Should I Watch..? 'Reservoir Dogs'
What's the big deal?
Reservoir Dogs is an independent crime thriller film released in 1992 and was both written and directed by Quentin Tarantino in his debut. The film is about a group of strangers recruited by a crime boss to pull off a lucrative diamond heist and the violent repercussions when it all goes horribly wrong. The film stars Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi, Chris Penn, Lawrence Tierney, Tarantino himself and Edward Bunker. Released to a storm of controversy regarding the film's use of violence, gore and foul language, the film has since come to be regarded as a classic indie production and helped Tarantino become one of the most successful directors of his generation. Despite the controversy, critics were broadly positive towards the film which was far more successful after the release of Tarantino's second film, Pulp Fiction. It was also more successful in the UK where it doubled the amount it made in the US.
What's it about?
LA mob boss Joe Cabot and his son "Nice Guy" Eddie have recruited six professional criminals in order to pull off a heist at a nearby diamond store. None of the men know each other and they are each assigned an alias: Mr White, Mr Blue, Mr Pink, Mr Orange, Mr Blonde and Mr Brown. With everyone aware of what their role is and understanding the plan in full, they meet up for breakfast at a diner before heading off to pull the job.
However, things go disastrously wrong after it appears that the cops were waiting for them. With Mr Orange shot in the stomach and bleeding out, Mr White drives them both to the rendezvous point and awaits the arrival of the others as well as Joe who can hopefully arrange a doctor to go and treat Orange. But they are the only ones there until a panicked Mr Pink arrives, convinced that one of the team has ratted them out to the cops. While White and Pink argue about who is to blame, the apparently psychotic Mr Blonde turns up and has something that might help them in the trunk of his car...
Trailer (contains adult material)
"Nice Guy" Eddie Cabot
Release Date (UK)
15th January, 1993
Crime, Drama, Thriller
What's to like?
It's been a loooong time since I first saw Reservoir Dogs and catching up with it again recently, it is every bit and stunning and breath-taking as I remembered. It's easy to forget that this style of free-flowing dialogue wasn't really used in cinema much before Tarantino made it his trademark - the opening scenes are not about the heist but about the meaning behind a Madonna song, the sort of dialogue you'd have with your mates in the same situation. It gives the film a creeping realism that you don't appreciate until after stuff hits the fan. Like Pulp Fiction's lead characters Vincent Vega and Jules Winfield, you befriend these guys before you realise that they are professional criminals and this suddenly makes you care about what happens.
All the cast use this to their advantage, putting in performances that you easily buy into. Keitel and Roth have the most scenes and dialogue between them, especially once Tarantino brings in another of his trademarks - a narrative not shown in chronological order. But for me, the most surprising performance comes from Madsen as the hopelessly psychotic Mr Blonde. His brutal and stomach-churning torture sequence, memorably sound-tracked by Stuck In The Middle With You by Stealers Wheel, has gone down in cinema history and is possibly one of the most imitated and parodied scenes ever. Madsen has simply never been more captivating in his career that he was here, such is the contrast between this performance and anything else he has done. The film does a good job of holding your attention for the most part and demonstrates a director confident enough to try things behind the camera that perhaps others might not. Tarantino has never been afraid of coming across as cliche but with this story, that matters not one jot.
- The film's budget was so low that most actors wore their own clothes, most notably Chris Penn's tracksuit. The signature black suits were provided free of charge by the designer although Buscemi wore his own black jeans instead of the trousers. The budget was so low, in fact, that the scene were Mr Pink steals a car from a young woman could only be shot when the lights were green because they couldn't afford the police assistance to control the traffic.
- Madsen had difficulty shooting the torture scene due to his aversion to violence and was extremely reluctant to hit Baltz. When Baltz ad-libbed a line about having a kid at home, Madsen almost failed to finish shooting the scene because he was so disturbed.
- The film's unusual title came from a customer at the Vshoideo Archive store where Tarantino used to work and recommend little-known movies for the patrons. After recommending the 1987 French picture Au Revoir les Enfants, the customer said "I don't want to see no reservoir dogs!"
- Tarantino was all set to shoot the film with a 16mm camera and a budget of $30'000 when Keitel not only asked if he could be in it but also produce it. This raised the film's budget to $1.5 million and only came about because Tarantino's producing partner Lawrence Bender had been attending acting classes and the wife of his tutor had shown the screenplay to Keitel.
What's not to like?
Perhaps the most surprising thing I found rewatching Reservoir Dogs is just how visceral it is as a viewing experience. The film is largely responsible for Tarantino's reputation for wall-to-wall violence and blood while the amount of bad language is enough to disgust most dock workers with only the c-word spared an outing. It's certainly bloodier than Pulp Fiction - a film which memorably features a man's head exploding after getting shot in the face - and the only other Tarantino scene I can think of with more blood is the Crazy 88 face-off in Kill Bill: Volume 1. The violence also feels darker and more malicious somehow and the film lacks much of the dark humour that features in other Tarantino pictures. Dialogue not withstanding, the film is much simpler and starker than his earlier films although it is not any less entertaining because of it.
The other issue I can comment on is the value of repeat viewings. Once you know who the rat is, you watch the film with more attention in the hope of trying to find clues that give the game away. They are there, of course - you can easily find them on sites like IMDb - but you find yourself sometimes reading too much into moments. The other problem I felt is that while the mystery is gathering pace, the film gives itself up by revealing its secrets which I felt was too soon. The flashbacks also don't feel as though they serve much purpose and detract from the overall flow of the film. But I'm nitpicking and in a slightly bad mood. After all, whose latest film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood has just opened to rave reviews and who is still sat in front of their computer listening to Smashing Pumpkins?
Should I watch it?
Anyone unfamiliar with Tarantino's work should start here to begin their appreciation of the man's talents. This is a gripping thriller that is unconventional, brutal and unashamed to push the boundaries a little. The performances, narrative and a naturally sublime soundtrack combine to make Reservoir Dogs far more interesting than just another ambitious indie project and shows Tarantino at his most resourceful, considering the minute budget and lack of experience he possessed at the time.
Great For: inspiring indie film-makers, lovers of Seventies music, the adult
Not So Great For: anyone under the age of 18, the easily shocked, the squeamish
What else should I watch?
I have always tended to prefer the earlier movies in QT's career, primarily due to the fact that I haven't followed his films as closely as others. His peak remains Pulp Fiction, a fact that few will argue against - an absorbing and writhing crime thriller designed to evoke the style of melodramatic comics and novels from the 1940's and 50's. Propelling Samuel L Jackson onto the A-list where he has remained ever since as well as revitalising the careers of John Travolta (and I would argue, Bruce Willis), the film is an unforgettable and highly entertaining romp through LA's seedy underbelly that combines comedy, action, thriller, romance and even a little grubby horror in Zed's basement.
While Jackie Brown and both volumes of Kill Bill went down well enough, it quickly became apparent that Tarantino is a master of imitating different styles of cinema from Blaxploitation and martial arts epic to B-movie shocker and the western. Possibly his most original is his latest Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, a sprawling comedy drama set in an alternative 1960's that sees a washed up TV star and his stunt double try to hold on to their fading fame amid the growing menace of a murderous cult. With the man himself running out of genres to imitate, I can't help but wonder how many more films he intends on producing. He has teased several ideas over the years - most recently a cross-over between Django Unchained and the character Zorro - but I guess we'll have to wait and see.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox