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.