John Travolta = B
Travolta fares better than Willis, perhaps due to an abundance of brilliant dialogue and a more interesting character but doesn't match up to his other two co-stars. The main obstacle which Travolta fails to overcome, as he fails to do in every single one of his performances except Hairspray (and that performance has a whole other range of issues) is his monotonous, wooden voice. This is particularly glaring in the opening scenes, where every line is delivered with the same dazed speech and it sort of cuts his often inspired dialogue off at the knees. However, despite that, Travolta manages to be at the very least an ample springboard for his more able co-stars and reaches what I believe is his peak as an actor during the restaurant scene, which I credit more to Tarantino and Thurman than any input or innovation from Travolta himself. An adept, if flawed, performance from a flawed if occasionally adept actor.
Samuel L. Jackson = A-
In the years that have followed Pulp Fiction, this performance is the one that Samuel L. Jackson has relied on for goodwill. And unless you've been sensory deprived for the last ten years, it's worked. Many of his performances, aside from his excellence in Black Snake Moan, have been lame rehashes of this one (Snakes on a Plane, Afro Samurai), sometimes toned down, occasionally dialed up and never with the same depth or aplomb that Jackson achieved here. It seems to be a little bit of a cliche to credit Tarantino with making this performance as great as it is, from both the standpoint of a director and a writer. However, a large part of the credit lies with Jackson, obviously; he has calibrated himself so finely to the material and the character that this isn't some lame creation of pulp fiction (no pun intended, shut up) but Jules Winfield is a fully realized creation that Jackson makes larger than life, inhabiting the movie even from the edge of the frame. My personal highlight here is the restaurant standoff; beautifully played, loud without being hammy and conveying what I can only describe as layers of coolness with characteristic style. Bonus points for actually using the dialogue he's given, unlike the actors above and below this paragraph.
Bruce Willis = B-
Some of this may come from the fact that I simply do not like Bruce Willis that much; I mean, we all have actors or actresses that we find ourselves simply unable to like no matter what the role or performance. Bruce Willis is one of those performers. I may have misread the role or something like that, but I don't think that Willis adjusted his performance or his mannerisms to the film and it's style at all. He was stilted when he should have been expressive, overacting when he should have been more restrained. If I am misunderstanding the performance or the role, feel free to correct me; but Willis is merely adequate among a pitch-perfect cast, and I wish he shined throughout his whole performance as he does when he wields the katana, a rare stroke of genius for an actor who coasts too far on assumed charisma.
Uma Thurman = A-
And now we come to my favourite performance of the bunch, though Jackson is a very close second. Thurman commits her second best Tarantino character to film with this eccentric gangster wife; which is a performance I find very hard to describe and evaluate, but I'll try and do it anyway. Thurman's claim to fame as an actress, in my personal opinion, is a kind of offbeat charisma and persona that permeates into every one of her characters, from her legendary performance in Kill Bill to trash such as Paycheck; and it is rarely more effective than it is here. Interestingly, she delivers Tarantino's dialogue like it is dialogue, but that works for the character of Mia, trying to impress or work her way around a bewildered Vincent. Even more interestingly, she manages to dial down and dilute that eccentricity and charisma when she tells her corny joke, making it a surprisingly poignant moment in a film that plays at a frenetic speed.
Other Notable Performances:
Amanda Plummer - Plummer gets the film off to a great start with a hilarious switch from sweet and romantic to crazed with a few sides of wacko. She sets the audience up for this great film in an unforgettably unique way. (So good that it's done twice!)
Christopher Walken - Walken ends up being another unique player in this film, adding equal shades of sadness and hilarious in a rather oddly placed scene.
Rosanna Arquette - Just as I dislike Willis for no real reason, I like Arquette for no real reason. One of many players that is counted upon to provide black comedy, but I like her brand more than some of the others, popping tension during the overdose scene with ease and managing to be shrill without being particularly offputting.
Harvey Keitel - In one extended scene, Keitel rivals Jackson for 'coolness' factor, completely believable as a man who is sent to fix things. Something tells me taht maybe the character wasn't intended to be so deadpan, but regardless of whether it was or wasn't, Keitel achieves hilarity without being particularly comic.
Overall Film Grade: A+