Director: Quentin Tarantino.
Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino.
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi, Tim Roth, Chris Penn, Lawrence Tierney, Randy Brooks, Kirk Baltz, Eddie Bunker, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Wright.
“Somebody’s stickin’ a red hot poker up our asses and I wanna know who’s name’s on the handle”
Before becoming a cinematic sensation, a young Quentin Tarantino worked in the film rental store Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, and would often recommend little-known titles to customers. On one occasion, he suggested Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants, to which the customer mockingly replied, “I don’t want to see no Reservoir Dogs.” And so the title of Tarantino’s blistering debut film was born. It was originally planned as a $30,000 personal film with his friends, before Harvey Keitel showed an interest in the script and came onboard as the star and co-producer which helped hike the budget up to $1.5 million. The rest, as they say, is history. Tarantino had finally made his mark on the movie map and has since become one of the most highly praised directors of his, or any other, generation.
Crime lord Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and his son Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) assemble a crew of trusted criminals who they appoint with colour coded aliases to protect their identity: Mr. White, (Harvey Keitel), Orange (Tim Roth), Pink (Steve Buscemi), Blue (Eddie Bunker), Brown (Quentin Tarantino) & Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen). Their plan is simple: rob a jewellery store and make off with the diamonds to a prearranged rendezvous. However, the robbery doesn’t go down well and those that are left alive suspect that they have a police informant amongst them.
Few debuts have made as much of an impact on cinema goers as Reservoir Dogs. It heralded the arrival of an energetic new writer/director and opened up the floodgates to numerous crime imitations throughout the 90’s. Few, if any, achieved the same impact. However, there were some that criticised Tarantino for being a plagiarist. There were obvious references to films like Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham 123 and most notably Ringo Lam’s City on Fire. Without a doubt, Tarantino was influenced by these movies but stealing is a very unfair accusation. Now, many years – and several more films down the line – I think it’s fair to say that Tarantino has an extensive film vocabulary and often pays homage to some of his favourite filmmakers. Film knowledge may be deemed esoteric by some but in Tarantino’s case it helped him craft three of the best films from the 1990’s – along with Dogs there was, of course, the highly regarded and award winning Pulp Fiction and the vastly underrated Jackie Brown. And besides the point of plagiarism, it was Tarantino’s dialogue (entirely his own) that received the most praise for it’s true originality. This is where Reservoir Dogs’ strengths lie as whenever his characters talk, it’s fast and natural and the words seem to jump right of the screen. The opening scene alone grabs you from the offset (which you can read or view here in its entirety).
If it wasn’t for the non-linear, chronology of events it would essentially be a chamber piece. Set largely within the confines of an abandoned warehouse, each character talks through what actually went wrong during their bungled heist. The heist itself is never witnessed as Tarantino decides to focus on the aftermath of the robbery rather than the event itself but it’s the sharp and descriptive dialogue that allows these events to come to life and each of the actors are allowed to spout their words with as much colour and vibrancy as their blood stained shirts.
There are many highlights amongst the ensemble but the three that stand out the most are the solidly reserved Harvey Keitel (in probably the most underrated and less showy role), a highly-strung and opinionatedly energetic Steve Buscemi and the charismatic psychopath Michael Madsen. If I had any issues with the cast at all, it would be Tim Roth’s tendency to overplay his work. He, by no means, delivers a poor performance but too often over acts and his personal section of the story interrupts an otherwise precisely structured flow. This is a small gripe as Tarantino has a solid handling on the material and executes it with the deftness and skill of a director twice his age. On this evidence alone, his extensive, esoteric knowledge of film certainly paid off.
Heavily influenced by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Brian DePalma, among many others, Tarantino was certainly not the first to use non-linear storylines, Steadicam techniques or distinctive soundtracks but he was a luminary to ambitious young directors that followed and a lot of that came from this breathtaking film that set a whole new benchmark. One critic described Reservoir Dogs as “…a bloody, brash, brilliant heist thriller that grabbed audiences by the lapels and kneed them in the crotch“. I couldn’t have put it any better myself.
Trivia: Eddie Bunker (Mr. Blue) was a former career criminal and the youngest felon to be sent to San Quentin. (He was 17.) He was a novelist and also played cons in other films – “Runaway Train”, “The Longest Yard” and “Straight Time” (which was based on his novel). Steve Buscemi also went to direct “Animal Factory” another of Bunker’s novels. and Bunker worked as a technical advisor on others – “Heat”, for instance. Jon Voight’s character in ‘Heat’ was based on Bunker.