Monday, July 15, 2019

The Films of Quentin Tarantino: Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Reservoir Dogs (1992) 
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino.
Written by: Quentin Tarantino.
Starring: Harvey Keitel (Mr. White / Larry), Tim Roth (Mr. Orange / Freddy), Michael Madsen (Mr. Blonde / Vic Vega), Chris Penn (Nice Guy Eddie), Steve Buscemi (Mr. Pink), Lawrence Tierney (Joe Cabot), Randy Brooks (Holdaway), Kirk Baltz (Marvin Nash), Eddie Bunker (Mr. Blue), Quentin Tarantino (Mr. Brown), Michael Sottile (Teddy), Steven Wright (K-Billy DJ).
In retrospect, there are ways in which Reservoir Dogs is a prototypical Quentin Tarantino film, and in others ways, it is almost atypical. With his first film, it is clear that Tarantino has already found his voice, his style of writing dialogue, his love of old movies and pop culture, the types of characters he was going to create, and perhaps some of his blind spots (considering that this is a film that drops the n-word more than once, it does stick out like a sore thumb that the cast is entirely white). And yet, it’s also the tightest film of Tarantino’s career – the shortest, the most simply plotted. Debut films often go one of two ways – either the director tries to cram everything possible they may ever want to say into one film, in case they never get to make another one, or, they try to keep things simple and straight forward and almost make a calling card, to show what you can do, so that someone will give you more money to make something more ambitious. Reservoir Dogs is clearly in the second camp.
From the opening scene, with the now infamous “Like a Virgin” monologue – tellingly delivered by Tarantino himself (apparently, Tarantino wanted to play Mr. Pink himself – something we can all be grateful didn’t happen, but he did move the Like a Virgin stuff from Mr. Pink to his character, Mr. Brown – the only memorable thing he does in the film) – Tarantino comes out as a fully formed artist – if you love him, for the better, and if you hate him, for the worse. That scene is brilliantly written, directed and performed – and tells you pretty much everything you need to know about what kind of movie this is, and what kind of characters they are. While these men are dressed in identical black suits, there’s no mistaking them for businessmen. These are hard men, violent men, and they are casually preparing to do something violent – and because they are so casual, you know how professional they are.
Most of the rest of the film takes place in the aftermath of that violence – a jewelry store robbery gone horribly awry – one that have left several of their own dead, along with some cops, employees and civilians. At the warehouse where they are supposed to meet up, Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) and Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) are the first to arrive – Mr. Orange with a bullet in the gut, as he slowly bleeds out, going in and out of consciences. From there, one person after another arrives – first Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) who is convinced they were setup, then Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), the one who started the shooting in the first place, who brings a cop along with him, who will be tortured for information that of course, he does not have. Along the way. We get flashbacks to how several people – Mr. White, Mr. Blonde and Mr. Orange – ended up employed by Joe (Lawrence Tierny) and his son Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) – to do the robbery in the first place, including if one them really is a cop.
At 99 minutes, Tarantino knows when to get in and when to get out. While he certainly indulges himself with the dialogue – the movie is almost all talk – other than that opening scene, almost everything in the film is plot and character driven. He doesn’t even indulge himself completely – not everyone gets a flashback, including Mr. Pink, perhaps because as written and performed by Steve Buscemi – in one of his very best performances – he needs no backstory – he is complete as is. Tarantino does a lot of things right in this regard. The movie is very violent, but not as violent as you think it is. There is so much violence that happens off-screen – not just the infamous ear scene, where the camera pulls a Taxi Driver (where it pans away from Travis as he’s being dumped over the phone) but almost everything else as well. You also never see the robbery itself – we see the lead up, and the follow-up, but everything in that store remains something described, not seen. You could make the argument that Tarantino may have been better suited in some of his other films, which get very violent, sometimes with less impact than it does here.
Tarantino seems to have been very smart about his career right from the start. He had this screenplay and True Romance finished at the same time, and Tony Scott apparently wanted to direct Reservoir Dogs, but Tarantino said no – he could have True Romance, but he was directing Reservoir Dogs himself. This allowed him to control a low-budget film that he could do himself, and show-off exactly what he could do behind the camera. Sure, he was helped by Harvey Keitel – who agreed to not just be in the film, but also to help produce it, giving it more money, and more clout to be able to hire the cast he got here – all of whom seem to get the patter of Tarantino’s dialogue intuitively, and deliver it perfectly. Many of them would go on to be in more Tarantino films (really, it is surprising that Buscemi, aside from a cameo in Pulp Fiction hasn’t worked with Tarantino again – although that may be because he is so perfect here, he could not top it in another Tarantino film). Reservoir Dogs is the safest, least ambitious film in Tarantino’s career. And in its way, it’s perfect.

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