There’s nobody in American movies who can turn a phrase quite like Quentin Tarantino. And with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood hitting theaters this week, the canon of great Tarantino one-liners is about to get an update.
While Tarantino’s certainly got a one-man-house style, his voice has morphed over the years from the hyper pop-literate enfant terrible to, well, a less showily hyper pop-literate, middle-aged terrible. But trying to rank all of his lines against each other is something of a fool’s errand: There are too many gems — each with their own uniquely profane facets — to justify such an exercise.
Instead, we’ve gone chronologically, starting with 1992’s Reservoir Dogs and ending with 2015’s The Hateful Eight. It’s a chance to sit back and reflect: Not only on why these individual lines are killer, but how they frame the individual movies they appear in and where they sit within Tarantino’s career on the whole.
All right ramblers, let’s get rambling.
Mr. Pink: I don’t tip because society says I have to. All right, if someone deserves a tip, if they really put forth an effort, I’ll give them a little something extra. But this tipping automatically, it’s for the birds. As far as I’m concerned, they’re just doing their job.
Good dialogue reveals characters through conversation, not exposition. While this line from Mr. Pink in the film’s opening scene technically counts as the latter, it’s most definitely a sterling example of the former. And in its roundabout way, it also sets the tone for the scenes to follow. Even with something as easy as a tip, these men can’t help but bicker. As the pressure rises in the wake of a job gone totally wrong, of course they’re going to crack. “They’re just doing their job,” says Mr. Pink, and so is the undercover cop in their midst.
Mr. White: [laughs] Shit … You shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologize.
Quentin Tarantino is not a badass, but he’s got a knack for writing them. Add Harvey Keitel to the mix, and the threat that Mr. White levels in this line is very real. The guy might have a soft spot for his fellow robbers — especially ones who get shot in the gut — but he is not a man to mess with. Do yourself a favor and apologize. Just to be safe.
Mr. Pink: Yeah, that’s easy for your to say, you’re Mr. White. You have a cool-sounding name. Alright look, if it’s no big deal to be Mr. Pink, do you wanna trade?
Tarantino’s films have always balanced on the knife’s edge of elevating pulpy genre fair and completely tearing it down. This line from Reservoir Dogs is the latter. The bad, bad men that make up this film’s cast may seem cool with their black-and-white suits and their fancy shades — but they still care about “seeming” cool, too. Murderous gangsters: They’re just like the rest of us. Especially when they’re played by Steve Buscemi.
Mr. Brown: Let me tell you what “Like a Virgin” is about. It’s all about a girl who digs a guy with a big dick. The entire song. It’s a metaphor for big dicks.
The Q-man knows how to make a first impression. This line, and the ensuing explanation, happen in the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s debut film. Hell, he even delivers the lines himself, playing the doomed robber Mr. Brown. Tarantino cares way more about pop culture than pretty much anyone else on the planet, and he knows how to unleash a conspiratorial sidewinder with the best of ‘em. Like, he might legitimately be the best of them. Add in a dash of vulgarity, and Tarantino most definitely had the film world’s attention.
Nice Guy Eddie: Alright, first things fuckin’ last!
Great lines don’t always need to be surprising, but it helps. And a great way to surprise is to take a common turn of phrase like “first things first” and turn it on it’s head. The line is delivered in the midst of heated moment, as well, as Nice Guy Eddie tries to sort out the absolute clustercuss that was the Reservoir Dogs robbery. Even when Tarantino’s characters are up against the wall, they’re still doing linguistic loop-de-loops.
Joe: So, you guys like to tell jokes and giggle and kid around, huh? Gigglin’ like a bunch of young broads in a schoolyard. Well, let me tell a joke. Five guys, sittin’ in a bullpen, in San Quentin. Wondering how the fuck they got there. “What did we do wrong? What shoulda we done? What didn’t we do? It’s your fault, my fault, his fault.” All that bullshit.
Finally, someone comes up with the idea, “Wait a minute. While we were planning this caper, all we did was sit around telling fuckin’ jokes! Got the message? Fellas, I don’t mean to holler at ya. When this caper’s over — and I’m sure it’s gonna be a successful one — hell, we’ll get down to the Hawaiian Islands, I’ll roll and laugh with all of you. You’ll find me a different character down there. Right now, it’s a matter of business.
This is the first of many lines on this list that aren’t really “lines” so much as entire monologues. This one is delivered by Joe at the first meet-up of the Reservoir Dogs gang, the one where they are assigned their code names and Steve Buscemi starts trying to barter for a cooler name. As Mr. Orange states later on in the flick, Joe looks exactly like “The Thing.” And this monologue crystallizes just how tough he is on the inside, as well. An entire character distilled down into one hacky, menacing joke.
Mia: Don’t you hate that?
Mia: Uncomfortable silences. Why do we feel it’s necessary to yak about bullshit in order to be comfortable?
Vincent: I don’t know. That’s a good question.
Mia: That’s when you know you’ve found somebody special. When you can just shut the fuck up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.
Vincent and Mia’s meandering date-that-isn’t-a-date is a masterclass in chemistry. Mia flirts with Vincent as he tries desperately not to flirt back, lest he ended up getting chucked out of a window by her husband, Marsellus Wallace. Mia might have a bit of a coke problem, but she’s a smart cookie and enjoys toying with her meal. Why else would someone yak on about how great it is when people can sit in silence together and not feel the need to yak?
Vincent: What does Marsellus Wallace look like? … Does he look like a bitch? … Then why you trying to fuck him like a bitch?
Another instance of a predator toying with their prey before getting down to business. After a meandering car ride with Vincent filled with discourse over the Parisian name for a Quarter Pounder and the surprising intimacy of foot massages, Jules gets down to business. And his business is killing a bunch of dumbasses — but not before he scares the hell of out of them. The version of the line included here elides a fair amount of the back-and-forth that happens in this exchange — which is too bad, because it’s electric. It might not surprise you to learn that Samuel L. Jackson appears many times on this list.
Vincent: And you know what they call a… a… a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?
Jules: They don’t call it a Quarter Pounder with cheese?
Vincent: No man, they got the metric system. They wouldn’t know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is.
Jules: Then what do they call it?
Vincent: They call it a Royale with cheese.
Tarantino’s dialogue renders his characters and the worlds they move through with astounding detail and verve. And no line better encapsulates that fact than this iconic exchange from Pulp Fiction.
Jules: I’m not giving you that money. I’m buying something from you. Wanna know what I’m buyin’ Ringo?, … Your life. I’m givin’ you that money so I don’t have to kill your ass. You read the Bible? … There’s a passage I got memorized. Ezekiel 25:17. “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children.
And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy My brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay My vengeance upon you.” Now… I been sayin’ that shit for years. And if you ever heard it, that meant your ass. You’d be dead right now. I never gave much thought to what it meant. I just thought it was a cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker before I popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some shit this mornin’ made me think twice.
See, now I’m thinking: maybe it means you’re the evil man. And I’m the righteous man. And Mr. 9mm here… he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you’re the righteous man and I’m the shepherd and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish. And I’d like that. But that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is you’re the weak. And I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’, Ringo. I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.
The multitudinous plot threads of Pulp Fiction all eventually arrive at the same place: Redemption. And with Jules’ speech to the diner robbers in the film’s closing moments, that theme is finally laid bare. He deconstructs his own use of the Ezekiel 25:17 passage — which he admits he uses mostly as a “cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker before I popped a cap in his ass” — and ruminates on the kind of man he wants to be. Jules knows that he represents the tyranny of evil men, but he’s trying — “trying” being the operative word — to be something better. This is the scene that raises Pulp Fiction from a great flick to an all-timer.
Butch: Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead.
A superb punchline to an absolutely harrowing series of events. After saving his mortal enemy from being — wowzers — raped in the basement of a pawn shop, Butch finally has the clean slate he’s been so desperately grasping for. As Butch and his girlfriend, Fabienne, ride off into the sunset on Zed’s chopper, Butch offers this iconic capper. Rhyming is never cool — except for the times when it most certainly is. It stands to note that when Butch delivers this line, Zed is definitely still alive. But by the time Marsellus Wallace’s men get done with him, death will be a gift — one that he in no way deserves.
Jules: I want you to go in that bag, and find my wallet. … It’s the one that says Bad Motherfucker.
In the same way that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, sometimes a cool line is just … cool.
Vincent: Oh man, I shot Marvin in the face.
Understatement is not always Tarantino’s thing, but here he uses it to hilarious effect. Vincent is correct: He did indeed shoot Marvin in the face. And yet his annoyed, peevish delivery of those words doesn’t quite capture the immense world of shit that he and Jules have just entered –driving around Los Angeles in broad daylight with a back windshield spattered in brain and bright-red blood. Yet another sterling example of Tarantino taking genre tropes and turning them on their heads.
The Wolf: Get it straight buster — I’m not here to say please. I’m here to tell you what to do and if self-preservation is an instinct you possess, you’d better fucking do it and do it quick. I’m here to help — if my help’s not appreciated then lotsa luck, gentlemen. … If I’m curt with you, it’s because time is a factor. I think fast, I talk fast, and I need you guys to act fast if you wanna get out of this. So, pretty please … with sugar on top. Clean the fucking car.
Harvey Keitel’s turn as Winston Wolf is the kind of thing that would walk away with any other movie. It takes a movie like Pulp Fiction to make him blend into the crowd. A bona fide fixer sent by Marsellus Wallace to clean up Vincent and Jules’ mess, The Wolf exhibits a kind of no nonsense professionalism that, frankly, the rest of us can all aspire to. Maybe we would put it to better use than helping career criminals cover up a murder, but still. What a legend.
Captain Koons: The way your dad looked at it, this watch was your birthright. He’d be damned if any slope’s gonna put their greasy, yellow hands on his boy’s birthright, so he hid it, in the one place he knew he could hide something: his ass. Five long years, he wore this watch up his ass. Then when he died of dysentery, he gave me the watch. I hid this uncomfortable piece of metal up my ass for two years. Then, after seven years, I was sent home to my family. And now, little man, I give the watch to you.
The best part of this line is the simplest bit: The part where he offs the kid’s dad with an off-hand “then when he died of dysentery” so that he can get back to the real matter at hand: Just how much time this watch has spent up people’s asses. The line is great, but Christoper Walken’s deliver (unsurprisingly) launches it into the stratosphere.
Butch: So we cool?
Marsellus: Yeah, we cool. Two things. Don’t tell nobody about this. This shit is between me, you, and Mr. Soon-to-Be-Living-the-Rest-of-His-Short-Ass-Life-in-Agonizing-Pain Rapist here. It ain’t nobody else’s business. Two: you leave town tonight, right now. And when you’re gone, you stay gone, or you be gone. You lost all your L.A. privileges. Deal?
Marsellus: Get your ass out of here.
Honor among thieves is a running theme throughout Tarantino’s work, with Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill, and The Hateful Eight standing as brightest touchstones. But in this one little mini-logue, Marsellus Wallace sums up that theme as well as any feature-length film. In Ving Rhames delivery, the words “Yeah, we cool” carry the weight of a thousand suns. After Butch has saved his life, there’s nothing else Marsellus can do except set a few reasonable restrictions on the man’s LA privileges. Even if those aren’t “the rules,” per say … them’s still the rules.
Mia: Don’t you just love it when you come back from the bathroom and find your food waiting for you?
Genuine question: Is this something that people actually love, and that’s why Quentin Tarantino wrote a line about it? Or is that something that people have come to love because Tarantino pointed it out to them. Either way: The dude’s right.
Vincent: That’s a pretty fucking good milkshake. I don’t know if it’s worth five dollars, but it’s pretty fucking good.
Word, Vincent. Word.