Once Upon A Crime -- `Pulp Fiction' Revels In Detective-Novel Past

------------------------------------------------------------------ Movie review

XXX 1/2 "Pulp Fiction," with John Travolta, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman. Directed and written by Quentin Tarantino. Alderwood, Oaktree, Factoria, Everett Mall, Mountlake 9, Lewis & Clark, Neptune, SeaTac North. "R" - Restricted because of language, violence. ------------------------------------------------------------------

Like the late Sergio Leone's three-hour 1969 tribute to American Westerns, "Once Upon a Time in the West," Quentin Tarantino's latest movie puts an epic spin on a favorite genre, taking it to time-tripping levels rarely tested by its forerunners.

As the title and the advertising campaign suggest, Tarantino is attempting to create a contemporary version of the kind of crime fiction that flourished in cheap paperbacks and film-noir thrillers 50 years ago.

Most of the characters are familiar - the boxer who refuses to throw a fight (Bruce Willis), an obsessive war veteran (Christopher Walken), a mob boss's bored wife (Uma Thurman), two desperate young lovers starting a crime spree (Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer), a pair of singleminded hit men who operate within a twisted code of honor (John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson) - but Tarantino's approach to their behavior consistently avoids the stereotypical.

As Leone did, he's thrown these standard-issue characters together in unexpected ways while extending their overlapping

stories well past the two-hour limit usually imposed by the genre. The leading characters in one story may play cameo roles in another, a character who has been killed off in one story may turn up alive in an episode that takes place at a different point in time, and Tarantino trusts the audience to figure out the chronology.

At 153 minutes, the movie does occasionally flirt with tedium, but the risk is worth it: The whole is finally greater than the sum of its pulpy parts. What could have been an anything-goes pastiche has surprising rigor and narrative clarity.

"Pulp Fiction" is also a kind of "Grand Hotel" of gangster movies, a showcase for actors who are given plenty of room to create definitive portraits of dime-novel types. As he did in "Reservoir Dogs," Tarantino demonstrates a knack for isolating certain performers and allowing them to prove their potential.

Certainly the movie marks a career peak for Willis, who brings intensity and even tenderness to the role of an athlete too proud to lose, even if it means going on the run with his absent-minded lover (Maria de Medeiros). Jackson and Travolta make a terrific black-comedy team, whether they're being threatened or doing the threatening. Eric Stoltz has an inspired couple of scenes as Travolta's drug dealer, while Harvey Keitel turns up to steal one memorable episode from Travolta, Jackson and Tarantino (who has cast himself perfectly in the small role of a worried bystander).

As director, Tarantino pulls off several coups, none more impressive than a tour-de-force sequence set in a 1950s theme diner, dominated by self-important employees (Steve Buscemi as a waiter who is made up to look like Buddy Holly), out-there furniture (a 40-year-old car becomes a restaurant booth) and in-jokey menu items (the Douglas Sirk steak).

The place is a fast-food wax museum with a pulse, and it quickens when Travolta and Thurman take to the dance floor. Tarantino can't resist the impulse to let Travolta dance, or Walken stir up memories of "The Deer Hunter," or Keitel replay his cleanup man from "Point of No Return." But even when he's processing the past this way, he proves he's a born entertainer.