Review: 'Reservoir Dogs'
Some directors make such startling first films that they cannot help attracting attention. Martin Scorsese's Who's That Knocking?, Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It, Peter Greenaway's The Draftsman's Contract, and Alan Rudolph's Welcome to L.A. are all audacious debut films. Now Quentin Tarantino, still in his twenties, makes his directing debut with a violent and blackly comic homage to B movie gangsters, Reservoir Dogs. His bold assured direction signals Tarantino as a talent to watch.
Reservoir Dogs is the story of a diamond heist gone wrong. The film opens with the eight crooks having breakfast and arguing about what Madonna's "Like a Virgin" means and whether or not one should leave a tip. They could be pals who just hang out like this on a regular basis. But after this casual almost aimless dialogue scene, the film abruptly thrusts us into the chaotic aftermath of the failed heist. Before we can even catch our breath, we find ourselves in the back seat of a getaway car as one of the thieves is bleeding profusely from a stomach wound while another tries to comfort him.
We soon find out that far from being friends these six guys were brought together by Joe Cabot (veteran tough guy Lawrence Tierney) and his son Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) precisely because they were all strangers. Cabot figured that these guys would be less likely to inform on each other if caught since they would know nothing about the other gang members. In fact, Cabot would not even let the men use their real names. The two men in the car go by the pseudonyms of Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) and Mr. White (Harvey Keitel who showed his support for the young director by co-producing the film). White brings the injured Orange back to the warehouse where they were all supposed to meet. The only problem is that he doesn't know if anyone else is still alive, if anyone has the diamonds or if they were set up by the cops.
Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) is certain that there is a rat in the house and he is determined to find him out. Then Mr. Blonde, (Michael Madsen), the only other survivor, shows up with a kidnapped cop that they can torture for information. The four men whose desperation leads them to pull guns on each other and accuse each other of being the fink, finally decide to wait for Cabot and Eddie to arrive to sort things out.
Tarantino, who also wrote the script, moves the film back and forth in time to fill in the details about the heist and the men. He shows how Cabot gathered up his gang and ran the operation, and how an undercover cop managed to work his way in. Tarantino gives us a world that falls somewhere between reality and the myths created by Hollywood B movies. On the one hand, the violence, especially in one torture scene, is brutal and disturbing the way real violence is. But on the other hand, the crooks sometimes behave like the three stooges and the film becomes a comic opera of absurdity. At one point, they argue about the assignment of pseudonyms. Mr. Pink wants to know why he's stuck with a silly one while someone else gets a cool name like Mr. White. The fact that these stylistic extremes work side by side is a tribute to Tarantino's audacious assurance as a director.
Although the film is set in the present, Tarantino uses music from the seventies, costumes his actors in conservative black suits that could be from any era and employs language that sometimes echoes the gangster films of the thirties and forties. His refusal to be time specific gives the film a kind of timelessness and makes it a more effective homage. Tarantino has an obvious and unabashed affection for the B movies he pays tribute to and he echoes their themes of betrayal, loyalty and friendship. He shows that even his desperate characters, or maybe because they are so desperate, feel the need for friendship and responsibility for each other.
One problem with the film is the racist and sexist attitude of its characters. They make frequent jokes and derogatory comments about African Americans and women. It raises the question about how blunt a director should be in depicting such character traits- is he just accurately depicting a character type or is he overindulging in something that will make people uncomfortable? Tarantino tries to offset the crooks' behavior by having the undercover cop tutored by an older black cop and signaling his distaste for the crooks' racism.
As a first time director, Tarantino benefits from a superb cast of established performers. Harvey Keitel gives one of his best performances as Mr. White who feels responsible for Mr. Orange's injuries. Keitel knows these mean streets and the rhythms of a guy like White. He is a riveting presence and he finds both the comic and the tragic aspects of his character. Tim Roth, dropping his English accent, is superb as Orange who fears that he will die while his co-horts argue endless around him. Steve Buscemi finds the most comic quirks in Mr. Pink and Michael Madsen is thoroughly unnerving as the quietly psychotic Mr. Blonde. Lawrence Tierney, like Keitel, seems to have been born for his role as the tough leader of this band of desperate criminals. Tarantino himself even makes a brief appearance as one of the doomed crooks and comedian Stephen Wright offers a humorous counterpoint to the action as a K.J. who is hosting a seventies flashback on the radio.
Reservoir Dogs is a violent, male dominated film that pulses with the energy of a young director who knows what he wants. It offers more style than substance but attains that level of nirvana where style becomes what the film is all about.
Reservoir Dogs moves with such confidence and outrageousness that it keeps you riveted to the screen.