Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1992)


Harvey Keitel (Mr. White), Tim Roth (Mr. Orange), Michael Madsen (Mr. Blonde), Chris Penn (Nice Guy Eddie), Steve Buscemi (Mr. Pink), Lawrence Tierney (Joe), Quentin Tarantino (Mr. Brown). Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino. Directed by Quentin Tarantino. Rating: 18. Running time: 99 minutes.

Surprise, surprise: Quentin Tarantino started his career with a film that has a wonderfully hip soundtrack, excessively vulgar, mundane and yet gripping dialogue, a lot of sexy violence and a plot dominated by crime and criminals. It is also, unsurprisingly, wholly entertaining, and I think it has to be called a great film.

I can understand why it has been the subject of so much praise. I think it feels (and is) so tightly composed due to its small number of characters, which are nearly all identifiable by a colour for the job’s purposes, and the fact that the film, minor flashbacks aside, takes place in one setting: a warehouse in the aftermath of a jewellery heist gone wrong.

The opening scene also shows signs of the beautifully banal dialogue that was later to layer Pulp Fiction, as Mr. Brown (Tarantino in a cameo, since this guy is soon shot) explains to the other men over morning coffee in a café why Madonna’s Like A Virgin is about a guy with a big dick. Everyone remembers Jules’ refusal to eat pork, too, and the ensuing debate with Vincent over meat-eating. There’s equally popular moralising here, when Mr. Pink objects to societal conventions obliging him to dogmatically tip waitresses. The camera circles the table throughout this, and it works very well, even if it’s interrupted by a very unconvincing petty dispute between Joe, the boss, and Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), as they argue over the former’s little black book and Joe jokingly threatens to have White killed.

I’m not sure if amateur gangsters would really find this funny, but these types of things can be pushed to one side. They leave the café and the opening credits roll in, as the men all walk in their black suits with their shades on towards the camera, to the sound of Little Green Bag. I’m not going to lie: they look, and Reservoir Dogs feels, incredibly cool. And that’s the main reason why the film is so good.

There are other things that have to be ignored, though, like the fact that Mr. Orange is made to bleed so much from a gut wound seemingly for the sake of cinematography (the block of red really livens up the screen), intentionally at the cost of realism (he should be dying and definitely not shouting and still killing).

But the film has one scene which is possibly the greatest Tarantino has ever shot. Mr. Blonde caught a police officer and brought him to the warehouse in his car’s trunk. When the other guys leave (ignoring Mr. Orange, unconscious in the corner), he’s left alone to torture the policeman how he wants. That happens to be to the sound of Stealers Wheel’s Stuck In The Middle With You on the radio. He dances backwards and forwards in front of the tied-up cop, and eventually cuts his ear off. A tracking shot follows Blonde outside to fetch oil from his car to burn the cop alive, and proceeds to follow him back in as the music picks up again from inside the warehouse.

It’s hard to explain just why this works so well. I’ve criticised the aestheticisation of violence before, but in Reservoir Dogs it really does feel less vulgar, and more beautiful, than it does in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and other such sadistic films. It might be the setting that makes it work: we accept the violence more because the context of thieves and cops in an unknown warehouse makes us unsurprised by such characters and behaviour. And the fact that this is masochistic torture of men, and not the sexual abuse of women, probably also helps to lower our moral repugnance a little further.

For whatever reason, though, that Blonde scene is dynamite, and not at all to the detriment of the rest of the film, that also has its moments visually, comically and in every other respect. Of course, greater stuff was later to come. But Reservoir Dogs was still undoubtedly an incredibly good first effort.

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