Quentin Tarantino: The director’s 30 best characters, from The Bride to Cliff Booth
People have strong opinions, both good and bad, about films directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Regardless of your opinion on the filmmaker, though there’s no denying his new releases demand to be seen – if only in order in order to debate whether they rank up there with Pulp Fiction (1994) or way down with The Hateful Eight (2017).
Even if viewers don't like a particular Tarantino film, there'll probably be a small part they do like, thanks to his knack for creating fantastic characters – not to mention casting the perfect people in those roles.
It's no surprise that actors including Samuel L Jackson, Uma Thurman and Leonardo DiCaprio rush to be in his films – all three of whom have delivered some of their best performances in Tarantino films.
Following news of Tarantino’s next film, which is expected to be the last before his retirement, we have ranked the director’s 30 greatest characters.
30. Stuntman Mike
Played by: Kurt Russell in Death Proof
Kurt Russell nails the slime-ball nature of Stuntman Mike, a character who’s as B-movie as they come.
29. Billy Crash
Played by: Walton Goggins in Django Unchained
Of all the supporting characters in Tarantino’s revisionist western, Billy Crash looms largest in the memory. Perhaps it’s due to his mispronunciation of the protagonist’s name (“Duh-jang-go”) right after being shot in the genitals. “The D is silent, hillbilly,” Django responds, before finishing Crash off. What happens next, Goggins nails.
28. Lt Aldo Raine
Played by: Brad Pitt in Inglourious Basterds
“You probably heard we ain’t in the prisoner-takin’ business; we in the killin’ Nazi business. And cousin, business is a-boomin’” – need we say more?
27. Trudi Fraser
Played by: Julia Butters in Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood
Like much of the film that surrounds her, Trudi is a fantasy version of a child star – safe, in total charge of her own destiny and far smarter than many of the adults that surround her, including the has-been actor (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) she is paired with in her latest project. But through Trudi, and her overjoyed glee at being thrown to the ground while shooting a tense face-off scene involving her on-screen abductor, Tarantino reflects the pure, heady thrill of movie-making, and it’s glorious to behold.
26. Melanie Ralston
Played by: Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown
A SoCal surfer girl bored out of her mind by the men she’s holed up with, Bridget Fonda’s Melanie only works because every one of her lines drips with scorn and apathy. There’s a real pleasure in watching her kick back with a bong or answer the door with a bothered “WHAT!”, even if it does lead her to a grim demise in a shopping mall parking lot. But at least she died as she lived: pissing off very unremarkable men.
25. Gogo Yubari
Played by: Chiaki Kuriyama in Kill Bill Vol 1
Many of Tarantino’s greatest villains take a kinky glee in violence, and none are more confident in their madness than Gogo, the personal bodyguard of O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu). She’s also one of the most fun Kill Bill characters to watch on-screen, a twirling, spiked ball-wielding madwoman whose grace is only matched by her sadism.
24. Honey Bunny & Pumpkin
Played by: Amanda Plummer and Tim Roth in Pulp Fiction
Because we would hardly dream of splitting them up. “Any of you f**king pricks move, and I’ll execute every motherf**king last one of ya!” remains one of cinema’s greatest line readings, but Amanda Plummer’s Honey Bunny and her on-screen fella Pumpkin, played by Tim Roth, are spectacular even before the line smashes the film into Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” and Pulp Fiction’s opening credits. The pair carefully dissect their imminent robbery of the patrons of a diner, spewing racist slurs and profanities while they go. They’re a prototype for Mickey and Mallory (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) from the Tarantino-scripted Natural Born Killers, with just as much manic and unmistakably carnal energy.
23. Captain Koons
Played by: Christopher Walken in Pulp Fiction
Captain Koons is the perfect example of a character damn well near stealing a film with a single scene. This is a character who hid a pocketwatch in his anus for years to protect it from being stolen, all to uphold the honour of one day delivering it to his friend’s son. If that doesn’t get you on this list, nothing will.
22. Pai Mei
Played by: Gordon Liu in Kill Bill Vol 2
The kung fu master responsible for shaping Beatrix Kiddo into a warrior, Pai Mei is Kill Bill’s by turns tyrannical and tender mentor figure. His beard, it should be said, is truly what all men should aspire to.
Played by: Eric Stoltz in Pulp Fiction
Everyone needs a Lance in their life – someone you can call on night or day no matter the emergency. He might angrily protest when Vincent (John Travolta) shows up with an unconscious Mia (Uma Thurman), who has snorted one line too many, but there’s never any doubt of him helping his pal through his predicament. Lance is as loyal as they come.
20. Rick Dalton
Played by: Leonardo DiCaprio Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood
A classic down-on-his-luck Tarantino character who’d rather self-destruct than acknowledge he doesn’t truly matter anymore, Rick Dalton is so magnetic because he’s also wildly funny. Played with as much a heavy-browed weariness by Leonardo DiCaprio as he is a child-like sense of wonder, he is entitled, ludicrously demanding and completely loveable.
19. Elle Driver
Played by: Elle Driver in Kill Bill Vol 1 and 2
If Kill Bill is essentially a live-action cartoon, full of fantastical set pieces, superhuman fight sequences and discarded limbs, then Elle Driver is its most cartoonish element. Also, arguably, its most dazzlingly spectacular. As played by Daryl Hannah with tongue firmly in cheek, Elle sports an eyepatch, the cadence of a drag queen and a wardrobe straight out of Frederick’s of Hollywood. She’s the gay icon who never was.
18. Zoë Bell
Played by: Zoë Bell in Death Proof
Zoë Bell is the unsung hero of every Tarantino films she’s a part of, from Kill Bill (she’s Uma Thurman’s stunt double) to her sweary cameo in Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood. Her real time to shine came in Death Proof in which she played herself and gets to lead the film’s female characters in wreaking vengeance on Kurt Russell’s murderous Stuntman Mike.
17. Butch Coolidge
Played by: Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction
Considering Bruce Willis rarely does subtle, it is striking that Butch Coolidge is such a laconic character. He is a man happy to throw boxing matches, flee to Mexico and use shotguns and samurai swords to fend off potential threats, yet barely breaks a sweat as he goes. It’s probably because he’s a sociopath, but Tarantino also grounds him in something that resembles heroism, or at least a Pulp Fiction spin on it.
16. Mr Pink
Played by: Steve Buscemi in Reservoir Dogs
Tarantino himself loved Mr Pink so much that he wanted the role for himself, but fortunately opted for Steve Buscemi after being blindsided by his audition. It’s easy to see why.
Played by: David Carradine in Kill Bill Vol 1 and 2
If you build a film around somebody so villainous the protagonist spends the entirety of its running time trying to kill them, you better make sure they’re a good character. Bill, thankfully, lives up to expectations.
14. Mr Blonde
Played by: Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dogs
Reservoir Dogs is one hell of a callous film and that’s a lot to do with Mr Blonde. Madsen’s character just loves committing unspeakably violent acts and it’s this trait that infuses the film with the tension that makes it so memorable.
13. Marsellus Wallace
Played by: Ving Rhames in Pulp Fiction
In lesser hands, Marsellus Wallace would have faded into obscurity alongside the more irreverent Tarantino characters. But the way in which the viewer witnesses him experience an unspeakable trauma after his brawl with Butch Coolidge – a fight that sees the pair’s worlds collide with extremely sick-minded individuals – can’t help but warm him to the viewer. Rhames’s best role to date.
12. Jackie Brown
Played by: Pam Grier in Jackie Brown
Jackie Brown is introduced, in the words of an abusive federal agent, as “a 44-year-old Black woman desperately clinging on to this one s***y little job [she] was fortunate enough to get”. A flight attendant and part-time drug courier, Jackie’s journey over the course of her film is among Tarantino’s most invigorating. She finds the excitement sorely missing in her life, meets a man who respects her rather than uses her, and regularly outsmarts everyone else in the room. It’s often of the fake-it-till-you-make-it variety, like in the nervous test runs of swiftly yanking a pistol out of her desk drawer in advance of the arrival of a man likely to kill her. But it makes her Tarantino’s most human hero, nowhere near as showy as Uma Thurman’s lead character in Kill Bill or The Hateful Eight’s Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson), but arguably all the better for it.
11. Vincent Vega
Played by: John Travolta in Pulp Fiction
There’s a jaded melancholy to Vincent Vega that makes him so compelling to watch. He’s no longer entirely fulfilled by his job and he’s a little soft around the middle, his silent stoicism only broken by the occasional release of a cheesy grin, or his moves on the dancefloor with Mia Wallace. Additionally, there’s a lovely black comedy to his presence throughout Pulp Fiction – from his ambiguous but clearly eventful history in Amsterdam, to his frequent trips to the bathroom, all of which seem to end in disaster.
10. Max Cherry
Played by: Robert Forster in Jackie Brown
Like Jackie Brown herself, bail bondsman Max Cherry arrives with decades of regrets weighing on his shoulders. Robert Forster grants the role an air of understated cool, Max eager for a fresh start and believing he has found it when an in-trouble flight attendant enters his life. If you kicked off your shoes, lifted a glass of scotch to your lips and threw on some vintage soul, you might match the energy Max exudes in every one of his scenes.
9. Calvin Candie
Played by: Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained
It was once difficult to think of DiCaprio as a villain, but thanks to the role of Calvin Candie, it’s suddenly all too easy. Sometimes the greatest characters are the ones you can’t wait to see meet their end and the horrendously racist Candie fits seamlessly on that list.
8. Shosanna Dreyfus
Played by: Melanie Laurent in Inglourious Basterds
If you think that Shosanna’s placement on this list is anything to do with the scene in which she paints stripes on her face ahead of burning numerous Nazis to a crisp – all while David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” plays – then you’d be right.
Played by: Samuel L Jackson in Django Unchained
Stephen is Django Unchained’s version of a rorschach test – either a desperate victim forced into the unthinkable by circumstance, or the most insidiously evil character in the movie. A classic “Uncle Tom” figure who runs the day-to-day operations of Calvin Candie’s plantation, Stephen is a giggling, preening yes-man to Candie and his white superiors in public, but a ruthless and petty psychopath behind closed doors, expressing disgust at the sight of a free black man. Jackson contorts his face into a glowering, terrifying scowl, and it’s the greatest thing he has ever done.
6. Mia Wallace
Played by: Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction
The iconic femme fatale whose ambivalent glare on the Pulp Fiction poster became one of the definitive images of 1990s cinema, Mia Wallace is a woman comprised of numerous contradictory parts. She is an icy addict permanently sticking things up her nose, but also a helpless dreamer captivated by what might have been. In anyone else’s hands, Mia would be little but a male fantasy, but Uma Thurman imbues her with so much grit and heart that regardless of how brilliant the rest of Pulp Fiction is, you can’t help but wish you could follow her on her own separate adventure.
5. Cliff Booth
Played by: Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood
Could stuntman Cliff Booth be Brad Pitt’s greatest achievement? He’s certainly up there. The kind of character that only Pitt could have played at this particular stage of his life.
4. Beatrix Kiddo AKA The Bride
Played by: Uma Thurman in Kill Bill Vol 1 and 2
The many shots of Uma Thurman in that yellow outfit, sword in hand, is as iconic as anything Tarantino has done – and the character proves she’s worthy of that status. Beatrix isn’t just one of Tarantino’s best creations, but one of the greatest heroines in cinematic history.
3. Jules Winnfield
Played by: Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction
Tarantino’s crowning glory might always be hitman Jules Winnfield’s reciting of Ezekiel 25:17 before firing a round of bullets into the poor goons who dared to screw over his employer, but it probably wouldn’t be so had it had been delivered by anyone but Samuel L Jackson.
2. Hans Landa
Played by: Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds
Is Hans Landa – perhaps best remembered by the moniker “Jew Hunter” – Tarantino’s most detestable character? He’s certainly up there. But he’s also one of his greatest creations – a character you so desperately want to see get their comeuppance but fear they never will due to the exemplary way Christoph Waltz manages to switch on the charm as fluidly as the terror. Just remember, in his presence, always wait for the cream.
1. O-Ren Ishii
Played by: Lucy Liu in Kill Bill Vol 1
Many of Tarantino’s best characters are dreamers of a sort – men and women left abandoned by the world who, through sheer force of will, climb to victory. Tarantino paints O-Ren as neither hero nor villain throughout Kill Bill, but instead a woman who took back the power stolen from her as a child, and who will do anything to maintain it in the face of threats from far weaker men. Her death at Beatrix’s hand is stunning but also saddening, both due to Tarantino’s interest in granting O-Ren the empathy, humour and sheer appeal of Beatrix herself (“Silly caucasian girl likes to play with samurai swords” remains one of the finest lines in any movie), and via Lucy Liu’s masterful performance. O-Ren is the finest depiction of what Tarantino can do with his creations, and one of the most fun and compelling characters in the QT canon.