Reservoir Dogs (1992, Quentin Tarantino)


Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When a group of criminals attempt a jewellery heist, things go wrong. Is one of them an undercover cop?

What does QT do? This wasn’t Quentin Tarantino’s first movie. He’d co-written, directed and starred in an amateur film called My Best Friend’s Birthday (1987) – which is now partially lost – and did an uncredited rewrite on a forgotten erotic thriller called Past Midnight (1991). But Reservoir Dogs was his leap to the big leagues. As well as writing and directing, QT also cast himself in the minor role of Mr Brown. He has the movie’s opening dialogue and dominates the first two minutes. But the character is then rather inconsequential. (In that first scene you can actually see Tarantino break character and get ready to call cut, but co-star Lawrence Tierney has made him laugh so the action continues.)

Notable characters:
* Mr Brown (Quentin Tarantino) is shot and killed during the heist.
* Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen) – real name Vic Vega – is an old friend of gang boss Joe. He’s also a sociopath who goes on a killing spree during the robbery. He then turns up at the rendezvous with a fast-food drink like nothing’s happened. In the film’s most infamous scene, he tortures a cop and slices his ear off. The key moment actually happens off-screen, the camera squeamishly panning away. Madsen’s never been better than in this role.
* Mr Blue (Edward Bunker) is killed during the robbery, but we only hear about it afterwards. The actor’s life would have made for a decent movie itself. In and out of prison until the age of 42, Bunker then became a writer of crime novels and movies.
* Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) is the shell-suit-wearing, mobile-phone-owning son of the gang’s boss. We see him joking around quite a bit, but he gets very angry when the job goes south. Penn’s manic line-reading of the phrase “Out of the fucking blue!” is a treat.
* Mr Pink (Steve Buscemi) at first seems like the livewire of the group. He’s a rebel who won’t tip a waitress, moans about his assigned alias, and is hopping mad when he works out there’s an informer in the group. However, he’s actually the one character who holds his nerve and acts reasonably (given the criminal context, that is). For staying level-headed, he’s rewarded with survival. During the final scene he runs out of the warehouse and then, low in the sound mix, we can hear him being arrested. This film was one of the first to showcase the superb Buscemi and he became a key actor of 90s American cinema.
* Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) is the boss who brings the strangers together to do the robbery. Mr Orange describes him as looking like the Thing from The Fantastic Four. It’s not the most dynamic acting you’ll ever see but it does fit the character’s humourless mood.
* Mr Orange (Tim Roth) is shot while escaping from the chaos caused by Mr Blonde. We later discover he’s an undercover police detective called Freddie Newandyke. He spends virtually all of the ‘present’ scenes lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Roth is excellent, even with a cod American accent.
* Mr White (Harvey Keitel) – real name Larry Dimmick – is the de facto lead character of the film. We often experience the events through his eyes. Even when we learn about Freddie’s secret background it’s so the reveal is more powerful when Larry finds out. Keitel had got the film made by agreeing to be in it. He gives a fantastic performance.
* Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz) is the cop tortured by Mr Blonde. In a nice twist, it’s later revealed that he recognised Freddie and didn’t say anything.
* Holdaway (Randy Brooks) is Freddie’s colleague who guides him through his mission.
* The script’s only female character – a policewoman played by The West Wing’s Nina Siemaszko – features in the deleted scenes available on the DVD. She gives Freddie some background information on Larry/Mr White.

Music: There’s no specially written score. All the music instead comes from a fictional radio show called K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the 70s. K-Billy is voiced by droll stand-up Steven Wright. The best uses of songs come during the title sequence, when Little Green Bag by George Baker Selection scores a now-iconic shot of the characters walking in slow motion, and when a torture scene is timed to Stealers Wheel’s up-tempo Stuck in the Middle With You. We also hear a snatch of Blue Swede’s cover of Hooked on a Feeling, which was later used so well in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).

Time shifts and chapters: Reservoir Dogs is built on a flashback structure. Not only that, it deliberately misses out the story’s key scene: the armed robbery itself. After a prologue showing the characters enjoying breakfast, we cut to later that same day: everything’s gone fuck-up and Mr Orange is bleeding to death in the back of a car. The script then pushes forward in real-time segments broken up by a series of flashbacks: Mr Pink just after the heist, Mr White being recruited for the job, Mr Blonde being recruited for the job, and Mr Orange planning and carrying out his undercover mission. The Mr Orange sequence lasts nearly a quarter of the entire film and contains flashbacks within flashbacks. The three main cutaways are given title cards (‘Mr White’, ‘Mr Blonde’ and ‘Mr Orange’).

Review: This taut, muscular and musical script is peppered with pop-culture references and it’s noticeable how many actors are mentioned in the dialogue – Lee Marvin, Doris Day, Marlon Brando, Charles Bronson (twice), Anne Francis, Pam Grier… That’s apt, because the film’s characters are all putting on a performance. They tell stories, use costumes (a black suit and tie), assume stage names, analyse the ‘truth’ of dramatic situations – and put aside rehearsal-room laughter to ‘get into character’. Being a crook in this film is a self-conscious ‘act’ with its own code of behaviour. Mr White is prepared to kill someone who gets in his way, but considers Mr Blonde a lunatic for shooting bystanders. However warped, he has a morality. (Of course, Mr Orange is playing an additional role because he’s lying about his true identity.) They can surprise you too. These guys discuss Madonna’s discography with a real level of knowledge; Mr White shows compassion; and Mr Orange gets scared. Hardly your average heist-movie hoodlums. Everyone – even a genuine psychopath like Mr Blonde – is an interesting, dynamic personality. And they get plenty of *electric* dialogue. Tarantino’s writing constantly brims with attitude, rhythm and gallows humour. The structure is just as entertaining. In some ways, Reservoir Dogs is like a stage play. Flashbacks aside, it’s a real-time story set in one location. Characters actually go off-stage at certain points, or have dramatic up-stage entrances. But at the same time it’s vastly cinematic. The flashback structure is vital to the story. It *is* the story, really. The reveals and twists are only possible because we cut to scenes that certain characters are not privy to – no matter the chronological order. For example, the longest flashback comes right after the biggest plot twist. Tension is eked out because we leave the warehouse once we’ve learnt Mr Orange is a cop. That warehouse, incidentally, is glossy without being glitzy. It’s artfully lit, with plenty of natural-seeming light and highlights in the distance, but still rundown, functional and everyday. It’s a good job it’s such an interesting location because we spend about a third of the movie in there. There’s plenty of nifty camerawork too, such as handheld, slow dollies and even a POV shot from inside a car boot that became a Tarantino motif. Quentin also uses numerous long takes: White and Orange analysing what went wrong at the jewellery store, for example, is played out in just two shots totalling nearly three minutes. Reservoir Dogs is a film made by a film geek for film geeks. It was filmed 25 years ago, but is still stunning. Still captivating. Still fresh as fuck.

Ten severed ears out of 10

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