cast: Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi, Tim Roth, and Chris Penn
writer and director: Quentin Tarantino
95 minutes (18) 1992
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Momentum DVD Region 2 retail
[released 7 June]
reviewed by Christopher Geary
MR BLONDE: Hey, Joe, you want me to shoot this guy?
MR WHITE: [laughs] Shit… You shoot me in a dream, you better wake up and apologise.
Top gangsters Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney, described as looking exactly like the Thing from Marvel’s superhero comic The Fantastic Four) and his son ‘Nice Guy’ Eddie (Chris Penn) hire six guys to rob a jewellery shop.
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To preserve their anonymity in case of arrest by the cops, Joe gives them all codenames. Larry (Harvey Keitel) is dubbed Mr White; Freddy (Tim Roth, who was sensational in British thriller The Hit, 1984) becomes Mr Orange; Steve Buscemi’s character is rather unhappy at being called Mr Pink; Michael Madsen’s laconic psycho ‘Toothpick’ Vic, alias Mr Blonde, is possibly the coolest sadist in 1990s’ cinema; Eddie Bunker plays Mr Blue, and Tarantino cast himself as Mr Brown. The actual crime, which happens off-screen, goes terribly wrong for these professional thieves. We are told that two of the gang are killed, and see another get seriously wounded in a shooting when an unplanned car-jacking meets with surprising resistance from the female driver.
At the rendezvous point, sympathetic hardman Mr White tries to figure out what the hell just happened, who’s got the loot and what they should do next. Amidst their angry bickering and fraying tempers, none of the gang suspects at first that one of their ‘colleagues’ is an undercover cop…
JOE CABOT: When this caper’s over – and I’m sure it’ll be a successful one – we’ll get down to the Cayman Islands. Hell, I’ll roll and laugh with all of ya. You’ll find me a different character down there. Right now, it’s a matter of business.
Despite clearly being inspired by a number of much earlier heist movies – most notably Stanley Kubrick’s classic The Killing (1956), Joseph Sargent’s suspenseful The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974), and Ringo Lam’s original Hong Kong thriller, City On Fire (1987), Reservoir Dogs became an extraordinarily influential piece of American cinema which, along with Scorsese’s mafia saga GoodFellas (1990), revitalised the crime drama subgenre of macho gangsters for the decade, and is still widely imitated even today. The plot here is tissue-thin, but there’s a great deal of authentic-sounding dialogue and some memorable lines are exchanged between the robbers, so wary of each other as strangers that many questions are asked at gun-point. The film has a novelistic structure (not, Tarantino insists, a string of flashbacks), yet the creatively non-linear narrative unfolds scene by scene, almost like a filmed stage-play. The few dynamic and truly cinematic sequences are all captured with impressive style and imagination, aided in particular by the subtle use of music, or the lack of it. Pop and rock songs enliven the soundtrack courtesy of deadpan deejay K-Billy’s ‘super sounds of the 1970s’ radio show.
MR PINK: You kill anybody?
MR WHITE: A few cops.
MR PINK: No real people?
MR WHITE: Just cops.
There can be no doubt that Reservoir Dogs is a great drama. The sheer fragility of working relationships between the narcissistic and egotistical yet ultimately quite shallow characters, and the tinderbox of dog-eat-dog anxieties within their group can only lead to sudden tragedy for nearly all concerned. They cannot trust each other because they are too afraid. They are doomed because they lack real human empathy. Since his infamous spot of ear-carving torture, playing off-camera while Stuck In The Middle With You by Stealer’s Wheel drones in cheery counterpoint, the menacing Mr Blonde (why isn’t he Mr Blond?) has long since become just as much a popular icon of terror and brutality of the 1990s, as the nasty freakshow paedophile Freddy Krueger was during the 1980s. The callous torture of a bound and gagged hostage policeman has emerged as the film’s black comedy signature, complete with its own ready-made theme tune. And yet, many censorious critics attacked the film for revelling in petty viciousness, ignoring the fact that its most violent moment is not actually shown, but left to the viewer’s imagination.
Even though the studied theatricality of its main drama is confined to a single, drably furnished warehouse set, Reservoir Dogs ingeniously brings together the static camerawork of documentary naturalism and a fervent sense of heightened reality. Occasionally, events turn sideways into ‘art house’ territory. Mr Orange’s elaborate yet fictionalised ‘anecdote’ to the gang, about his nervous encounter with a police dog and four LA County sheriffs, momentarily continues his narration of the amusing lies from within the ‘flashback’ scene itself. This inspired sequence, in particular (telling us more about the inner psychology of undercover cops than Donnie Brasco), is indicative of Tarantino’s grand aspirations as an artistic force in modern cinema. It’s obvious now that he’s not simply out to make a name for himself as the king of urban Hollywood cool. And yet only after his next picture, the widely acclaimed Pulp Fiction (1994) – with its narrative detours at times of crisis, and its complexity of overlapping storylines, exploring synergy, irreverence and metaphysical coincidence – did his creative ambitions become more evident.
This 10th anniversary edition DVD has a letterbox format transfer of the movie plus audio commentary by Tarantino, producer Lawrence Bender, and selected contributions from the cast and crew. The second disc has over three hours worth of extras. There is a set of all-new interviews (total runtime 55 minutes) with Chris Penn, Lawrence Bender, Tim Roth, and Tarantino, but the best of these is a candid ‘afternoon at home’ with Michael Madsen. Film Noir Files (20 minutes) is a chaptered featurette of interviews with directors like John Boorman, Stephen Frears, and Mike Hodges, plus writers like Donald Westlake and Jim Thompson’s biographer Robert Polito. Class Of ’92 (28 minutes) is a series of interviews with the filmmakers who led a brief revival in American independent cinema, and this section includes a particularly interesting interview with director Katt Shea (unfortunately, though, her name is misspelled not once but twice, in screen and menu credits!) There is also Sundance Institute Filmmakers Lab (12 minutes) that features intriguing ‘scenes from Reservoir Dogs’ being ‘workshopped’ by Tarantino. The five deleted scenes (total 13 minutes) include two alternative, uncompromisingly close-up versions of the fiendish ear-cutting scene. Securing The Shot: Location Scouting with Billy A. Fox is notable for photo panoramas of the warehouse set. Tributes And Dedications includes comments from blaxploitation king Jack Hill, actress Pam Grier (star of Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, 1997), and legendary producer Roger Corman.
As with the Region 1 release, this UK edition from Momentum sees the marketing aimed straight at collectors’ wallets, with a varied range of special DVD sleeves (a different one for each character!), and a gatefold display case enclosing an illustrated booklet.