You’ve seen Reservoir Dogs. I’ve seen Reservoir Dogs. Everyone and their mum’s seen Reservoir Dogs. If you haven’t seen Reservoir Dogs, you’re either far too conservative to watch something “so violent” (yet I can assure you, you’ve seen worse) or you haven’t seen any movies that haven’t been in theaters since you got enough money to buy your own ticket.
So why would I review a movie everyone has seen already? Because Reservoir Dogs, by being overshadowed by Pulp Fiction, is Quentin Tarantino’s most under-rated movie. How can a movie be under-rated when it’s hailed as a classic by everyone? I’m glad I asked.
Reservoir Dogs is the story of Mr. White, a career criminal involved in a diamond heist with five other guys: Mr. Orange, Mr. Pink, Mr. Blonde, Mr. Brown and Mr. Blue. Arranging the heist are Joe Cabot and his son, Nice Guy Eddie. First, we see these men at breakfast, discussing Madonna, K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the 70s and the merits of tipping your waitress. After the credits, Mr. White is driving Mr. Orange to the safehouse, while Orange screams bloody murder from the bullet in his stomach. They get to the safehouse; seconds later, Mr. Pink shows up. He tells White that there’s a good chance there’s a rat in the house; among their number is a cop.
Quentin Tarantino made his first feature on a budget of $1.5 million, funded mostly by star Harvey Keitel. It’s a small movie. There are two characters with complex motivations and histories. There are another two supporting characters who exist to say “Let’s leave the safehouse!” and “Let’s stay at the safehouse!” respectively. There are two guys there to end the movie. Tarantino, despite exploring the past tense of several characters, doesn’t care for motivations or subtext which is apparent here. He’s a gifted writer–his knack for character language creates people where archetypes would stand in another movie. You can still go through the ranks by type, observe:
The Career Thief. The New Kid. The Smart Guy. The Psycho. Daddy’s Boy. The Boss. But who’s the mole?
It’s a tight movie. There is no score to tell you how to feel. Every moment in the mortuary is filled with an indescribable, ever-mounting tension. Every spoken word conveys only the facts that need to be known. Tarantino didn’t yet know how to properly use a scope lens–the improvement is noticeable two years later in Pulp Fiction–but the camera isn’t here for showy cinematography. The editing isn’t here to overload your senses. Both are only here to support the characters and the story being told. It makes for a hypnotic and spiraling venture into the paranoid tension of a life of crime.
Tarantino likes his characters, which is tangible in how much the actors like them. Harvey Keitel’s Mr. White is one of the greater performances in crime movie history. You are not told that he is a layered man. You are not told his large personal history that led to his choices within the runtime of the movie. Keitel manages to fill every action, every word and every eye movement with the dangerous friendliness in a lifetime crook. You’d have breakfast with this man, you’d laugh at his jokes, you’d trust him.
The other showstopping performance is Michael Madsen as Mr. Blonde. He’s coolly detached from everything going on around him. He doesn’t rise to anger. Despite having a role that Keanu Reeves could apparently walk through with no problem, Michael Madsen brings home the reality of dealing with a stone cold psychopath. “Guess what. I think I’m parked in the red zone.” Steve Buscemi also delivers an indelible performance in this movie. It says something that he’s the only character of the main four who the film doesn’t see as worthy of a flashback, yet he’s the one most widely talked about after the movie is over.
Tim Roth rounds out the principal cast as Mr. Orange. Largely inactive in the final film due to being unconscious from blood loss and terror, his re-entrance into the action is one of fewer than ten acts of onscreen violence. An affecting portrayal of a complex man, Roth ensures that his performance will stay with you well after you’ve seen this movie.
You know, it’s been seven hundred words and I’m still writing this as spoiler-free as possible. It says something about the cold inevitability of the action in this movie that to even draw a comparison to the many classic influences it’s structured after would be to take away from anybody’s first time viewing. There’s an entire era of film history it takes from more liberally than Cowboy Bebop. Oh, but that’s a spoiler. I’m not worried; if you’ve seen Cowboy Bebop by now and haven’t seen Reservoir Dogs yet, you deserve what you get. There’s also an entire genre of Greek theater it’s structured after with an almost slavish devotion to form.
The reveal of who the mole is comes sixty minutes into a ninety nine minute movie. It’s not handled like it’s a twist. It’s information being revealed to you, the audience, when it comes up in conversation. The entire movie is handled not like a set-up for a series of twists, but as steadily unfolding actions that lead naturally from cause to effect. This, along with the unusual form for a heist movie, narrative time-hopping, use of flashback to develop character–all of this makes Reservoir Dogs a cinematic debut akin to Citizen Kane. It’s a movie more dedicated to its purpose than Pulp Fiction. The acting is on par, the cinematography is a notch below, but the love of film has been squeezed into a ninety-nine minute runtime, as opposed to two and a half hours. It goes after one thing and one thing only.
The ending’s raw power and white hot intensity would go unmatched for another 17 years of Tarantino’s career. It’s the culmination of inevitable consequences of unforeseen occurrences. It is the only ending this film can have, and it’s unique not only in contemporary crime films, but even in every other Tarantino film.
This film does something no other Tarantino film does. No matter whether you think it’s better than Pulp Fiction or Inglourious Basterds, it merits reconsideration if you don’t think it’s incredible. FOUR STARS
(wow, 1052 words without saying that the mole is Mr.–)