A couple of nights ago I saw an interview with Quentin Tarantino on Film 2013 ahead of the release of his latest picture Django Unchained. The interview touched upon a lot of his films and with each film mentioned I turned to my girlfriend and said “Ooh! I really want to watch that again soon” while turning to my DVD shelf. When Reservoir Dogs was mentioned I looked for my DVD copy and suggested we watched it that night but my girlfriend told me that it was playing for one night only at our local multiplex the next evening. Five minutes later the tickets were booked and my excitement grew as I was getting the chance to see such an iconic film on the big screen, twenty-one years after its release. Reservoir Dogs burst on to the scene in late 1992 and unusually went on to make more money at the UK box office than in the US but following the release of Pulp Fiction two years later became more widely known and is today recognised as one of the greatest independent films of all time as well as one of the greatest debuts by any film maker.
Featuring a lot of the themes which define Tarantino’s filmography such as a non-linear story, extreme violence, pop culture references, rock and pop soundtrack, rich and deeply woven dialogue and a plot based around an accident, Reservoir Dogs takes place before and after an armed robbery orchestrated by Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and his son ‘Nice Guy’ Eddie (Chris Penn). We see various meetings and discussions which take place before the heist as the crew is slowly formed but the most famous and memorable scenes take place following the robbery when the various members of the group make their way back to their safe house. The audience never sees the robbery itself but with some of the gang dead and others badly wounded it is soon obvious that something went wrong and that they have a rat in their midst, but who?
The film opens with a long piece of typical Tarantino dialogue in which we meet all the main players but aren’t really introduced to them. We pick up snippets of information about their characters but the scene feels more like eves dropping into the conversation of strangers. I could have listened to them all day. Tarantino’s script and dialogue are both so sharp and deep that just listening to the conversations put a smile on my face. Following this opening scenes we are treated to one of the most iconic title sequences from the 90s in which the actors are introduced while walking towards the camera in slow motion wearing their black suits and Little Green Bag playing over the top. For what is essentially a shot of men leaving a diner and walking to their cars it has become a defining and iconic image. Tarantino’s ability to pick the perfect song for his scenes has become something he is famous for. There isn’t a lot of music in Reservoir Dogs but when it is heard it makes a real impact. One of the most terrifying scenes is accompanied by Stuck in the Middle With You and like the opening has become iconic. The sight of Michael Madsen dancing to the song in front of a tied up cop with a cut throat razor in hand was still unnerving on what was my forth or fifth viewing.
Reservoir Dogs is an incredibly assured and confident debut. Perhaps the fact that it was independent of studio interference gave Tarantino the freedom to work as he wished and keep in some of the more controversial scenes. It is obvious thought that even though this was his debut feature he knew exactly what he was doing and exactly what he wanted. He often shoots using a single camera and leaves the camera lingering. Because of this he is able to capture the great dialogue and performances and the audience isn’t distracted by fast cutting or multiple camera angles. When more than one camera is used it is always with purpose. When tensions are heated late on there is a scene featuring Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) and Mr. White (Harvey Keitel). Tarantino uses reverse angles to capture their conversation but shoots the calm and composed Mr. White fairly close up and straight while Mr. Pink is shot from further away and with a Dutch angle to allow the character room to move. The slight off centre angle also shows that the character is on edge.
The acting performances are pretty much without exception very strong. Despite the large ensemble at the beginning of the movie we only spend extended time with a few of the cast. Steve Buscemi’s Mr. Pink is a highlight. He is funny and smart but on edge and cautious and has some great scenes with Harvey Keitel’s Mr. White. Keitel, who was responsible for helping to find much of the funding behind the film, plays a blinder. He is at the centre of the whole story and his cool head on wise shoulders both helps and hinders him. Michael Madsen is terrifying as the psychotic Mr. Blonde. Even before he is properly introduced the other characters talk about him as though he a psycho and he lives up to his reputation on screen. Tim Roth’s Mr. Orange rounds out the main players. He is given a lot to do and plays it very well. For me Buscemi and Roth are the stars.
One of the highlights of the film in my opinion was hearing Mr. Pink battle his way through the police towards the end. The entire film takes place in what feels like a sealed box. You rarely encounter the outside world and have little idea of what is going on out there but in this scene you hear what is happening very faintly a block or so away. It’s fantastic and also leaves some ambiguity as to his fate.
Reservoir Dogs reminded me a lot of much of Martin Scorsese’s work. From the violence, soundtrack, non-linear story to dialogue there were a lot of parallels. What Tarantino often does with his films is he takes a genre, theme or style and makes it his own. He has done this with Kill Bill (Asian revenge), Death Proof (Grindhouse), Django Unchained (Western) and here does the same with the heist movie. Tarantino puts his own spin on things and creates a film which somehow manages to take a lot from other film makers but remain totally unique. It is up there with his best and there is nothing I can fault it for. Unlike some of his later films it doesn’t outstay its welcome and a 99 minute run time is just enough to keep you wanting more.