Reservoir Dogs (1992)
The reason I missed Reservoir Dogs in the theater is kind of interesting. I had heard about the movie, definitely wanted to see it, and figured it would still be around for a third week. George Bush was up for re-election, and Ronald Reagan was still pretty much lucid at the time. He was on the campaign trail for Bush and I had a choice before I worked that day - see Reagan, see Reservoir Dogs. While I definitely do not regret my decision, Reservoir Dogs ended up waiting until it came out on VHS.
When I did see it I don't think I realized how low budget it was. That may be because this was riding a wave of independent films that were coming out in the early 1990s. At the time American cinema was starting to experience a renaissance that it had not seen since the early 1970s, except slightly different. While former independent directors such as Jonathan Demme were making what would be blockbuster films, there was suddenly room for true independent film making again. There was no sign of any new Star Wars material ever surfacing, the Indiana Jones series had kind of petered out with a dull television show, and the only real big budget movies starred Arnold Schwarzenegger. Hollywood was not in a financial funk like they were at the end of the 1960s, but it seemed like there was just more room for newcomers.
Quentin Tarantino was one of those. A former video store clerk, he began writing scripts and parted with two of them - True Romance and Natural Born Killers - to help finance the movie he really wanted to direct, which was this one. What put it over the top was that Harvey Keitel, in trade for being allowed to star in it, agreed to help produce it. With some star power behind it, as well as some old-school tough-guy actors such as Lawrence Tierney and Eddie Bunker, Tarantino was able to make a film that developed enough word of mouth, as well as a cult following in the UK, that he was able to translate it into a bigger film with Pulp Fiction two years later.
Joe Cabot (Tierney) and his son Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) have put together what should be a simple heist on a diamond wholesaler. The rest of the group are all known by colors: Mr. White (Keitel), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr. Blue (Bunker), Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino) and Mr. Orange (Tim Roth). The robbery goes wrong, with casualties on both sides. Mr. White returns to the rendezvous point with a wounded Mr. Orange in tow, while Mr. Pink actually got away and stashed the diamonds, but is concerned that the police were there way too early for it to be coincidence.
While they wait to hear from Eddie and Joe, White and Pink decide what to do with Orange. When Blonde shows the tensions rise even higher as they blame his actions for exacerbating the situation. Blonde complicates things further by kidnaping a police officer (Kirk Baltz) and bringing him to the warehouse. It becomes more and more apparent that Pink is right, and the survivors try to figure out what to do next while trying not to turn on each other.
In typical Tarantino fashion a good portion of the movie plays out in flashbacks, with the only linear parts being the opening diner scene followed by the survivors gathering at the warehouse, where much of the later action takes place. Famously, the heist itself is never shown, just talked about before and after. We learn of the connection between Joe and Mr. White, as well as about the friendship Joe and Eddie have with Mr. Blonde, whose real name turns out to be Vic Vega. We also learn more about Orange and about his friendship with Mr. White. Strangely, though Steve Buscemi's portrayal of Mr. Pink is what led to major Hollywood roles for him in the 1990s, he doesn't get a back story, but we still learn most of what we need to about him from what we see after the heist.
Quentin Tarantino himself wanted to play Mr. Pink originally, which, with Tarantino's acting ability (or lack thereof), Reservoir Dogs owes part of its success in that he ended up being in a smaller role. He still gets to initiate the conversation about Madonna's "Like a Virgin" in the diner, but the heavy lifting is left to Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi and, to a smaller degree, Tim Roth. The latter is notable in the scenes he was in, which also gave him a bigger career in the United States after this, even if some of his more memorable roles afterward were in Tarantino-associated films such as Pulp Fiction and Four Rooms.
This is also where Tarantino rightfully receives notice for the dialogue he writes and, happily, it's before he knew or had the pressure on him to continue making that part of his films. Obviously it is dialogue heavy as, even though Keitel's involvement gave him more money than he expected, it was not enough to make a full-blown action film, and Tarantino had never intended that anyway. The dialogue had to be there t help build the characters as there was going to be a lot of telling and not as much showing. When that happens the telling has to be exciting enough and, while Pulp Fiction definitely contains better dialogue set pieces, Reservoir Dogs shines largely due to the writing and the performances.
That doesn't mean Tarantino's directing skills are not already on display as well. What action scenes that happen are well done, and the decision to turn the camera away briefly during the torture scene rather than just show full-on what was happening was brilliant. The whole sequence where Mr. Blonde tortures the police officer to the tune of Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle with You" caused a number of walk-outs, including Wes Craven and renowned make-up artist Rick Baker during a Hollywood premier. In retrospect there is good make-up work and it is nowhere near as violent watching it as it is imagining it, and the camera mimicking what most of the audience was doing at that point enhanced it more than any amount of special effects would.
Like the man I decided to see back when this was in its first run, a good number of the cast are gone: Tierney, Bunker and Chris Penn have all no longer with us, while Keitel has largely retired and many of the others had brief but brilliant careers in the 1990s largely because of this movie. Tarantino himself is on the cusp of retiring if he sticks to what he is saying about making one last movie. It is a testimony to Tarantino's strengths as a writer and a director that this little film had so much impact; British director Guy Ritchie, for instance, pretty much based his whole career on trying to remake this movie. It does have its similarities to a Hong Kong film, City on Fire, but then a lot of heist movies are rather similar to each other. While Tarantino often "samples" from other movies, this is still one of his more personal and original works, and it is no wonder that he decided that he was going to save this one back to direct.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Time: 99 minutes
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Lawrence Tierney, Chris Penn
Director: Quentin Tarantino