Since making his debut with Reservoir Dogs more than 20 years ago, Quentin Tarantino has enjoyed one of the most consistently critically lauded careers of any director in modern Hollywood, and he’s back this weekend with the grim ‘n’ gritty Western ensemble piece The Hateful Eight. Once again, early reviews are solid — which means now is the perfect time to dedicate a feature to taking a fond look back at his earlier efforts. 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 67 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.
What if Quentin Tarantino tried his hand at an Agatha Christie mystery? Filmgoers got their answer to that question — sort of — with 2015’s The Hateful Eight, in which a rogue’s gallery of typically Tarantino-esque characters find themselves bound up in lethally close quarters while a murder mystery inexorably tightens its way toward a gleefully violent conclusion. It’s a setup rich with possibilities for the director’s signature style of filmmaking, and in a fair number of respects, critics said Hateful didn’t disappoint: Tarantino assembled a stellar ensemble cast, including Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and fed them heaping servings of the sort of pungently knotty dialogue fans have come to expect. Yet while Tarantino’s films have often benefited from an approach to violence that could be charitably described as “enthusiastic,” some scribes admitted to a certain amount of discomfort with the particular brand of bloodshed he unleashed here, identifying a darker, meaner strain that explored racism and misogyny without necessarily offering illumination. “The Hateful Eight is a movie about the worst aspects of human nature, which is why the film can’t be quite described as ‘fun,’ at least in the traditional sense,” wrote the Miami Herald’s Rene Rodriguez. “But Tarantino isn’t glorifying the ugliness; he’s condemning it.”
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 a seemingly interminable 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 Leonard 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.”
Having entered the realm of social justice revenge fantasy with Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino basically remained there for Django Unchained, a pre-Civil War Western about a slave (Jamie Foxx) in an unorthodox partnership with a bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) who needs his assistance to apprehend of a trio of outlaws — and is willing to not only grant his freedom in exchange, but help Django find and free his wife (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of a sadistic plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). It’s the perfect setup for two hours and change of profane, gleefully violent action, and Tarantino more than delivers with a star-studded excoriation of systematic injustice that manages to treat its subject with something approaching the proper respect without sacrificing an ounce of momentum. The end result, wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern, is “Wildly extravagant, ferociously violent, ludicrously lurid and outrageously entertaining, yet also, remarkably, very much about the pernicious lunacy of racism and, yes, slavery’s singular horrors.”
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.”
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.”
Some careers take a while 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.”