THE LISTS: Top 10 Tarantino characters

Posted by · 12:31 pm · August 18th, 2009

Christoph Waltz in Inglourious BasterdsIt’s been over a month since we cranked out an installment of The Lists, but with Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” set for release on Friday, it seemed a good time to cook up a new collective.

When most people praise Tarantino’s skill as a screenwriter, they tend to focus on his well-honed ear for dialogue.  But I have always been much more enchanted by his ability to create a wide array of separately interesting characters that are nevertheless of a piece with the filmmaker’s pulp sense of the world.

Each of Tarantino’s films are ensembles of one level or another, usually elevated off the page by the performances he gets out of actor eager to take on something fresh.  And no matter the quality of Tarantino’s work behind the camera, the material is always, if nothing else, unique.

So a list of the greatest characters ever conceived by the man seemed to be the best course of action.  The list doesn’t merely include characters from Tarantino’s films as a director, mind you.  Those he conceived in original screenplays filmed by other directors were considered as well.  Eight films are featured on the list, two of them twice.

The only Tarantino-affiliated films that don’t appear are “From Dusk Till Dawn” (a personal favorite that, if I was asked on another day, might show up somewhere) and the “Death Proof” segment of “Grindhouse” (which, if I were feeling particularly generous one day, might yield a mention for Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike).

All other Tarantino extravaganzas are well-represented.  Let’s dig in here…

Chris Penn in Reservoir Dogs10. Nice Guy Eddie Cabot (Chris Penn, “Reservoir Dogs,” 1992)
The sadistic Mr. Blonde or the neurotic Mr. Pink might make for more obvious, “fun” picks from the ensemble of Tarantino’s directorial debut, but even with two spots on the list for the film, I never found room for them.  Here at the bottom, however, I had to make a case for Chris Penn’s portrayal of a mafioso daddy’s boy, an intriguing role that could even be construed as farce.  A fulcrum of sorts for the narrative, Nice Guy Eddie Cabot really has his coming out moment in the Mexican stand-off at film’s end.  But Penn also found interesting character crevices in an early scene opposite Lawrence Tierney and Michael Madsen.

Quentin Tarantino in Four Rooms9. Chester Rush (Quentin Tarantino, “Four Rooms,” 1995)
“Four Rooms,” a series of four short films, followed right on the heels of the success of “Pulp Fiction” but was ultimately nothing to write home about.  It included work from filmmakers Alison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell and Robert Rodriguez, but the only intriguing segment was Tarantino’s “The Man From Hollywood,” which nevertheless included a healthy does of the director’s penchant for cribbing on the classics.  As flamboyant film producer Chester Rsh, Tarantino probably gave his least irritating portrayal (along with “From Dusk Till Dawn”) to date as he plays a twisted game with Tim Roth’s Ted the Bellhop.

Samuel L. Jackson in Jackie Brown8. Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson, “Jackie Brown,” 1997)
In the only Tarantino film that isn’t purely an original work, “Jackie Brown” owes much of its characterizations, of course, to author Elmore Leonard, from whose book “Rum Punch” the film was adapted.  But Tarantino still finds plenty of opportunity to inject his own sense of the world into the story’s wide array of characters, and that certainly extends to Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal of Leonard regular Ordell Robbie.  Opposite legend Robert De Niro for much of the film, Jackson’s Robbie is a buzz saw, spitting out Tarantino’s dialogue like an AK-47 and moving from levity to unbalanced aggression and the drop of a hat.

Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds7. Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds,” 2009)
The only character from Tarantino’s latest effort worth discussing at length is carried across the finish line by an expertly rendered performance from Christoph Waltz.  A role that really captures meaning in the writer/director’s attraction to long, drawn out discussion and conversation, Col. Hans Landa is an eerie sort of presence who seems to drop the temperature of a room once he enters it.  No Tarantino character, in fact, has had quite the presence Landa does in his scenes, most of which, of course, is owed to Waltz’s work, but on the page, the part is just as ominous and unsettling.

Gary Oldman in True Romance6. Drexl Spivey (Gary Oldman, “True Romance,” 1993)
“True Romance” is the first film to pop up on the list that Tarantino didn’t actually direct.  He wrote the original screenplay and the Tony Scott-directed film hit the scene between “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.”  Drexl Spivey is the sort of supporting player that wouldn’t have even shown up here if it weren’t for Gary Oldman’s out-of-nowhere blistering performance of the man.  On the page, he’s a simple Rasta thug with a glass eye.  Interesting, but certainly not top-tier characterization.  Oldman pumps so much personality into the guy that it becomes a five-minute tour de force.

Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction5. Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson, “Pulp Fiction,” 1994)
“Pulp Fiction” was, of course, Tarantino’s big arrival.  In some circles it has come to be considered a modern classic, fitting comfortably alongside some of the most innovative and ground-breaking films in the history of the medium.  It has also, perhaps unfairly, become a bar of judgment on Tarantino’s work since.  One thing that made the piece pop was its ensemble of intriguing characters, not least of which being Jules Winnfield, a hitman who has a life-changing epiphany early on.  Jackson played the character with the right balance of toughness and introspection, landing an Oscar nomination for his efforts.

Uma Thurman in Kill Bill: Vol. 14. Beatrix Kiddo, aka The Bride (Uma Thurman, “Kill Bill,” 2003-2004)

When Tarantino finally came back to the scene after a six-year hiatus in 2003 with the first installment of his “Kill Bill” epic, expectations were hight.  And for my money, he nailed it out of the park with the film’s first “volume.”  Not so much with the second, and it’s perhaps the film’s frayed conclusion and, ultimately, meandering sensibility that kept the films’ central character (played wonderfully by Uma Thurman) from placing a bit higher on the list.  Nevertheless, the exciting pulp quality of the role gives it a special place in modern cinema, and as conceived with Thurman, is one of Tarantino’s more interesting creations.

Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction3. Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman, “Pulp Fiction,” 1994)
Speaking of Uma Thurman, her work in “Pulp Fiction” ranks here as the film’s greatest character.  An indelible mixture of hipster virtue and stylish nostalgia, Mia Wallace (wife of gangster Marcellus Wallace) headlined one of the better segments of “Pulp”‘s broken narrative.  The part was so iconic, in fact, that it became a visual cue of sorts for the film, a brand any filmmaker would be thrilled to have define his early work.  Meanwhile, the dance sequence with John Travolta’s Vincent Vega has immortalized the film, thanks in no small part to Thurman’s characterization of Wallace and all the panache that comes with it.

Harvey Keitel in Reservoir Dogs2. Larry Dimmick, aka Mr. White (Harvey Keitel, “Reservoir Dogs,” 1992)
To some this might come as a surprise, but for me, “Resevoir Dogs”‘s Mr. White, and actor Harvey Keitel’s performance of him, has never received a fair shake.  This is an incredibly detailed character, filled out with more nuance than most of Tarantino’s creations, in fact.  He is a professional losing his edge, later betrayed, but ultimately — as the film’s climax can attest — as tough as he ever was.  And Keitel plays those complexities like a fiddle throughout, while never losing a refreshing touch of realism.  I might go so far as to call it the greatest performance from any Tarantino-directed film to date.

Robert Downey Jr. in Natural Born Killers1. Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr., “Natural Born Killers,” 1994)
Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” sprung from another of Tarantino’s original creations, though our featured director is credited with the story, not the screenplay.  Nevertheless, the character of Wayne Gale, an intrepid young journalist who gets swept away in the madness of Mickey and Mallory Knox’s cross country shenanigans, sits firmly at the top of this list.  Like all of Tarantino’s best characters, this one owes much to the performance, and Robert Downey Jr. was frankly robbed of a supporting actor nomination for his work here.  He found the right strokes of admiration, ambition and attitude to make Gale a living, breathing work of art.

That’s how I see things, but what about you?  What are your favorite Tarantino characters?  Have your say in the comments section below!

→ 47 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: The Lists

47 responses so far

  • 1 8-18-2009 at 12:52 pm

    AmericanRequiem said...

    leaving of vincent vega was crime, go directlzy to jail, to not pass go, do not collect 100 dollars

  • 2 8-18-2009 at 12:53 pm

    Andrew L. said...


  • 3 8-18-2009 at 12:54 pm

    James D. said...

    An interesting list, indeed.

    However, I have always thought that Travolta’s performance was the best of all. I also liked Mr. Pink, but truthfully it wasn’t too much of a character.

  • 4 8-18-2009 at 12:54 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Surprised me too, but I don’t think the character is as intriguing as Jules and Mia. I love the character, don’t get me wrong. But if we’re being honest, his arc isn’t half as compelling as the other two.

  • 5 8-18-2009 at 1:00 pm

    Vito said...

    No, no, no. Leaving Vic Vega AKA Mr. Blonde out is a crime. One of Tarantino’s most interesting and sadistic characters performed perfectly by Michael Madsen who, I think, should’ve been nominated for an Oscar.

  • 6 8-18-2009 at 1:02 pm

    geha714 said...

    Favorite Ordell Robbie line:

    “My ass may be dumb, but I ain’t no dumbass.”

  • 7 8-18-2009 at 1:10 pm

    Danny said...

    I would agree that perhaps Blonde’s arc is not as interesting as other characters form Reservoir Dogs. But every time I look back at that film, I will always think of Madsen’s character first.

  • 8 8-18-2009 at 1:20 pm

    Reuben said...

    Hah… I completely forgot about Wayne Gale… Downey Jr. was absolutely outrageous as Gale. Probably the best thing about the movie.

  • 9 8-18-2009 at 1:28 pm

    Jesse said...

    Solid list, but I thought it was Tim Roth who made Reservoir Dogs so compelling. I also heard that Mickey Rourke was initially offered Bruce Willis’ role in Pulp Fiction, which leads me to believe that Butch would have to have made the list.

  • 10 8-18-2009 at 1:49 pm

    James D. said...

    Wait a second! I forgot about Captain Koons!

  • 11 8-18-2009 at 2:13 pm

    El Rocho said...

    What an unconventional list!

    I like the choices. Not so much the ranking.

    I do like that you got into ‘Natural Born Killers’. It’s a fav of mine.

    I would also put on David Carradine’s Bill, Steve Buscemi’s ‘Mr. Pink’, Eric Stoltz’s ‘Lance’ and Michael Madsen’s ‘Bud’.

  • 12 8-18-2009 at 2:14 pm

    limeymcfrog said...

    Freddie Newandike, Mr. Pink, Vince and Vic Vega, Marcellus Wallace, Seth Gecko, Jacob Fuller, Bill, Bud, Clifford Worley…

    The man has created enough good characters for multiple top 10 lists.

    Like the Mr. White pick, and that you included Ordell Robbie. Jules should have been higher… probably should have been #1.

  • 13 8-18-2009 at 2:52 pm

    Stuart said...

    Elle Driver would definitely make my list.

  • 14 8-18-2009 at 3:08 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    I’m almost dumbfounded that anyone would not put Jules at #1 on a list like this.

    Even more surprising is seeing a buffonish, exaggerated cartoon character in the worst movie ever associated with Tarantino’s name at the top.

    Hmm, the #1 Tarantino character being in a heavily rewritten and disowned screenplay from him? More QT bashing from Kris? Nah, probably just a coincidence…

  • 15 8-18-2009 at 3:11 pm

    Mike_M said...

    Jules is number 1 on my list.

    I would also have to find room for The Wolf and def Stuntman Mike/

    But I think a top 20 listm at least, is needed for QT, but I need to wait until I see Basterds first – can’t wait.

  • 16 8-18-2009 at 3:14 pm

    Jeremy said...

    Jules is my #1, but I’m also a huge fan of Drexl.

    “He musta thought it was Whiteboy Day. Hey Marty, is it Whiteboy Day?”

    “Naw, man, it ain’t Whiteboy Day.”

  • 17 8-18-2009 at 3:36 pm

    Aaron said...

    Totally agree about Mia Wallace. Hands down the best character in that film, and one of the most iconic roles of all time IMO.

  • 18 8-18-2009 at 3:40 pm

    The Rake said...

    Good job with the list. Oldman really elevated Drexl to a classic masterwork of acting in truth. The addition and explanation of Penn’s Eddie is a nice homage to him as well. I would probably choose a few others and rearrange some of the order, but good thought put into this. Respect.
    The Rake

  • 19 8-18-2009 at 3:46 pm

    Mr. Milich said...

    #1 should be Floyd from True Romance.

  • 20 8-18-2009 at 3:59 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Hamer: Get a life.

  • 21 8-18-2009 at 4:05 pm

    El Rocho said...

    What about The Gimp!

    “Bring out the gimp.”

  • 22 8-18-2009 at 4:08 pm

    BigMoffitt17 said...

    I’m surprised you chose the Bride over Bill for your list. While I love the Bride and Uma Thurman’s performance, I just think that Bill is the most complex character from the Kill Bill films (although I think Michael Madsen’s Bud is truly underrated).

    Kris, why is that you liked Kill Bill Volume 1 more than Volume 2?

  • 23 8-18-2009 at 4:12 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    *rolls eyes* Nice one, Kris. Are you going to dedicate an entire thread to me, too?

  • 24 8-18-2009 at 4:27 pm

    Hans said...

    Walt’s character is named “Hans”?? Well, now, I think that movie just moved a little higher on my priority list.

  • 25 8-18-2009 at 4:47 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    BigMoffitt17: I don’t know. The second wasn’t as electrifying for me. Perhaps it was done in by sheer fact of seeming passe in the wake of the first film. Perhaps if it had been a single film, the stuff in the second volume wouldn’t have felt so flat to me. Can’t be sure.

    Hamer: Never.

  • 26 8-18-2009 at 8:57 pm

    Bing147 said...

    Kris, try watching Kill Bill all at once straight through. It flows MUCH better and the 2nd half actually for my money is much stronger than the first, but it doesn’t sit that well on its own.

  • 27 8-18-2009 at 9:24 pm

    Daniel said...

    Kris: Learn to take some criticism without being a complete douche.

  • 28 8-18-2009 at 9:45 pm

    Vito said...

    C’mon this is Kris’ site, and he doesn’t have to take shit from anybody. Haha. You don’t like it? Leave.

  • 29 8-18-2009 at 9:45 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Wild, insulting speculation as to a hidden motive behind a piece I’ve written is not criticism. Nor is childish name-calling, I might add.

  • 30 8-18-2009 at 10:38 pm

    James D. said...

    Part of what makes In Contention so entertaining is Kris’ mean streak. That, and his expert knowledge in film (no one else called Departures) contrasted with his questionable taste in film (Slumdog Millionaire, best film of 2008).

  • 31 8-19-2009 at 1:49 am

    Robert Hamer said...

    “Part of what makes In Contention so entertaining is Kris’ mean streak.”

    I never said Kris wasn’t entertaining. Hell, I like watching Glenn Beck for the same reason (kidding!).

    “C’mon this is Kris’ site, and he doesn’t have to take shit from anybody. Haha. You don’t like it? Leave.”

    No thanks, Kris’s pet, I’ll stay because I like this site and I *usually* get along with him, but when he’s annoying, I should feel free to let him know that. If he can’t handle dissent, he should disable the comments.

  • 32 8-19-2009 at 2:03 am

    Iluvwhitegirls said...

    Mr. Wolf, Mr. Blonde, and Vincent Vega are a must on a Top 10 Tarantino characters list. Thats just me though.

  • 33 8-19-2009 at 2:14 am

    Robert Hamer said...

    But Mr. Blonde is so…horrifying.

  • 34 8-19-2009 at 7:44 am

    tdr said...

    For me the best are The Deadly Viper Squad, including the limbless Sophie. The main reason is that all of the actors showed that they actually ARE good at their craft. Maybe it was QT’s script maybe it was the actors’ abillities to enrich the characters. Either way both volumes are great.
    Just my two cents.

  • 35 8-19-2009 at 8:45 am

    Ivan said...

    There is a difference between great performances and great characters…

    10. Bridget Fonda/Jackie Brown
    9. Daryl Hannah/Kill Bill vol. 2
    8. Christoph Waltz/Inglorious Basterds
    7. David Caradine/Kill Bill vol. 2
    6. Steve Buscemi/Reservoir Dogs
    5. Samuel L. Jackson/Pulp Fiction
    4. Pam Grier/Jackie Brown
    3. John Travolta/Pulp Fiction
    2. Tim Roth/Reservoir Dogs
    1. Uma Thurman/Pulp Fiction & Kill Bill

    10. Pam/Death Proof
    9. Vincenzo Coccotti/True Romance
    8. Mallory Knox/Natural Born Killers
    7. Butch Coolidge/Pulp Fiction
    6. Mr. White/Reservoir Dogs
    5. Jackie Brown/Jackie Brown
    4. Mr. Pink/Reservoir Dogs
    3. Bill/Kill Bill vol. 2
    2. Mia Wallace/Pulp Fiction
    1. Vincent Vega/Pulp Fiction

  • 36 8-19-2009 at 12:02 pm

    Ronn Burner said...

    What a great debate and I assure you I come in peace but I strongly disagree that Vincent Vega is not more intriguing than Jules, I don’t see that at all. Jules is who he is and is straight forward about it with no apologies. Which is great and I love him but he doesn’t have near the complexities that Vincent has in my opinion.

    One of the reasons I love the movie so much is the character study of Vincent and all the things going on inside of him. First of all, he seeks approval from Jules throughout. I don’t believe he “accidentally” shot the kid in the car… it was a choice I believe. He’s a hitman, an expert at the handling of a weapon yet he accidentally fired his weapon accidentally shooting this guy in the face. His fear of Marcellus. His feelings for Mia. I’m inspired to watch it yet again based on this great list for even more character analysis.

    I think Vincent Vega is a very complicated and multi-layered character and I think John Travolta was excellent in hitting on all these layers. Hard to imagine this list with Jules and without Vincent in my mind.

  • 37 8-19-2009 at 12:11 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Well, hard to imagine or not, that’s where it fell for me. But thanks for the comments.

  • 38 8-19-2009 at 12:33 pm

    Ronn Burner said...

    Don’t take your frustrations out on me! Haha! Just kidding.

    And you’re right… to each their own as the saying goes. Its always interesting to see how different people see different films and/or characters. I’m always interested in hearing other people takes on things to give me knew perspective of something I overlooked or saw from a different angle.

    Kudos to you for fearlessly posting LISTS when you know invariably that you will be “corrected.’

  • 39 8-19-2009 at 12:41 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...


    Can’t wait to see the fireworks around my best of the decade column. Should be a blood bath.

  • 40 8-19-2009 at 12:54 pm

    Ronn Burner said...

    I look forward to partaking. In the discussion that is… not the blood bath… unless of course you exclude “Into the Wild” or “The Wrestler”.

    Uh oh… watch this thread spiral out of control with predictions now, my friend.

  • 41 8-19-2009 at 1:55 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Both are most definitely excluded.

  • 42 8-19-2009 at 2:02 pm

    Daniel said...

    But what of Bolt?!?!


  • 43 8-19-2009 at 6:55 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Yolanda (Honey Bunny) – Amanda Plummer (Pulp Fiction)
    Kim (e.g. the female Samuel Jackson) – Tracie Thoms (Death Proof)

    ^personal favorites of my own

  • 44 8-19-2009 at 8:59 pm

    James D. said...

    As long as Kris’ list has The Assassination of Jesse James, it will be better than 99% of most critics’ lists.

  • 45 8-24-2009 at 6:08 pm

    El Rocho said...

    I do kinda disagree with the #1 choice.

    As much as I enjoyed the character, Oliver Stone tore Tarantino’s script to shreds, did too many rewrites and touch-ups on it that it ruined the whole thing. Not to say the movie isn’t good (it is a great film) or that it keeps up the same ideology and sense of Tarantino’s original, but it’s essentially not a Tarantino film. Hence him only wanting ‘Story’ credit, since he, as he said in interviews, didn’t even recognize his own script. The only scene that was kept unharmed was the tent of snakes. That’s all Tarantino.

  • 46 8-24-2009 at 9:45 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Watching Res Dogs again right now. Really wishing I had found room for Blonde.

    RE: Natural Born Killers, I don’t know the particulars of what Stone did to the script. Whatever it was, it doesn’t change my perception of it as a near modern masterpiece.

  • 47 9-13-2011 at 3:02 pm

    Hilda said...

    This movie is funny and mysterious always wonder what the briefcase contains and the wallet has the words Bad Mother Fucker pulp fiction wallet
    embedded on them and the way they played it right into the scene was ingenious kudos for Tarantino