When are you simply ripping off someone else’s movie and when are you making your own, respectful homage?
It’s a question that’s been around for decades — or at least since someone first noted Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs bore some obvious similarities to Ringo Lam’s City on Fire.
So it’s only fair, perhaps, that Tarantino has been around long enough by now to have people mimicking him, as in the new Tales of Babylon, a fond spin on Pulp Fiction.
It’s true that director Pelayo De Lario lifts from a few other sources, too (the prime villain is more than a nod to John Huston in Chinatown). Other Tarantino movies, as well (a secondary villain directly references Darryl Hannah in Kill Bill.)
But it’s mostly Pulp Fiction being remembered here, albeit without Uma Thurman or that long monologue about a favorite wristwatch.
After what seems like a non-sequitur beginning about a worm that turns, with a vengeance, the movie switches to the adventures of two hitmen (Ray Calleja and Aaron Cobham), one white and not-too-bright and the other Black and in control. On assignment for a mysterious boss (Clive Russell), they burst into an apartment and shoot up the place.
They don’t find the person they were looking for. But they do find a tough little girl, who they then take with him – as they try to figure out what to do next.
Things soon get complicated, as the film introduces a one-eyed female assassin (Maria Crittell), another vaguely continental gun-for-hire, and various targets, passersby and collateral damage. Oh, and the ticked-off schlub from the beginning also makes a reappearance, about 90 minutes in.
Pelayo De Lario, who also wrote the screenplay, is clearly a talented filmmaker – and not afraid to show off. He pulls off a long, sinuous tracking shot in close quarters (more of a nod to Scorsese’s style than Tarantino’s but, hell, whatever). He knows how to end a scene with an exclamation point (and when to cut away, instead) and encourage good performances.
But some of the copy-cat touches are tiresome. It’s one thing to have a duo reminiscent of the pair in Pulp Fiction; it’s another to have them actually comment on how reminiscent they are of the pair in Pulp Fiction. Other details – a briefcase, that eyepatch, professional crime-scene “cleaners” – are just too on the nose.
And by the climactic shoot-out, it’s almost become a hall of mirrors – with Pelayo De Lario copying Tarantino, who originally pickpocketed some of his style from Sergio Leone.
People who know Tarantino’s work very well may get a little impatient with all the nudge-in-the-ribs references. People who don’t know QT at all may only be a little bewildered. (Why the flashbacks and mixed-up chronology? Why the titles separating segments?)
Those outside of those two camps, though, may actually have the best time with Tales of Babylon, because they can take it on its most basic level – as a hip, hard-edged crime story with a good cast and plenty of stylish touches.
Even if not all the stealing took place in front of the cameras.