Movie reviewers sometimes encounter titles that make them stop, take a deep breath and contemplate whether they are actually able to do their job, either by providing something original in their reviews or being emotionally distanced enough to write objectively. This is especially case with titles that happen to be more institutions than movies. Some of those films represent cinematic milestones and add new words in vocabulary of film critics and scholars. Some of those films are now integral part of popular culture without which nobody can understand certain time periods. Some of
those films are responsible for creation of whole new cinematic cults, with their gurus, disciples and sacred truths. And, finally, some of those films happen to be the most cherished cinema going experiences among certain reviewers. Reservoir Dogs, 1992 caper drama by Quentin Tarantino, is the one of the titles that has it all.
Plot of Reservoir Dogs revolves about the most immediate aftermath of criminal enterprise going bad. Crime boss Joe Cabot (played by Lawrence Tierney) and his son "Nice Guy" Eddie (played by Christopher Penn) has gathered a group of six experienced criminals in order to conduct a raid on jewelry store in Los Angeles. Members of the group don't know each other and are given code names in order to prevent them from turning informants in case of capture. However, despite all the methodical planning, the robbery goes terribly wrong. One member of the group, Mr. Blonde (played by Michael Madsen), cracks under pressure and turns out to be homicidal psychopath. The result is bloodbath in which two other members of the group, couple of policemen and dozens of innocent bystanders get killed. Survivors gather in abandoned warehouse where they should wait for their boss and decide what to do next. While Mr. White (played by Harvey Keitel) wants to take care of Mr. Orange (played by Tim Roth) who got shot in the gut, Mr. Pink (played by Steve Buscemi) has other priorities - he is convinced that the police knew about the raid in advance and wants to find out who is traitor among their ranks. As accusations and counter-accusations fill the air, tensions between four men rise to the level in which the violent confrontation becomes almost inevitable.
Reservoir Dogs became instantly popular among critics and filmophiles because it represented something of a revolution in American cinema of the 1990s. It was the first film to be made by someone who had enjoyed previously underappreciated realms of cinema (blaxploitation and Hong Kong action films) and felt unapologetic about it. Millions of pages were written about Quentin Tarantino's past career of video store clerk and his consequent familiarity with thousands of exotic titles that influenced his latter work. Whether Tarantino made truly original contribution to the world of cinema is matter of debate with increasing numbers of his disillusioned worshipers who now view him as nothing more than a rip-off artist who simply got lucky. But even if we accept the arguments of the anti-Tarantino camp, the result of his rip-off efforts is again impressive. Reservoir Dogs still represents a revolution - it was the first "independent", small-budget film that actually appealed to the general audience (although Tarantino would have to wait two more years before becoming household name with Pulp Fiction).
The thing that made Reservoir Dogs so appealing to the 1990s sensibilities is exactly the same thing that caused much of the controversy. Usually the first thing associated with this film is the large amounts of violence and gore, now being considered as Tarantino's trademark. What differentiates Reservoir Dogs from other films with large amounts of violence and gore is the approach. Some critics claim that Tarantino showed great lack of responsibility by creating too disturbing images for some parts of the audience and manipulating with the bloodlust among the other. However, those critics failed to understand one important difference between Tarantino and other Hollywood gorefest specialists. Tarantino was one of the first to show violence in all of its ugly reality. Same critics who felt comfortable with films featuring Chuck Norris, Schwarzenegger and Stallone killing dozens of people were shocked with the drastically smaller but more vivid and realistically portrayed bodycount in Tarantino's film. People in Reservoir Dogs don't enjoy a luxury of dying instantly after being fatally shot – the wounds result in slow, painful and messy deaths. And nobody is immune from the violence - just like in the real life, bullets don't separate Good Guys from Bad Guys or innocent bystanders from participants. Lack of Hollywood rules in depiction of violence was more shocking and revolutionary than its graphic nature. Actually, Tarantino showed some restraint in portraying of violence - although the consequences are graphic, the worst incidents are either shown indirectly or not shown at all.
Some critics, on the other hand, although they admitted that Tarantino had the point in showing true nature of violence, felt uncomfortable with the audience that viewed this film as a comedy. Perhaps this is due to the interesting phenomenon witnessed during some test screenings of Wild Bunch - violence in large quantities sometimes can cause unwanted laughs (in that instance Sam Peckinpah had to cut the scenes of people's limbs exploding). But in this instance this could be better explained by sharp contrasts. The characters, dressed as Blues Brothers and always ready to discuss popular culture subjects to death, look like they came from another planet and their "cool" but nevertheless surrealist presence is hard to take seriously in the context of the very realistic consequences of their actions. This contrast, manifested in the beginning, when innocent table discussion about pop culture gets replaced by characters having to deal with ugly gunshot wound, is just one of the many in the film. But hardly any of them would have the impact of fluffy 1970s pop tune "Stuck In the Middle With You" playing during the one of the most violent and shocking scenes in the film. In this scene, like in many others, Tarantino shows great talent in using musical soundtrack as a way to make ironic comments about characters and situations.
But the probably the best talent Tarantino showed in this film is in the non-linear story structure. This technique (which became quite fashionable after Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction) allowed us to become associated with characters and their backgrounds without boring introductions. The events in Reservoir Dogs might unravel slowly, nothing happens for the most part (except one man dying in the abandoned warehouse) but the audience is nevertheless kept at the edge of their seats. Tarantino also shows great talent by overcoming the budget limitations and turning them into advantage. Potentially most shocking scene - the robbery itself - could have looked pale and cartoonish on the screen; instead the true horror is manifested in its psychological aftermath.
Lack of budget and consequent inability to shoot action scenes also forced Tarantino base his film on characters. Therefore the simple story about gang of thugs turning on each other because of the botched job suddenly turned into series of miniature character studies. This film also benefited from the lack of women or any romantic overtones - Tarantino was able to concentrate solely on numerous ethical dilemmas those characters face even in their criminal lifestyle,and different ways they answer to them. So, each of those thugs is given different and very distinct personality. Lack of budget later led Tarantino to chose character actors for those roles, and each of them (with exception of ex-con turned screenwriter Eddie Bunker and Tarantino himself in cameo-size roles) gave very convincing and truly memorable performance. It is not surprising that almost any of those actors later become household name in the world of 1990s cinema. Lawrence Tierney, bad boy of 1940s Hollywood, is now quite effective with his regal presence of criminal patriarch, while Chris Penn provides great contrast as his neurotic son. Veteran character actor Harvey Keitel is truly marvellous as loyalty bound gangster, while Michael Madsen is extremely effective in the role of psychopathic villain. British actor Tim Roth simply shines in one of his first Hollywood appearances, showing that he can master both American accent and complex, multilayered role. Finally, Steve Buscemi is great in the role of gangster who is both comic relief and the only true professional in the same time.
Perhaps Reservoir Dogs won't stand the test of time. Perhaps the critics would be proven right and future generations would view Tarantino as nothing more than cheap rip-off artist. But, for the time being Reservoir Dogs is not only one of the most influential films of our times but also the genuine masterpiece.
RATING: 10/10 (+++++)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.movies.reviews on October 20th 2000)
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Movie URL: https://www.themoviedb.org/movie/500-reservoir-dogs?language=en-US