Quentin Tarantino latest film, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, has been described as an elegy for a bygone era of the movie business. But many of Tarantino’s biggest fans have no first-hand experience with the ’50s western TV shows and ’60s counter-culture films that he’s eulogizing. For those people, seeing a new Tarantino film might bring back memories of a distant time when Tarantino himself was his own genre.
Back in the ’90s, you couldn’t walk into a video store or watch cable without seeing movies plainly influenced by Tarantino’s first two films, 1992’s Reservoir Dogs and 1994’s Pulp Fiction. These Tarantino rip-offs were populated by sharp-dressed hitmen and philosophizing petty criminals. They peppered their conversations with pop-culture references before blowing somebody away while an oldie from the ’60s or ’70s played on the soundtrack.
There were doomed lovers on the run from the cops. There were cameos by cool character actors like Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken, who inevitably said things like, “You know who you’re stealing from?!?” There were numerous instances of “ironic” sexism, racism, and homophobia. There was ironic everything in these movies.
Tarantino remains an influence on subsequent generations of filmmakers. But the peak of Tarantino-esque cinema was roughly 1994 to ’97 — the period that coincides with the peak of his fame, when he was a fixture on talk shows and even a guest host on Saturday Night Live. It also marked the gap between Pulp Fiction and Tarantino’s third film, Jackie Brown. The public was fascinated with QT, and they wanted lots and lots of QT-like content.
Looking back, it’s incredible how many filmmaking careers were launched in that era by directors who worked in Tarantino’s quirky crime-film lane. There was Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket), Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight), the Wachowskis (Bound), Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects), and Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels). And then there were veteran filmmakers whose careers were revitalized by plugging into this style, including The Coen Brothers (Fargo), Steven Soderbergh (Out Of Sight), and Sam Raimi (A Simple Plan).
But the movies most closely associated with the Tarantino-esque genre are the low-budget, disreputable ones. The films that in retrospect seem closer to the trashy B-movies that Tarantino was inspired by, than anything Tarantino himself ever made. Here are 10 of the most essential.
Killing Zoe (1994)
When it comes to Tarantino-inspired films, few have the pedigree of Killing Zoe, a drug-fueled heist thriller billed prominently in advertising as coming “from the creators of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.” Tarantino himself was credited as an executive producer, and writer-director Roger Avary eventually won an Academy Award for co-writing the screenplay with Tarantino for Pulp Fiction. For his directorial debut, Avary showed everything that Tarantino didn’t in Reservoir Dogs, lingering on an endless robbery that goes horribly, violently wrong. Pulp Fiction star Eric Stoltz appears here as Zed, an American safe-cracker who travels to Paris to help his boyhood friend, Eric (Jean-Hughes Anglade), essentially a French version of the homicidal Michael Madsen character from Reservoir Dogs. While Killing Zoe ultimately isn’t in the same league as Tarantino’s first feature, it is head and shoulders above most of the films on this list, feeling more like an adjacent film, akin to a side project by a lesser-known band member, than a flat-out rip-off.
Love and A .45 (1994)
Tarantino himself has gone on record as calling this his favorite imitation. Starring Gil Bellows and a pre-fame Renee Zellweger, Love And A .45 does play like a hyperactive homage to True Romance and Natural Born Killers, following two lovestruck killers as they go on a road trip that becomes the object of media obsession. Though C.M. Talkington, the film’s writer/director, has pushed back against that narrative, pointing out he wrote the screenplay at around the time that Tarantino came up with his scripts in the early ’90s. In fact, Talkington claims that Oliver Stone ripped him off when Stone revamped Tarantino’s Natural Born Killers script. “You know, Oliver Stone was interested in buying [Love and a .45],” he claimed in a Slate interview from 2015. “Instead he just ripped it off. Which is—that’s funny, too because, you know I mean Quentin didn’t rip me off, I didn’t rip him off, but Oliver Stone definitely ripped me off.”
Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead (1995)
This movie is remembered as the Nickelback of ’90s Tarantino rip-offs. Just as Nickelback is shorthand for “sh*tty modern rock band,” Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead (along with the much worse 8 Heads In A Duffel Bag) is an easy, go-to reference for the excesses of Tarantino-obsessed indie cinema in the mid-’90s. But it doesn’t totally deserve that reputation. Yes, the contrivance that assembles the inevitable rogue’s gallery of criminals to pull off one big job is ridiculous to the point of incoherence: The Man With The Plan, a quadriplegic crime lord played by Christopher Walken, wants Jimmy The Saint (Andy Garcia) to cure his son of his pedophilia by reuniting him with his ex-girlfriend. What? But Garcia and Walken are pretty good, the dialogue is heavy with ingeniously made-up jargon (“Buckwheats!”) and the title surely pointed some viewers to the excellent Warren Zevon song of the same name. All in all, that’s enough to put this movie in the upper echelon of Tarantino rip-offs.
The Immortals (1995)
This movie, on the other hand, definitely belongs in the lowest echelon. That’s probably why you can’t legally stream it anywhere, though you can easily track down grainy copies on YouTube. I include it on this list because it has the most insane cast of any ’90s Tarantino rip-off, including Eric Roberts, Chris Rock, Tia Carrere, Tony Curtis, Joe Pantoliano, and Clarence Williams III. The plot is pure foolishness: A slick club owner (Roberts) has (of course) assembled a ragtag crew of criminals and paired them off into seemingly incompatible groups for a big job. A racist is teamed up with a black man, a homophobe is put with a gay men, etc. Why? Well, it turns out that everybody is actually secretly dying. No need for a spoiler alert, because nothing about this movie makes sense anyway. What you’ll want to savor instead is the terrible, terrible faux-Quentin dialogue. (“At least you know a butt pirate is gonna watch your ass,” is something that Chris Rock actually says.)
2 Days In The Valley (1996)
Tarantino wasn’t the first person to make a movie about a large cast of L.A. characters who find themselves connected by a singular event in the space of a few days. The year before Pulp Fiction came out, Robert Altman put out one of the defining movies of this genre, Short Cuts. A few years after that, 2 Days In The Valley attempted a hybrid of Tarantino-esque crime comedy and Altman-like ensemble drama. The mix of characters includes both a stylish, sociopathic assassin (James Spader) and a TV producer who is contemplating suicide (Paul Mazursky). While 2 Days In The Valley has neither style nor the vision of Tarantino or Altman, it’s a pretty entertaining watch, sort of like a TV movie version of Pulp Fiction or Short Cuts.
Normal Life (1996)
An unintended melancholic overtone of Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is that it’s Luke Perry’s final film. Let’s also remember that Perry’s best film performance is in the underrated post-Tarantino heist film Normal Life, directed by John McNaughton. Like McNaughton’s most famous film, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Normal Life unfolds like a documentary, following a sad-sack police officer (Perry) whose involvement with a manipulative and mentally disturbed woman (Ashley Judd) eventually drives him to start robbing banks. It’s not really accurate to classify this as a “rip-off,” since the film’s verisimilitude and sober treatment of criminal life is antithetical to the stylization that distinguishes most of the films on this list. Perry plays down that laconic, Dylan McKay cool in favor of a quieter, wounded vulnerability, which helps to make Normal Life feel more like an antidote to Tarantino-esque films than a bandwagon jumper.
“It seems aimed at people who loved Pulp Fiction and have strong stomachs,” Roger Ebert wrote of this bonkers cult movie from writer/director Matthew Bright. Though, like Normal Life, Freeway only uses Tarantino as a starting point before blasting off in its own bizarre and transgressive direction. A modern retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, Freeway is the opposite of a kid’s movie, with ferocious lead performances by Reese Witherspoon and Kiefer Sutherland as essentially Red and the big bad wolf. Witherspoon, in particular, is a revelation as a trashy teenage girl who violently avenges her mistreatment at the hands of various bad men. (The Bride from Kill Bill would have her hands full with her.) If you only know Witherspoon from the rom-coms and prestige dramas she’s made in the past 20 years, seeing her scream the N-word at a police officer before slamming his head on a table will be a shocking revelation.
Truth or Consequences, N.M. (1997)
After starring in Freeway, Sutherland had the chance to direct his own Tarantino-inspired movie, a true rip-off called Truth or Consequences, N.M. This might in fact be the ultimate Tarantino homage, in that it steals from multiple movies. There’s (of course) the heist that goes wrong due to a Madsen-like maniac (Sutherland), and there’s an undercover cop (Mykelti Williamson) embedded with the crew who must find a way to stay alive, a la Reservoir Dogs. There are the lovers (Vincent Gallo and Kim Dickens) who become murderous fugitives, a la True Romance. And there’s the couple (Kevin Pollak and Grace Phillips) vacationing in an RV who become hostages, a la From Dusk Till Dawn. It’s Tarantino’s greatest hits played by a solid cover band.
Oliver Stone has a famously tortured relationship with Quentin Tarantino, who hated Stone’s adaptation of his Natural Born Killers script. “He always seems to be making movies about other movies,” Stone retorted in an interview with Ebert. “I don’t think that his violence has been realistic. It’s more, ‘Can I do the violence in the most new and shocking and unconventional way?'” But Stone (who didn’t exactly portray realistic violence in his script for Scarface) certainly seemed enamored with Tarantino-esque projects in the mid-’90s. Not only did he apparently borrow heavily from Love And A .45, but he was also the executive producer of Freeway and the director of U-Turn. A kind of Bad Day At Black Rock for the alt-rock generation, it stars Sean Penn as a guy who is stuck in a dead-end Arizona town loaded with zany characters played by ringers like Nick Nolte, Jennifer Lopez, Joaquin Phoenix and Billy Bob Thornton. “To me the best thing about him is his energy,” Tarantino once said of Stone. “But his biggest problem is that his obviousness cancels out his energy and his energy pumps up his obviousness.” That’s also a good summation of U-Turn.
The Boondock Saints (1999)
People continued to make Tarantino rip-offs through the ’00s and beyond. There’s The Way Of The Gun, 3000 Miles To Graceland, Smokin’ Aces, and many more. The most notable example from recent years is Bad Times at the El Royale, which is entertainingly incoherent in a similar way to many of the films on this list. But something changed at the end of the ’90s. These sorts of movies didn’t feel part of the zeitgeist. They felt like pandering to a niche of fanboys. Tarantino himself seemed to sense this, as he’s never made a crime movie in the style of his first three films since. This bursting of the QT rip-off bubble is personified by The Boondock Saints, a love-it-or-hate-it quirkfest that’s as adored by its cult as it is reviled by seemingly everyone else. Put me in the reviled camp — everything that seemed revolutionary about Tarantino (and likably cheesy about his imitators) just seems obnoxious and self-congratulatory here. The film’s oafish writer/director, Troy Duffy, is like a caricature of Tarantino sketched by his most virulent critics. An obscene, feckless, and thoroughly clumsy man-child. Watching The Boondock Saints will make you feel foolish for ever thinking Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were amazing.