Cult Caravan: Reservoir Dogs
Quentin Tarantino made his mark as a director in 1992 with Reservoir Dogs and began a downward spiral into whatever the hell he’s doing now. Yes, that’s awfully dismissive. No, we’re not sorry.
Reservoir Dogs is a visceral piece, equal parts smart camerawork and snappy dialogue. What makes it more impressive than Tarantino’s later work is that it displays all of the hallmarks of his schlock shock pop culture collage style of filmmaking, but as a debut, and on a fraction of the budget its director would soon become used to playing with.
Post-Dogs, it wasn’t long before Tarantino cemented his place as one of the world’s most loved and influential writer/directors. There’s something of Ouroboros about that: Tarantino is so accessible, and therefore influential, because he is a massive fan of cinema. He borrows liberally (but usually respectfully) from movies and directors that influence him, and in doing so he introduces the casual film fan to obscure cinema genre, cinema history and filmmaking technique. Whether or not this works for you is another issue; for every Tarantino fan, there is a critic who asks if there’s a substantial enough line between homage and plagiarism. Reservoir Dogs is by no means exempt from this question: it owes a great debt to films like The Killing, Kansas City Confidential, The Big Combo and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Even its title is a homage to another movie – Tarantino reportedly coined the name Reservoir Dogs from his own repeated mangling of the pronunciation of Au Revoir Les Enfants.
So in a sense, there’s nothing altogether original about Reservoir Dogs; its brilliance derives from chutzpah rather than innovation. And if there were any danger of Tarantino’s sense of style eating itself, it was held in check by a magnificent ensemble cast. The amusing aside here is that there’s only one performance in Reservoir Dogs that’s less than stellar, and its Tarantino’s; originally planning to play Mr. Pink, he awarded himself the role of Mr. Brown and appropriated some of Pink’s dialogue after conceding that Steve Buscemi could do a far better job in the role than he ever could. That said, he doesn’t appear in the movie long enough to be atrocious, which is decent of him.
Crime boss Joe, played by a gnarled Lawrence Tierney, plans a diamond heist, and employs six crooks to carry it out. They don’t know one another, and that’s the way Joe wants to keep it, so they’re assigned code names. Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) is a career criminal and an old friend of Joe’s, and has a heart that’s considerably oversized for his chosen path through life. Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) has just completed a four year prison sentence protecting Joe’s identity, but he’s as psychopathic as he is loyal. Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) is whip smart and a consummate professional who acts as the voice of reason when he’s not giving lip about waitresses. Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) is cool and likeable, but doesn’t have a huge amount of experience in armed robbery, and Mr. White feels compelled to take him under his wing. Mr. Brown and Mr. Blue (Tarantino and Eddie Bunker respectively) make up the numbers – though not for long – and the management team is completed by Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn), Joe’s son and a total chip off the old block.
Naturally, everything goes to shit.
Tarantino isn’t concerned with showing us how everything goes to shit; Reservoir Dogs, despite its all-male cast and subject matter, is not an action film. Tarantino is less concerned with what happens than he is with why it happens, consistently more interested in dialogue and the interactions between his characters than in grandiose stunts or glossy warfare. Often called ‘hyper-violent’, the carnage in Dogs is anything but. Sure, there are shootouts, standoffs, torture, rapid blood-loss and more fucks flying than in the entire history of the Mile High Club, but it’s all so earnestly realistic. There’s blood because there needs to be. There’s brutality because the characters make their lucre in a brutal business. Every instance of violence in their story seems raw, real and messy, from Mr. Orange’s deterioration, to Mr. Pink’s run-in with the bonnet of a car, to that infamous ear-cutting scene (which happens off-camera, anyway).
So why the cult status? It’s an interesting question: while there’s humour in Dogs, there’s not enough of it to make black comedy; while there’s violence, it’s not hyperbolic enough to provide camp shocks or genuine horror. It may be the snappy dialogue, which all too often veers into the realm of Very Forced Jive Talk (the scenes between Orange and his ‘real’ boss are practically excruciating). It may be its superb soundtrack. It may be the fact that it’s essentially a study of bromance in the mire: the relationship between Orange and White forms the twisted heart of the film, to the extent where Orange gives his life to White in recognition of the older man’s protection.
So yeah, here’s where the spoilers come. The damn flick’s twenty years old, though, so if you haven’t seen it you have little legitimate cause for complaint.
With the meticulously planned heist having gone awry in the bloodiest possible way – Blonde goes on a rampage, Blue and Brown are killed, Orange is badly wounded – White and Orange make their way back to the rendezvous. Orange has been shot in the belly and is bleeding out. White attempts to keep his spirits up, and is generally all sorts of tender and awesome. Pink arrives back at the rendezvous with a rather more sober focus: they’ve clearly been set up, and there’s someone amongst them working with the police.
As he and White argue ferociously about what’s transpired – White gets particularly defensive when Pink bawls him out for telling Orange his first name – Blonde arrives back, cool as a cucumber, and with a cop hostage in tow. Eddie shows up, makes plans to sort the fuck-up, and leaves Blonde ‘babysitting’ the hostage and the now-passed-out Orange. Blonde launches enthusiastically into the ear-cutting scene to the now-iconic strains of Stealer’s Wheel’s ‘Stuck In The Middle With You’, douses the cop in petrol, and is about to set him alight when Orange comes to and blows Blonde away.
Orange is an undercover cop.
Possibly the most badass undercover cop in cinema, when you look back at his interactions with White while he was bleeding his way towards an early grave. Even though he’d just been shot in the gut, even though he’s fully convinced he’s going to die, he still has the presence of mind to get White’s real name out of him and he still has the resolve to stay at the rendezvous, in delirious agony on the floor, waiting for Joe to show up so that everything he’s worked for won’t be derailed by a simple case of his bleeding to death. Orange is a fucking hero.
Eddie, Pink and White arrive back to the sign of Blonde’s corpse. Eddie immediately susses what’s really going on. Joe arrives at last, and is about to kill Orange when White, still convinced of his friend’s integrity, pulls a gun on Joe. Eddie pulls on White, and so we get the famous Mexican standoff that cinephiles continue to argue about to this day. All three men shoot. All fall to the floor. Orange takes another bullet. Joe and Eddie are dead. White, wounded, crawls to his friend and cradles his head. Orange, overcome with guilt – perhaps there’s honour amongst thieves after all – repays White for his unwavering faith the only way he can. With the truth.
‘I’m a cop,’ he says. ‘I’m a cop’.
White, finally broken, kills his friend as the cops bust in and open fire.
The Moral Of The Story
It may seem a stretch to suggest that a film so concerned with swagger and style could have a moral at its centre, but it certainly does, and it’s one that’s significantly deeper and more impressive than anything Tarantino’s worked with since. To borrow from the Coens, this is one about ‘friendship, character, ethics’. Orange, focused on his mission even after he’s mortally wounded, eventually must acknowledge all that White has done for him, at least, for the man he’s pretending to be. He acknowledges this by offering White his life.
His deception (albeit necessary and state-sanctioned) has cost White his life; it is only fair for Orange to pay him in kind.
- Reservoir Dogs was shot on such a shoestring budget that the funds weren’t available to kit the actors out in the snappy suits Tarantino had in mind. Harvey Keitel’s suit was gifted to him by the designer, and both Steve Buscemi and Tim Roth are wearing black jeans under their suit jackets. Chris Penn is wearing his own tracksuit top.
- If you’re wondering what happens with that Mexican standoff, the official line is that Joe shoots Orange first, White shoots Joe, Eddie shoots White, and White wheels around and shoots Eddie. It looks muddled on-screen because the blood squibs don’t go off at the right times. They didn’t reshoot the scene because… yeah, budget.
- Kirk Baltz, who plays the cop that Mr. Blonde tortures, wanted to know how it felt to be driven around in the boot of a car in order to get into character as a brutalised hostage. So Michael Madsen stuck him in his car boot, drove to Taco Bell and got a takeaway. He was still drinking from his Taco Bell cup when they began rehearsing the scene back on set, and Tarantino loved that look so much he kept it in (though he substituted with a non-branded cup so as not to upset Taco Bell).
- Pink, the voice of reason, is the only Dog left alive at the end, but he doesn’t get away. You can hear him being arrested outside the warehouse if you listen closely.
- Mr. Blue is played by Eddie Bunker, a career-criminal-turned-writer.
- Producer Lawrence Bender says that Steve Buscemi ‘didn’t even give the best audition, but something about him was so right for the part’. Buscemi, of course, ran away with the film, something he made a habit of in the two decades subsequent.
- Three of the cast are no longer with us: Lawrence Tierney died in 2002, Eddie Bunker in 2005, and Chris Penn in 2006.
- Steve Buscemi and Quentin Tarantino joked that they got into character by knocking over a fruit stand and stealing newspapers. We’d pay to see that on screen.
- The movie opens with Brown, Tarantino’s character, engaging his new colleagues in a bit of customary pop culture analysis with his theory that Madonna’s song ‘Like A Virgin’ was about a nymphomaniac having sex with a guy with a huge dick. Madonna later gifted Tarantino with a copy of her album Erotica and signed it, ‘To Quentin – it’s about love, not dick.’