Well where else would I start with a season of Tarantino reviews than with Reservoir Dogs? My Best Friend’s Birthday you say? Stop being a completionist. No-one has seen that. Not fully anyway. What do you mean I’ve already done a load of Tarantino reviews? That’s just sounds like the ramblings of a mad man. Does this not say it’s review 206? that means it follows on from review 205 which was Scrooged, not a Tarantino film. Pffft… kids today. Click the link why don’t ya!
Back in 1992 no-one knew who Quentin Tarantino was. By the end of 1992 you couldn’t not know who he was. Reservoir Dogs may well be… if not actually is, the greatest début film by any director. Here he directs, writes and even “acts” in one of the ballsiest, most controversial and memorable films of the 90s. When Reservoir Dogs was released in the UK it did great business in the cinema but the BBFC refused to grant it a certificate for VHS release for 3 years. I can remember at the time that people would be talking about this film on the radio, on TV and in magazines almost constantly for this very reason. Because of this delay I saw True Romance, which is arguably a more graphically violent film, before Reservoir Dogs had even been released on video. Most of the controversy came from a central scene where one of the characters cuts off a policeman’s ear. The best thing was that you don’t even see this happen. As was often the case for the BBFC, they were more scared by the implied horror than the actual horror. People campaigned for it’s release though on the grounds that the film was absolutely superb and deserved to be seen.
So what is the story? The film largely plays out in the aftermath of a jewellery heist gone wrong. One of the 6 men involved, Mr Orange (Tim Roth), is in actuality an undercover police officer who is currently bleeding profusely from his stomach. The heist went south, we are told, when the police turned up almost as soon as the alarm was triggered and resident psychopath Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen) decided to go on a shooting spree. The group were split up and Mr Orange, Mr White (Harvey Keitel) and Mr Pink (Steve Buschemi) are now waiting in a warehouse, the planned meeting point, for rest of the group to return. Tensions begin to rise and when Mr Blonde turns up with a police officer hostage things start to get a little brutal.
The film’s master-stroke is in it’s presentation and story structure. As would become a trademark for Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs plays out in a largely non-linear structure which allows to have the pieces of the puzzle laid out as and when we need them. I remember back when I first saw the film that this was quite jarring. Now I couldn’t imagine it playing out any other way. The structure means the revelation of who the rat is in the group comes as a surprise to us at a point where we realise the stakes are about to be upped. The film is really a puzzle of events with the pieces being revealed to the audience out of order until eventually the full picture comes together. And then some jerk in a tracksuit comes along and tips the table over.
An element of the presentation that really makes the film come together as a great piece of storytelling is the fact that the heist is never seen. By removing the actual heist from the film we are being told as an audience to accept that this story is about the characters and their relationships and not the act of pulling off a heist. The avoidance of a dramatic moment is actually something used by another legendary director that I’d bet Tarantino was familiar with, that being Yasujiro Ozu. Ozu would often avoid a scene that would be at risk of being a centre of melodrama in a film in order to emphasise the importance of the character elements of his film. That was because his works were entirely about character and themes. For example in Tokyo Story Ozu doesn’t show the death of a central character because that isn’t what’s important. The way the other characters deal with the death is. In An Autumn Afternoon there is discussion of an upcoming wedding. The next scene skips the wedding and involves characters discussing the event. The method is used here to great effect. Although, just to undermine what I have just stated, Tarantino could have easily chosen to skip the heist itself because of budgetary issues. I doubt he did though.
There is a great sequence in the film’s second half where Mr Orange, having just revealed his identity to the hostage police officer, is shown preparing for his undercover role. The sequence is pure Tarantino. In it he is learning an amusing anecdote of a drug deal that almost went wrong. The scene plays out in montage (Although sadly without the use of Kenny Loggins) as Orange is given the script, paces his room learning his lines, performs the anecdote for the detective he works with. This leads seamlessly to him telling the story to the gang he’s infiltrating and then takes it up another level by showing the fantasy of the story playing out. This sequence shows a just how much effort he puts into making sure his story is believable whilst also informing us of his dedicated nature to performing his duty. The way the story seamlessly switches from one iteration of his story to the final performance is a great example of how to develop character over a short space of time in an interesting manner. The final fantasy element to the story representing Orange eventually knowing the story so well he almost believes it to be true. Tarantino directs dialogue driven character sequences like this with such an apparent lack of effort that it almost makes his imitators appear amateur when they try, and fail, to pull off similar moments. A montage is a tricky thing to truly get away with in a film. Here it becomes a centrepiece to the story. Near the close of this chapter we see Orange psyching himself up in a mirror before heading out to meet with the gang, reassuring himself that his cover is working. After all that practice we just saw him do he still has to psyche himself up. That’s a multidimensional character right there.
I should discuss the film’s opening scene too. In it the 6 gang members and their bosses Joe (Lawrence Tierney) and Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) sit in a café discussing popular culture. Pretty much an opening you’d expect from Tarantino. The issue of tipping the waitress comes up and Mr Pink’s refusal to tip sets into action a discussion that not only tells us all we need to know about these characters but even foreshadows the events of the film. Mr Pink won’t tip, showing he mostly cares only about himself. Mr White believes the waitress works hard and deserves a tip, showing his care for others despite being a criminal which is what leads him to so blindly trusting Mr Orange. Mr Blonde offers to shoot Mr Pink for a joke, foreshadowing his murderous tendencies. Mr Orange tells Joe that Mr Pink refused to tip, playing the part of a rat, which he is. Joe pressures Pink to tip and he does, showing Pink is ultimately a coward. All that is gleaned from an argument about a tip. That is great writing. The sort of writing some people seem to think Tarantino uses to just fill space. Except here it is informing everything we need to know about the film.
Obviously, as with any Tarantino film, performance, casting and the film’s soundtrack are exceptional. Well except maybe Tarantino’s acting. He doesn’t do much in the film anyway though so that’s not a big problem. Everyone else involved brings the sort of performance you’d expect from those actors when at their peak. Considering some of the cast were pretty much unknown at the time really shows how good Tarantino’s eye for actors is. Madsen is especially good at conveying cool/terrifying here. To watch the film back for this review kind of made me a bit sad for how terrible his output has been in recent years. Here’s a guy that should be a Hollywood heavyweight but instead he’s doing the lowest forms of straight to DVD tripe at a scary frequency. He needs a career revival. Soundtrack wise the film is loaded with effortlessly cool songs, Steeler’s Wheel’s Stuck In The Middle being the most obviously memorable song. Occasionally he’ll select a song purely for comedic effect, such as the use of Harry Nilsson’s Coconut over the end credits. Tarantino films are always darkly comic, often with plots hinging on ironically accidental occurrences, and so Reservoir Dogs should never been taken as an entirely serious work. If you do you’ll likely miss some of what the film has to offer.
Overall it is hard to fault Reservoir Dogs. I would have maybe liked a few scenes detailing just why Mr White trusted and believed in Mr Orange with such conviction beyond the fact he was shot in the gut. Other than that you have a brilliantly crafted crime caper gone wrong thriller that serves to be an incredible introduction to all that is Tarantino. If Reservoir Dogs is one of the best début films from any director though, what Tarantino had coming next is possibly one of the best examples of a director showing exactly what he is capable of.