Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale (in theaters this Friday) is set in 1969, and chock-full of signifiers of its time: a Manson-esque leader of a murder cult, a square-jawed agent of J. Edgar’s FBI, sedans the size of houses, needle drops from the likes of Deep Purple and the Isley Brothers. But it also feels like a holdover from another era. With its eclectic cast of eccentric criminal types, nonlinear narrative structure, and deadpan mix of comedy and violence, it recalls that peculiar period in the mid-to-late ’90s when every young filmmaker was trying to remake Pulp Fiction. Bad Times has its atypical touches (the period setting, the broad religious overtones, Chris Hemsworth in an open shirt), and owes equal debt to Goddard’s own Cabin the Woods. But the Tarantino influence is undeniable, and in this age of endless attempts at cinematic universes, it’s frankly refreshing to spend a couple of hours with a good old-fashioned Pulp Fiction knockoff.
And such imitations were inevitable, considering Fiction’s three-pronged success as box-office winner (grossing more than 25 times its $8 million budget worldwide), critical darling, and cultural sensation. Roger Ebert was a famously accurate prognosticator, and he predicted that Pulp Fiction would be “the most influential film of the next five years,” but he sure fumbled the particulars; he also said, “for that we can be thankful, because it may have freed us from uncounted predictable formula films.”
Instead, it prompted its own formula: stories of eccentric criminals and/or sympathetic hit men; casts filled with either rising stars or faded talents looking for a comeback; scripts that studiously avoided conventional chronology; soundtracks filled with esoteric music cues, often serving as ironic counterpoint to the bloodshed onscreen; verbose, theatrical monologues; and the biggest tell of all faux-Fiction, dialogue peppered with comically unrelated small talk and/or copious pop-culture references.
Such elements are omnipresent in the first batch of films branded as Fiction rip-offs — unfairly, for the most part, as they were 1995 releases that simply couldn’t have been written and produced so quickly after Pulp Fiction’s release in the fall of 1994. Which is not to say that they weren’t influenced by Tarantino; The Usual Suspects, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Palookaville, and The Immortals are unimaginable without Reservoir Dogs, focusing as they do on teams of funny/hot-headed criminals, often with peculiar nicknames, pulling off big scores. (Denver even had the good fortune of casting Tarantino favorites Steve Buscemi and Christopher Walken in supporting roles.) And Get Shorty certainly benefited from the Fiction bump provided by star John Travolta, but it too had been in development for years, and it went back to the source for its colorful criminals: the prose of Elmore Leonard, one of Tarantino’s most pronounced (and acknowledged) influences.
1996 brought the first wave of clear imitators — films that reeked of writers glued to their seats as the lights came up after a Pulp Fiction screening, proclaiming, “I can write something like that!” John Herzfeld’s 2 Days in the Valley and Michael Covert’s American Strays both unspooled as a series of seemingly unrelated stories that intersect unexpectedly; neither one particularly works, but at least the former introduced us to Charlize Theron. The following year, Burt Reynolds — clearly seeking, in the same year as Boogie Nights, a Travolta-in-Fiction-style indie comeback vehicle — and William Forsythe starred as hit men in one of three stories in the painfully “quirky” Big City Blues, while Christopher Walken played a mob boss kidnapped by a crew of wannabe criminals in the turgid Suicide Kings.
By 1998, the pickings were getting pretty slim: Mark Wahlberg as a sympathetic hit man in The Big Hit; Joe Pesci as a less sympathetic hit man in 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag; Ray Liotta as an unsympathetic, criminally minded cop in Phoenix. These are pictures that are merely going through the paces, throwing oddball casts, desperately unfunny chitchat, and dismembered body parts at the screen, all but bathed in flop sweat. But the nadir would come the following year, with Troy Duffy’s dorm-room fave The Boondock Saints, a tale of religious hit-men brothers that feels like the result of someone spending a good month listening to nothing but Fiction’s “trying real hard to be the shepherd” speech.
Running down that list of titles is a depressing endeavor indeed, but it’s important to note that there were a fair number of passable — even enjoyable — Fiction-esque pictures, most commonly those that made their debt to Tarantino a bit more oblique. Some did so by virtue of geography. Guy Ritchie’s breakthrough film Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels checks scores of Pulp boxes, but merges them with a sensibility equally influenced by gritty British crime pictures like The Long Good Friday, spits it all out with a Cockney dialect, and feels like something (vaguely) original. Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run lifts Fiction’s three-story structure and small-time criminal elements, but its relentless energy and video-game aesthetic renders it fresh and alive. And while Amores Perros also borrows the three-unrelated-but-interlocking-stories gimmick, it was so grounded in the sensibilities of director Alejandro González Iñárritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, it didn’t feel like a rip-off at all.
And that, ultimately, was the key to the films that successfully harnessed their Pulp Fiction influence. After all, Tarantino hadn’t invented these devices, some of which had been around as long as movies themselves; he’d just synthesized those tricks into a cinematic language that matched his sensibility and the stories he wanted to tell, and combined them into a style that was, for his lesser successors, easy to replicate. The best of those that followed did what Tarantino did, but used their own tools to make work that was distinct. Grosse Pointe Blank’s introspective contract killer, blackly comic violence, and Violent Femmes tracks are unthinkable in a Fiction-free universe, but the film comes alive thanks to the sprung comic timing of John Cusack, his unique chemistry with Minnie Driver, and the loosey-goosey style of director George Armitage. The buddy criminals at the center of The Way of the Gun may recall Jules and Vincent, but the picture’s spiky dialogue and muscular approach makes writer-director Christopher McQuarrie much more than a poor man’s Tarantino. Doug Liman’s Go is perhaps the most nakedly Fiction-esque film of the late ’90s, right down to the three-story structure — but it’s written with such offhand wit by John August, and directed with such verve by Liman, that it simply transcends imitation. And while Out of Sight may share Pulp Fiction’s cheerful criminality and inventive narrative constructions (and even actors Ving Rhames, Paul Calderon, and Samuel L. Jackson), it mates those elements with the giddily experimental inclinations of director Steven Soderbergh to create what amounts to a new, post-Fiction crime picture.
That is the tradition of Bad Times at the El Royale, and of separating the good from the bad in the children of Pulp: sniffing out which films are the work of artists tilling newly fertile cinematic soil, and which are merely the work of mimics, drowning in echoes.