Reservoir Dogs (1992) – Film Review
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi
By Roger Crow
Hard to believe it’s 30 years since Quentin Tarantino’s debut feature took the world by storm and transformed a bunch of jobbing actors into A-list stars. Okay, Harvey Keitel, one of the key men responsible for it seeing the light of day, was already a cult star, but Londoner Tim Roth had yet to make his mark in Hollywood, and Steve Buscemi was a barrel of fast-talking dynamite with a short fuse waiting to be lit. Then there was Michael Madsen, whose Elvis-style cool made his psychopath role all the more chilling. Chris Penn may have made his mark in Footloose years earlier, but this was his finest moment. Populating the rest of his cast with seasoned characters like Lawrence Tierney and Eddie Bunker, Res Dogs, as it’s known in a supporting feature on the new HD version, may owe a debt to Ringo Lam’s City On Fire, but it’s still very much its own beast.
The classic tale of a heist gone wrong and a band of crims trying to find out who ratted them out to the cops may be nothing new, but writer Tarantino ensures these usually generic characters have depth. They have random theories about Madonna songs; why they should or shouldn’t tip waitresses, and reflect on TV shows and films. Hollywood bosses usually trim all that screenplay fat, so Tab A fits into Slot B as fast as possible. But we don’t always want streamlined stories. The rough edges are what makes movies really work; a sense of realism where accidents do happen, and characters feel more genuine than avatars.
Reservoir Dogs is not a nice movie, a fact all the more noticeable in an age of ‘snowflakery’ and ‘wokery’, or whatever this week’s buzzword is for political correctness. Those wanting a vegan ham-style movie may want to avoid as this is a cinematic slab of red meat dripping hi-def blood.
Following that opener, and one of the coolest cast introductions set to ‘Little Green Bag’, QT wisely dispenses with his own services as an actor, and focuses on the really good stuff. Roth’s character Mr Orange bleeding to death on the back seat of a car while Keitel’s Mr White tries to reassure him he’ll be okay. In HD that blood is almost luminous, giving it a comic book-style quality.
Tarantino may have borrowed from Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War for this scene, but like all great artists, he steals from the best and usually improves on everything.
Once back at a warehouse, the bond between the two fugitives is touching; far more moving than most generic gangster movies that had come before. The subtext, ‘honour amongst thieves’ taps into that code we all want to live by: do the right thing in extreme circumstances. (It’s the same code which helped make Dexter one of the best crime sagas of the past 15-plus years).
By the time Buscemi’s Mr Pink shows up at the warehouse, he unloads the sort of quick-fire patter that has made his name as one of Tinseltown’s best actors. Little wonder he was snapped up for the likes of Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead, and Armageddon. Intercut with the ‘now’ is what came before, the background to these ne’er do wells, including Chris Penn’s Nice Guy Eddie, a part which would be played by Jonah Hill these days if anyone dared remake Reservoir Dogs.
And in the background there’s Steven Wright as DJ K-Billy, whose Supersounds of the Seventies is a dream radio station. Wright at this point had been a cult comedian given a platform on BBC2 comedy chat shows, dispensing brilliant one-liners like, “It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to paint it,” and “I was once involved in a speed-reading accident.” (I can still recall the gap as the studio audience took a few seconds to catch up).
Of course mention Res Dogs to most people and that ear-slicing/tortured cop scene comes to mind. Married with Stealers’ Wheel’s ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’, it’s one of the most brilliant moments of cinematic terror in decades, and all the more horrific because Tarantino tracks left so you don’t see the deed, but boy, can you imagine it.
The third act which follows I’ll not spoil in case you are a newcomer, but I’d forgotten so much of the background to one key character that it felt like a fresh movie. In fact I’d played that soundtrack on a loop back in the day, and probably only saw the movie a couple of times.
There are far too many derogatory expletives for me, dropped in with casual abandon, but then again we aren’t supposed to like these anti heroes, yet we do. Nearly all of them are brutal, sweary, violent, money-grabbing hoods, but that dialogue, score and locked-off cameras let us observe their lives; it makes us feel complicit in their crime, even the ones we don’t see.
Yes, there are times Reservoir Dogs is a horrible movie, but it’s also utterly compelling and a brilliant debut from a film-maker who rarely ever dropped the ball since. While some writer/directors go off the boil, I’d say Quentin keeps getting better, as the masterpiece Once Upon a Time in Hollywood proved.
Picture and sound quality on the latest HD release is excellent, and far better than many of us may remember as we watched a dodgy copy 30 years ago. The movie had been released at the Sundance Film Festival in 1992, but took another year to hit UK cinemas, and then a media storm about movie violence corrupting the masses kicked off, like it had a decade earlier.
It’s perhaps 15-20 years since I last saw the movie, and can’t say I’m desperate to see it again in a hurry, as clever as it is. Newcomers will be fascinated, and there’s obviously a retro appeal for some, like me, who recall seeing it years ago, but it’s a pretty nasty piece of work for all its brilliant flourishes.