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They're just two sensitive lovebirds in a coffee shop, cooing sweetly, calling each other "honey bunny" and bemoaning their lack of money -- until, that is, the appointed time of their holdup, when they both leap from their Formica and Naugahyde lairs with pistols cocked and spittle and obscenities spewing from their lips.

The next thing you know, surreal surfing mariachi music is pounding your ears behind the credits. You are, in less than three minutes, fully immersed in the world of Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," and if you're not ready for the next 2 1/2 hours, God help you. I can't think of a worse movie for a mannerly, tender soul to wander into unprepared.

It's either the shot of adrenaline that near-comatose American movies of the '90s desperately need or it's one of the wildest and wooliest and gaudiest dead ends American movies have ever seen.

I suspect it's the latter. I don't think we're all going to be yelling, "Huzzah! Huzzah!" at Tarantino five years from now, but it's no matter. For now, he's just the enfant terrible American movies need and his second movie is exciting in a way 95 percent of current American movies don't even dream of being.

Whatever "Pulp Fiction" turns out to be in the grand cinematic parade, it is unwholesomely and giddily entertaining and probably the first semi-masterpiece to come from the heart of Generation X. It's likely to hit its generation as hard as George Lucas' bittersweet "American Graffiti" hit the boomers, though in a different way.

People of all ages will probably be talking and marveling and chortling over some of it for months -- the twist contest at Jack Rabbit Slim's (the retro diner to end all retro diners) in which John Travolta and Uma Thurman do immortal tribute to the Swim, the Watusi and, yes, the Batman; the discussions over Dutch drug laws and the way big burgers at European McDonald's are called "royales with cheese"; the sodomy in the gun store; the hypodermic full of adrenaline jammed into the heart of a woman who sniffed heroin thinking it was cocaine; the corpse in the garage who has to be disposed of before a wife (who's a nurse) comes home; the theological debates over the sexual ethics of giving a foot massage to the boss' wife; the mob hit man who flares forth a fire-and-brimstone reading of Ezekiel 25:17 before every hit ("And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes . . . ").

This is a fully realized film world and it isn't given to many filmmakers to create such things, especially not with their second film. It has style and humor to burn, which isn't all that surprising from a filmmaker who used to make his living as a video store clerk.

What are surprising are the brilliant rants and raves and diatribes that erupt from Tarantino's underworld vermin as if they were mainlining some pharmacological hybrid of David Mamet and Barry Levinson. Everybody in his world does a lot of thinking, though none of them will ever be confused with Alfred North Whitehead or Bertrand Russell.

No one can say that Tarantino didn't fulfill his promise. His first film, "Reservoir Dogs," was the embodiment of the hoary old phrase "raw talent." The films that others have made from his scripts or his original ideas -- "True Romance," "Natural Born Killers" -- tend to stay in the mind like the memory of driving all night through a thunderstorm. You don't have to like them or remember the details, but their overall climate stays with you.

He is, without question, the most important 31-year-old filmmaker in America. Anyone who knows a little bit about movies can see the video store clerk in him all over the place: Those funny Talmudic disputes about pop culture are direct from the world of Barry Levinson's "Diner" and "Tin Men"; that shot through the windshield where a thief sees a boss who has just been ripped off is from Hitchcock's "Psycho"; that mysterious and sinister "cleanup man" who is called in to rectify a hit gone sour is from the recent "Point of No Return" and, before that, "La Femme Nikita."

But the fact of the past 25 years is that film culture has helped to ruin movies, not save them. The easiest thing in the world is to make movies from other movies. Making them from your life or your imagination or both is a good deal harder. And Tarantino's great talents -- for synthesis, gutsiness and just plain inspired hacking around -- begin where all that dreary film culture leaves off.

Tarantino isn't an archivist, he's a cultist and he's more than a bit daft. Unlike most cultists, his daftness has translated into invention, great raw gobs of it.

Let me be completely frank here. In almost every film that has Tarantino's name somewhere in the credits, there will come a moment where I want to get up and walk away from the screen. It's the moment where truly inspired jokiness and sadism meet, and it happens every time. In "Reservoir Dogs," it was the scene in which Michael Madsen danced around to Stealers Wheel and cut off the ear of a man tied to a chair.

I wasn't prepared for that one, so I stayed through it. This time I was prepared. It's a scene from some adult version of an old Weird Tales comic book. It's kicked off by a leather-bound monster called the Gimp who is kept in the back room of a gun store. I got the gist and then walked.

I can't think of another filmmaker in America who disturbs me this way. But I know full well that that's his point. It's because he's on to something. He has put some things together that I don't think should be put together.

He wants to be disturbing. He doesn't want you to just sit there like guacamole on a taco, he wants to get your blood and bile pumping. And he does.

He tells you his stories in a way you've never had a movie story told to you before (the farthest reach of the movie's chronology happens in the middle), but he never loses you.

And he's up there with Robert Redford and Barry Levinson as one of the great casters of current movies. He called John Travolta's career back from the dead to do a stunning turn as a junkie hit man. (You'll seldom see heroin clouds rendered as well on the face of someone who's smacked up.)

He gave Uma Thurman and Bruce Willis what are arguably their best roles on film. And from that extraordinary actor Samuel L. Jackson, he got an amazing performance that marries righteousness and evil and ends up with the underworld equivalent of Forrest Gumpian wisdom.

Christopher Walken, Patricia Arquette and, yes, Eric Stoltz do formidable little bits. Tarantino, the cloudland acting-class fixture, has figured out a way to marry the improvisation of acting class exercises with a structure as intricate as any in current American movies.

So much talent at this stage can't help but be exciting. Ten years from now we may well be mourning what happened to it, but for the moment there's nothing better to do with it than to enjoy it.

It is, as postmodern film types are wont to say, a ride.

Pulp Fiction

Rating: * * * * 1/2 John Travolta, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Harvey Keitel and Uma Thurman in a wildly praised new film by Quentin Tarantino. Rated R, opening Friday in area theaters.

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