill Bill: Volume 1, starring Uma Thurman as an assassin whose plans to leave the fold for a life of wedded bliss hit a snag when her mentor (David Carradine) decides he’d rather have her dead than retired, and sends her fellow killers-for-hire (played by Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox, Daryl Hannah, and Michael Madsen) to put a permanent stop to the nuptials. After watching Thurman’s take-no-prisoners performance, the New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris couldn’t help but say, “I would argue that, in a bizarre way, Mr. Tarantino empowers women as no action-genre director before him ever has.”
Three years after achieving “young Hollywood genius” status with Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino re-emerged with Jackie Brown, a 154-minute adaptation of the Elmore James novel Rum Punch that served as Tarantino’s homage to 1970s blaxploitation while resurrecting the career of one of the genre’s biggest stars: Pam Grier. Hitherto known for playing the title role in 1974’s Foxy Brown, Grier returned to the big screen in pretty good company, including Bridget Fonda, Robert Forster, Michael Keaton, Chris Tucker, Robert De Niro, and Pulp Fiction star Samuel L. Jackson. While it was ultimately a bit of a critical and commercial letdown after the raging success of Pulp Fiction, Jackie still proved a favorite for scribes like Chuck Rudolph of Matinee Magazine, who wrote that it “Achieves the soulful edge lacking from Tarantino’s previous efforts. Forster and Grier’s performances deserve to join the short-list of all-time greats.”
Any film fan worth his or her salt has seen plenty of World War II movies, but Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds added a little something special to the mix — an eminently well-cast revenge fantasy, starring a motley crew of solid actors (including Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, and Michael Fassbender) as soldiers in a parallel reality where the evil of the Third Reich is met full force with an Allied squadron whose members are hungry for Nazi blood (and/or scalps). Boasting a uniquely cathartic flavor of Tarantino-brewed violence to go with its taut drama and dark wit, Basterds proved powerfully compelling for critics like Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek, who had to concede, “Quentin Tarantino seems to be hanging on to a lost world of moviemaking. He may be nuts. But he’s a nut who cares.”
Some careers take awhile to get going — and then there’s Quentin Tarantino, who drew almost universal critical praise for Reservoir Dogs before skyrocketing into the Hollywood stratosphere with his second film, 1994’s Pulp Fiction. A $214 million box office smash and seven-time Academy Award nominee (as well as Best Original Screenplay winner), Fiction offered a blend of pop culture smarts, laugh-out-loud humor, and shocking violence so potent (and massively influential) that it even managed to revitalize John Travolta’s long-moribund acting career — and left Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” blasting out of countless college dorm rooms along the way. It was also, as Janet Maslin of the New York Times noted, “A triumphant, cleverly disorienting journey through a demimonde that springs entirely from Mr. Tarantino’s ripe imagination, a landscape of danger, shock, hilarity and vibrant local color.”
Debuts don’t come much more auspicious than Reservoir Dogs. Yes, it’s a profane, blood-splattered heist flick — and goodness knows we have more than enough of those — but this one’s noteworthy for a number of things, including its hyper-literate script, its killer soundtrack, and a cast stuffed with tremendously talented character actors (including Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, and Michael Madsen). While it didn’t exactly set the world on fire during its small theatrical run, it did offer cineastes an early look at one of modern filmmaking’s most exciting, fully formed talents — and it definitely drew the notice of critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, who wrote, “It’s unclear whether this macho thriller does anything to improve the state of the world or our understanding of it, but it certainly sets off enough rockets to hold and shake us for every one of its 99 minutes.”
In case you were wondering, here are Tarantino’s top movies according RT users’ scores:
Finally, here’s footage from Tarantino’s unfinished first film, My Best Friend’s Birthday (which unsurprisingly contains some NSFW language):