A film review by Craig J. Koban
15th Anniversary Retrospective
1992, R, 99 mins.
Mr. White: Harvey Keitel / Mr. Orange: Tim Roth / Mr. Blonde: Michael Madsen / Chris Penn: Nice Guy Eddie Cabot / Mr. Pink: Steve Buscemi / Joe Cabot: Lawrence Tierney / Mr. Blue: Edward Bunker / Mr. Brown: Quentin Tarantino / K Billy DJ: Steven Wright / Officer Marvin: Kirk Baltz
"I steal from every single movie ever made….Great artists steal, they don't do homages.”
- Quentin Tarantino
RESERVOIR DOGS has one of the cinema's great introductory scenes.
It begins simply and quietly with an endlessly spiraling camera and focuses on a series of tough guys smoking, drinking endless amounts of coffee, and verbally jabbing with one another about many pertinent topics. Some of them include whether or not Madonna’s LIKE A VIRGIN was about a girl that had main preoccupation in life to find a well-endowed man with the largest male organ possible. We also get a terrifically spirited conversation about the nature of tipping.
One of the young men refuses to tip. Why? Maybe it was because the waitress he had was not friendly enough in his book. Or perhaps it had something to do with the fact that she only refilled his coffee three times, not his self-imposed mandatory six times that he has grown to expect. He also goes out of his way to specify how society in general has some sort of unwritten rule of conduct when in comes to tipping people of certain occupations and not others (I agree with him on this point, having been a gas pumper for most of my teen life in bitter Saskatchewan winters and never received one gratuity).
In his final summation, he states, “I don't tip because society says I have to. All right, if someone deserves a tip, if they really put forth an effort, I'll give them something a little something extra. But this tipping automatically, it's for the birds. As far as I'm concerned, they're just doing their job.” His boss comes by and dryly and hilariously deadpans back to him, “Cough up a buck ya cheap bastard.”
Welcome to Quentin Tarantino-land.
RESERVOIR DOGS opened with a whimper at the North American box office back in 1992, but it would go on to become one of the most critically revered, influential, and popular independent crime films of the decade. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and then went on to have a rather inauspicious debut on only 19 screens in the US and made under $200,000 its first week. It did expand to 61 theatres and went on to finish with $2.8 million. In terms of financial success, RESERVOIR DOGS barely clawed its way into the consciousness of mainstream American audiences.
Yet, when it saw its release on home video, it became a cult hit. The film recently was voted "Best Independent Film Ever" by Empire Magazine and even was voted "Most Influential Movie of the past 15 years" by the same magazine. The IMDB lists the film #63 out of 250 on the Best Films of All-Time as voted by readers. All of these accolades for a film that cost peanuts, whose first draft was written in three weeks, and whose writer/director/star had never previously made a feature film, never went to film school, and whose previous credits include a guest walk-on on TV’s GOLDEN GIRLS.
RESERVOIR DOGS is by no means one of the best films of its decade, but it does deserve an honorable mention. It still remains a wonderfully conceived, directed, and written work, and its importance on the modern movie world should not be diminished. It gave life to a seemingly old and stale genre and infused in it some much needed energy, spunk, and – most importantly – hipness, attitude, and intelligence, especially from a dialogue standpoint. The film shows a remarkable mastery of the material, which is all the more significant considering the relative filmmaking virgin that Tarantino was in the early 90s. Yet, Tarantino knew precisely what he wanted and the results can now be considered, even 15 years later, to be cutting edge.
The film should be seen, in direct retrospect, as one made by a novice director who was himself a work in progress. RESERVOIR DOGS contains many of the staple elements that would make all future Tarantino works what they are (most specifically, amazingly fluid and rapid fire dialogue ripe with obscure pop culture references; a breezy and stylistic shooting aesthetic; and a disjointed and fracture narrative). Certainly, broken up storylines were hardly nothing new (CITIZEN KANE pre-dates DOGS by 50 years), but Tarantino imbedded in a lethargic genre a much need freshness.
His command of dialogue has seen comparisons to David Mamet and Elmore Leonard, and with DOGS and future films (like his masterpiece, PULP FICTION), Tarantino indubitably became the most imitated screenwriter of the last decade. After DOGS and especially after FICTION, more young directors made fruitless attempts to duplicate his films, oftentimes with decidedly questionable results (films like 2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY, SUICIDE KINGS, and KILLING ZOE come immediately to mind). DOGS, in essence, created a new type of irreverent, self-aware crime thriller.
Tarantino’s directorial career is now the stuff of movie lore. He never went to film school. Instead, he –as he has always asserted - went to films. He got his film school education working at a Los Angeles video store, where he willfully whored himself out to as much free rentals as he possible could, gorging on pictures of various obscure genres. His aims at making DOGS was initially modest. His original plans were to shoot the film with his buddies on a shoestring budget of $30,000 with a black and white 16mm camera.
He would then receive an answering machine message that would change his life forever.
Harvey Keitel contacted the then young filmmaker and asked if he could not only be in the production, but produce and help find financial bankers. Keitel managed to get a copy of the script via an acquaintance of the film’s other producer, Lawrence Bender (who went on to produce many future Tarantino pics). With Keitel’s name on the marquee, the film was able to secure a vastly superior $1.5 million dollar production budget. Keitel, in pure hindsight, was the savior of Tarantino's career. Without his intervention, the film – and all of Tarantino’s future works – could have never seen the light of day.
The money was fairly high for an independent film, but monumentally low by contemporary Hollywood standards of the time. As a matter of fact, the film’s financing was so low that many of the actors in the film had to use there own clothing as their character’s wardrobe (the gaudy track jacket wore by Chris Penn in the film is indeed his own). The film’s now legendary black suits with white shirt and black tie were courtesy of a designer who loved American crime films.
By his own admission, DOGS was made primarily based on his fondest impressions of some of his favourite films. He is quick to go on record by saying that his works are not homages; he simply borrows. That’s a staple of Tarantino’s future works as well: their willingness to borrow heavily from past films, albeit very obscure ones at that. This is all not to say the DOGS and all other works are downright copies of past films, but Tarantino’s collected body of work reveals a love and understanding of the cinema. No other director displays his sensibilities and tastes in other films as much as he does with his own movies.
If one goes beyond a cursory look at DOGS, its influences can easily be seen. Firstly, Tarantino was vastly inspired by Asian cinema, particularity Hong Kong action films, which would also seen fruition in the KILL BILL series later on. The film’s script itself bares many resemblances to a 1987 film called LONG HU FENG YUN (CITY ON FIRE), reportedly a favourite film of the director. Both films have many correlating elements, like key plot points and most obviously in the "Mexican Standoffs" that occur at the conclusions of both films. Both films are also about undercover cops that have to deal with their increasingly conflicted personalities.
French New Wave directors and films (most notably the collective works of Jean-Luc Godard) had a lasting impression on Tarantino, especially with their use of radical and unique editing and stylistic flourishes. Even more familiar filmmakers like the heist films of Sam Fuller and the work of Stanley Kurbick come to mind (look at the suits the characters wear in THE KILLING). If there is one things that can be categorically said about RESERVOIR DOGS, it is a film that – as all other future Tarantino works demonstrate – reveal a visceral auteur effort. Any lay filmgoer that does not believe that movies reflect their director’s tastes and personalities definitely need to watch RESERVOIR DOGS.
Beyond its influences, DOGS had one of the best assembled casts of the 90’s. As a heist/crime film, we get a relative who’s who of gnarly, kick ass tough guys. The group’s leader alone is the personification of cool, detached, scenery chewing vitality. He is played by Lawrence Tierney, who brought a lot of method to his part as boss Joe Cabot (he did time for real ). He is an experienced criminal who tries to gather a team of loud mouthed, tough talking crooks to score a big diamond heist. He has one ingenious part of his plan: all members of the crew will not – under any circumstances – reveal to each other their real names, which subsequently means they won’t squeal if caught. So, Boss Joe gives the crew color-coded pseudonyms (a concept borrowed deeply from subway-heist classic THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE).
This leads to one of the film's funniest moments. All of the crooks are gathered for an informational meeting to plan the crime and Cabot dishes out each of the men their “names”. He names off everyone's alias with ease and simplicity, not thinking twice about color metaphors or symbolism. One of the sniveling and whiney crooks, played in a great performance by the jabbering Steve Buscemi, complains that his name sucks. “Why am I Mr. Pink,” he questions. Tierney provides two more of the film’s most hilarious responses. First, he tells him, “Because you’re a faggot, alright.” Mr. Pink still complains. “Why can’t I be Mr. Black? That’s a cool sounding name.” Again, Tierney wryly responds, “Just be thankful you’re not Mr. Yellow.”
We slowly but surely meet the rest of the hired goon squad. The apparent second in command is Keitel’s Mr. White, who’s all by-the-book and no-nonsense. Beyond Mr. Pink and White we have a slew of great character types, like the hot tempered and big mouthed Nice Guy Eddie, Cabbot’s son, played by the late Chris Penn. We also have wise old veterans like Edward Bunker, Tarantino himself who – as mentioned earlier – gets the film firmly started with his virtuoso monologue about the real meaning of LIKE A VIRGIN. Finally, we have Michael Madsen and Tim Roth, the former who plays a quiet and soft spoken sadist. Roth plays the film’s most crucial and tricky part; he’s Mr. Orange, the new man of the crew, but what the other men don’t know is that he’s also Freddy Newandyke, an undercover cop hoping to bust them.
The film’s non-linear storyline was DOGS most noticeable element outside of its rambunctious and jovial dialogue. The film does an fantastic job of knowing precisely where to intercut moments from the past and present. We see bits and pieces of the heist story unfold as they're intercut with Freddy’s back story as to how he managed to get involved with Cabbot’s gang and his overall plan to capture them. What Tarantino does best is the way he starts the film casually at the coffee shop with conversations about pop songs and tipping and then thrusts the narrative right in the aftermath of the botched heist. At this point we see a bloodied and dying Freddy be driven by Mr. White to an abandoned warehouse where the gang is supposed to rendezvous at after the caper. The warehouse is the epicenter of the film, where the most crucial bulk of the material takes place. From here were go back and forth in time and get all the details as to what went wrong with the robbery. The style here creates tension and interest in the underlining story. We know what happened, but just don’t know how.
The film snowballs into the characters’ growing apprehension and suspicion with one another. Just about everyone thinks that there is a mole in their midst, and the real thrilling aspect of the story is in their discoveries. We grow to know that Freddie is a cop, and as he helplessly bleeds to death on the warehouse floor we see all of the other crooks bicker incessantly with one another to find out what went wrong. Mr. White always manages to keep his cool and befriends Freddie even when accusations get thrown his way. Mr. Pink is much more trigger happy and grows more crazed by the minute. Then there’s Madsen's Mr. Blonde who is the real scary one of the bunch. He plays the role with such an emotional economy. He’s such an inwardly mean and domineering presence that never screams to get an response: he’s all about attitude and looking badass. This makes him unpopular within the group, but his mean-spiritedness is clearly reflected in the film’s most famous moment where he tortures a cop that he nabbed.
While all of the other men leave, Blonde is left alone with the rookie cop that he’s trapped and bound up. He decides to viciously torture the man, not because he wants to get information from him, but only because his warped and twisted mind wants to hurt him. As he turns on the radio, he grabs a switch blade and proceeds to dance and strut to Stealer Wheels' “Stuck in the Middle with You.” The scene creates an unparalleled sensation of black comedy and cruel ruthlessness, which takes a turn for the worse when Blonde slowly approaches his victim and proceeds to saw off his ear.
Interestingly, Tarantino dollies away from the carnage and only shows the aftermath. DOGS has gained unfair recognition of being brutally violent (many modern action films have more than cranked up this film's ante of bloodshed), but in its defense most of the carnage occurs off camera. With the ear-cutting scene, we only see the results. The shot alone seems indicative of a similar one in Martin Scosese’s TAXI DRIVER where he pans away into black space as Travis Bickle gets turned down for a date on a pay phone. Both moments in the films reflect that it is often what we don’t see that is most effective. In Scorsese's film, he spares us of seeing the pain in Bickle's eyes. In DOGS Tarantino has mercy on us by not showing Blonde's actions. In a way, not seeing what Blonde does makes him all the more terrifying.
The film itself has many other fine, memorable moments. A later scene that shows Freddie rehearsing with a cop friend about how he will “perform” in front of the criminals is inspired. There are also numerous scenes which sparkle with Tarantino's razor sharp dialogue. It’s really wonderful to see these robbers actually engage in conversations about everyday things instead of the standard type of perfunctory dialogue that most witless films use to forward the plot. As demonstrated In DOGS and later films like PULP FICTION, JACKIE BROWN, and the KILL BILL series, Tarantino will be remembered as a filmmaker who is able to so fluently and easily give his personas personality through his intelligent and verbose dialogue. Even when characters have an exchange about something as inconsequential as Pam Grier movies, it creates a realism and spontaneity to the characters. Certainly, real lowlifes have conversations like this. What DOGS epitomizes is the notion that a film's characters need to have character. Tarantino, better than any modern filmmaker, has a spot-on sense of the rhythmic lingo of colloquial speech.
I think that another aspect of the film that works is its scatological wit. DOGS is vulgar (its R-rated script uses everyone’s favorite f-bomb vulgarity 272 times in its 99 minutes) and masculine to its core (there is not one female part in the film). Seeing these testosterone induced men engage hyperactively through the particulars of the failed crime creates an odd level of dark comedy amidst all of the chaos. Buscemi is one of the best actors at being a hyper-agitated presence, and he is offset by the sophisticated demeanour of Mr. White (Keitel is always a commanding presence). Chris Penn has a field day playing the boss’ son with an ever-suspicious eye, and Madsen plays his Elvis-coifed killer with a sickening, introverted edge. Roth’s Freddie has the film’s most interesting and layered dynamic. He grows to both like and chastise the men he infiltrates. When the film finally boils over to its Mexican standoff final scene, where all of the major characters are one trigger away from death, the film creates real intensity and pathos.
RESERVOIR DOGS remains to this day one of the more indelible crime thrillers of the last 15 years. It re-established the genre as one with vitality and creative gusto, thanks in large part to the then novice writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s blending of obscure cinematic references and his limitless skill with polished and layered dialogue. As a first time filmmaker in 1992, Tarantino laid is claim to be a director of confidence and authority with his mastery of creating a dense atmosphere for his desperado universe. The film contains the key fundamental ingredients that would go on to make his future films, like PULP FICTION, to be among the finest and most often-imitated films of their decade. RESERVOIR DOGS is assuredly an exercise in wicked, exercise style, but it still has undeniable substance beneath it, something that far too many aspiring filmmakers who make Tarantinoesque works fail to do. As one of the most influential independent efforts of the 90’s, DOGS deserves its accolades as being the hypodermic needle to the heart of the film industry which launched a series of uninspired imitators. It also introduced a new breed of director that awoke the film world out of its complacent slumber.