No. 23: “Reservoir Dogs” (1992)

“Somebody’s shoved a red-hot poker up our ass, and I want to know whose name is on the handle!” ~~Mr. Pink

Conversation seems like the antithesis of senseless violence; talking is what reasonable, sound-minded adults do. Quentin Tarantino’s world doesn’t work that way. Think back to 1994’s “Pulp Fiction,” where Pumpkin and Honey Bunny share a congenial pre-robbery breakfast, or to last year’s “Inglourious Basterds,” where Col. Hans Landa politely interrogates French farmer Pierre LaPadite. In Tarantino World, chats don’t lead to more chats, they precede or lead to bloodshed.

To understand the genesis of this jolting technique is to see “Reservoir Dogs,” Tarantino’s lean, mean blood-spattered tale about a diamond heist gone bad wrong. The opening sequence, set in a diner, merits special attention because it comically sets us up for a whiplash-inducing plot turnaround and introduces the criminals: Mr. White (Harvey Keitel); Mr. Orange (Tim Roth); Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen); Mr. Brown (Tarantino); Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi); Mr. Blue (Edward Bunker); Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn); and Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney), Eddie’s father. Initially we only know them as eight nameless friends in an L.A. diner and prattling on about the real meaning behind Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” (Mr. Brown’s thesis: “It’s a metaphor for big dicks!”) and the relative merits of food service tipping (“I don’t tip because society says I have to,” Mr. Pink argues). All this chatter seems funny but harmless, just a few guys shooting the breeze over coffee.

Not five minutes later Tarantino pulls the pin on the grenade in his pocket and blows all to hell that sense of friendly calm. It’s a gutsy move, and it pays off big-time, so disorienting us that we spend the rest of “Reservoir Dogs” scurrying around like drugged rats lost in a maze. And because this director presents nothing as-is and has a sincere opposition to straight storytelling, the finer points of the heist remain a mystery right up until the last. After the diner Tarantino throws us into a getaway car driven by White, with a screeching Orange in the backseat bleeding from a gunshot wound. They make it to a warehouse, the post-robbery meeting site, joined shortly after by Mr. Pink, who’s positive that the job was a police set-up. 

Remaining details come in fits and starts in no particular order: Joe, an aging but still fearsome gangster, hired White, Orange, Blue, Pink, Blonde and Brown to rob a jeweler. The plan went sour; now a few men are AWOL, Blue’s dead and Orange isn’t far behind. Saying more would do an unforgivable disservice to Tarantino’s rapidly changing script (he was “Memento” before “Memento” was cool). He structures “Reservoir Dogs” as a riddle for viewers to reason out, but he doesn’t leave it there. So Tarantino pumps in loads of violence — including a disturbing torture scene involving Mr. Blonde, a kidnapped cop (Kirk Baltz), a razor blade and gasoline set to Stealers Wheel’s upbeat “Stuck in the Middle with You” — and loads of profanity-laden dialogue, mostly keyed-up shouting matches but sometimes grimly funny exchanges (White’s pre-heist advice to Orange comes to mind). If Tarantino can do nothing else, he can write lines that make chuckle in that way where the laughter quickly gives way to nausea.

Another thing Tarantino does well? He knows how to pick ‘em. The crack team of actors in “Reservoir Dogs” might be one of the best ensemble casts ever*. Keitel and Roth play the two crooks with the most fleshed-out characters (White’s been working long enough he can afford to be kind to the newbie Orange, whom he defends as “a good kid”), and both do fine work. Madsen exudes the kind of ominous amorality that requires a shower to shake off. Tierney and Penn leave lasting impressions, molding powerful characters out of Joe and Eddie, while Buscemi, a skillful character actor, imbues Mr. Pink with a twitchy, wild-card comic energy best illustrated in a throwaway scene:

Mr. Pink: “You kill anybody?”
Mr. White: “A few cops.”
Mr. Pink: “No real people?”

Let that scene marinate for a minute, and suddenly the beauty of “Reservoir Dogs” hits you right between the eyes.

*This is a subject of debate between Ross and Ross.

19 Responses

  1. nice quote. thanks for the linkage Carter, much appreciated. even if you dont like tarantino you have to admit that RD is class

  2. hmm… I used to really like reservoir dogs but a recent re-watch (after many years) has turned me against in a big way.

    It’s nicely constructed but the guys themselves are so utterly loathsome that I really found it a hard film to sit through.

    • On the whole I’d agree, but Mr. White seems to follow some kind of moral code — even though it’s his own. To me that makes him not a total lost cause.

  3. I guess, it is raw Tarantino. I still enjoy this film.

  4. A great film that I need to watch again. Tarantino does it best here and I always loved this one.

    • It was hard to pick a favorite Tarantino film, but I think this is it for me because it wows me — considering it was his debut — every time.

      • I’m not sure which I like better … “Reservoir Dogs” or “Pulp Fiction.”

        For Quentin Tarantino, that’s a damn good problem for people to have. Two incredible movies.

  5. Oddly, I saw Reservoir Dog for the first time only a few months ago. Definitely a classic, I don’t know why I waited so long.

    • These days I think waiting to see a classic like this isn’t such a bad thing — you can appreciate it that much more!

  6. One of my clients at work has a poster of this in his office, which intrigued me to learn more about why he liked it so much. Suffice to say, upon reading the synopsis and several reviews of it, I don’t have the cojones to rent this movie. That disturbing torture scene you speak of is one of the reasons, but I think overall this movie will give me nightmares. I had the same reaction about Scarface just from reading the dialogue on IMDb.

    But I’m still willing to give Inglorious Basterds a chance though, despite my trepidation after reading your quote: “In Tarantino World, chats don’t lead to more chats, they precede or lead to bloodshed.”

    • “Reservoir Dogs” is definitely shot straight through with gallons of testosterone (so what’s wrong with me, I wonder, that I, a woman, like it so much?). Lots of violence, LOTS of profanity, definitely not for the faint-at-heart. But I’d say it’s worth a watch.

      Don’t pass “Basterds” by. It’s long, but if you only see it for one reason, see it to witness the wonder that is Christoph Waltz’s great performance. Seriously. One of the all-time great villains.

  7. I don’t know M, maybe one day if I’m feeling super brave I might, but honestly, I’m afraid my ‘faint’ heart won’t be able to stomach it :(

    I’ve put “Basterds” on my Netflix queue for this weekend! And yes, I am most curious to see Christoph’s performance, oh and Michael Fassbender as well.

    • Fassbender is quite good, especially in that unbelievably tense bar scene.

      I will warn that “Inglourious Basterds” also has a lot of violence, some of it stomach-turning, but you can see it coming, so do what I do: take off your glasses (or just turn your head if you don’t wear glasses) and wait until the worst has passed.

      Actually, you know, I don’t think I did that during the movie. If I’m desensitized to violence, I guess I have Tarantino to thank!

  8. I was desensitized by the Master.

    I think that Peckinpah would have loved Tarantino’s work.

    “Inglourious Basterds” is such good movie (the only reason that I don’t say great is that I reserve that term for films over 4 years old) I am almost afraid that Tarantino may find it hard to follow.

  9. [...] Particularly during the third-act shootout/bloodbath, the obvious precursor to the finale of “Reservoir Dogs,” Scott seems content to stick to the sidewalk. “True Romance” suffers for it. A [...]

  10. [...] “Reservoir Dogs” (full review) — Quentin Tarantino gives the Cuisinart treatment to the traditional [...]

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