While, for a moment there, it seemed that Quentin Tarantino’s incendiary debut was destined to be forever claimed by the legions of film school students who absorbed the movie into their collective psyches during the early nineties – I should know, I was one of them.
However, watching it now, after a career of scalped Nazi’s, unchained slaves and brides trying to get their rip-roaring revenge, Reservoir Dogs proves to still be as fiendishly sharp as the straight razor kept in the boot of Michael Madsen’s Mr. Blonde and in many ways is still the filmmaker’s most satisfying movie. After all, it’s not every director that can seemingly change cinema overnight with their debut movie – but that’s precisely what happened, propelling the movie geek overlord right to the top of Hollywoood.
Crime boss Joe Cabot has assembled a group of professional thieves in order to roll a diamond exchange of some particularly valuable merchandise, but after a well planned job turns into a frenzied bloodbath, the surviving crooks, clad in suits and hiding behind catchy code names, do everything they can to avoid getting either blown or put away by waves of cops. Reaching the rendezvous first is the juggernaut-willed Mr. White, a toothpick chewing professional who is carrying the blood soaked carcass of a gutshot Mr. Orange who is screaming in pain and is on the verge of going into shock.
As White tries to gather his thoughts, he and Orange are joined by the weasley Mr. Pink who also shot his way to freedom and has a few ideas about exactly why and how the diamond job went sour. Pink is utterly convinced there’s a rat in the house and that the police were wise to the caper from the very beginning, laying in wait for the robbery to commence so as to haul in some bigger fish from the criminal community of South LA.
When White and Pink’s discussion about the subject inevitably devolves into a heated mexican standoff, they are interrupted by the arrival of the laconic Mr. Blonde, the man most responsible for the heist turning into a bloodbath after the alarms had been tripped, who changes the mood of the place when he reveals that the cop he has stashed in the boot of his car may be some assistance with smoking out this alleged undercover operative.
As torture, mutilation and yet more mexican standoffs seem to feature prominently in the future of these rainbow monikered goons, the film slowly reveals some backstory on these highly motivated men to find out who the traitor in their midst actually is and how they got there.
Shot in a mere thirty days, compared to Tarantino’s later, more dense works, Reservoir Dogs feels like an unrestrained breath of fresh air, expertly weaving in the director’s love of rambling conversations and severe monologues into a incredibly tight thriller that’s so stripped back it could easily have been a play.
Essentially a whodunnit where everyone is a thuggish murderer who seep toxic masculinity and incredibly short tempers from every pore, the fireworks between the cast is electric as the main players deliver career defining/building performances as they all sink their acting canines into the meat of Tarantino’s script.
And what a script. Leaner than a cheetah yet surprisingly subtle to boot, the movie unfurls its plot details gradually, only giving you the appropriate details and backstory when the tale demands it, breaking the tense, warehouse scenes with flashbacks that either eliminate or finger the undercover cop. The dialogue, obviously, is diamond sharp but while so many people focus on rightly iconic moments such as Tarantino himself rat-a-tating about Madonna’s Like A Virgin at a pre-heist coffee, it’s the smaller moments that build the characters. Be it White’s uncharacteristic tenderness while comforting a bloody Orange or Pink’s callous “What, no real people?” retort to news of some shot cops, these feel like gritty, three dimensional people despite all the then-groundbreaking pop culture chat.
All all the leads, Harvey Keitel (also hugely responsible for getting the film made) takes charge the most, anchoring the film with a character that’s almost father-like despite his penchant for unloading dual pistols into a police car like Chow Yun Fat and expelling Tarantino’s words into the either with the force of a cannon, while a never better Michael Madsen quietly growls his words as the sadistic Mr. Blonde. Steve Buscemi lays down the prototype for a career of twitchy scumbags and much more besides with the douchey Mr. Pink, but it’s Tim Roth who impresses the most, taking time out from spending a large chunk of the film lying in a puddle of blood to deliver a fantastic performance thanks to his flashbacks that finally clue you in to what’s actually happening – in fact, the only misstep the movie has is the odd confusing vowel that springs from Roth’s mouth as he struggles a tiny bit with his tough to place accent.
Elsewhere, the ridiculously self-assured, first time director leads the film with an embarrassment of iconic moments that remain indelibly burned on the sub conscious decades after it made its premier. Seriously, they’re almost without number – the slow motion walk to Little Green Bag by the George Baker Selection, the ear slicing torture scene set to Stealer’s Wheel’s Stuck In The Middle With You, Keitel and Buscemi pointing guns at each other, the shot looking up from a car trunk – for a film obsessed with pop culture, it certainly helped add to it…
Quentino endured accusations of theft at the time as the style of the movie steals heavily from everything from French New Wave cinema to the frantic bloodshed of numerous thrillers from Hong Kong (Ringo Lam’s City Of Fire has a very similar plot), but the secret behind the writer/director’s success is that the human blender that is his brain manages to put his own spin on all these influences to make something fiercely original – you’ve seen lots like it yet simultaneously, you haven’t seen anything like it.
The movie’s legacy is assured both in spite of and because of the slew of low budget, flashy, crime movies that followed it it’s sizable wake and while the film may not radiate the glamour of his more modern movies such Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and The Hateful Eight, a rewatch will leave you wistful for the days when the auteur had to survive on grit and wits alone.
Still brutal, still breathtaking and still vital all these years later, Reservoir Dogs still has a bark equal to its bite.