I get the feeling sometimes that Quentin Tarantino’s sole knowledge of what constitutes a good movie is “Do I think this is awesome?” I’m not knocking the notion, really; that’s an important criteria, and one that all too many film-makers forget. And it certainly helps my enjoyment of his films, as what he thinks is awesome is usually fairly congruent with what I think is cool. So it’s almost always fun to watch Tarantino’s films.
Reservoir Dogs, released in 1992, was Tarantino’s directorial debut, but it already shows some of what would become his hallmarks. There’s a lot of nattering by the various characters about random topics, there’s a degree of anachronic order, and there’s an awful lot of blood and gore. It could be lumped into the heist movie genre that I’m so fond of, but the majority of the film takes place after the heist — and after the heist has gone terribly wrong.
A nice leisurely breakfast, then we knock over the jewelery store. Never commit armed robbery on an empty stomach.
Crime lord Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and his son “Nice Guy” Eddie (Chris Penn) have a job they want pulled. There’s a jewelery store that is receiving a shipment of diamonds and he has some buyers who are interested. He assembles a team of six criminals to pull off the job. Most of them are known to him, none of them are known to each other — and he plans to keep it that way. They’re each assigned code names of different colors; his choice, not theirs. There’s Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), an old friend of Joe’s and an experienced hand. Mr. Brown (Tarantino) who tends to spout off nonsense with little provocation (the first scene is largely Mr. Brown rambling about Madonna songs). Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), who isn’t happy about being “Mr. Pink”, but tries to maintain a professional demeanor despite being a self-centered jerk. Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), young and relatively inexperienced compared to the others. Mr. Blue (Edward Bunker), who… well, is pretty much just a voiceless cameo. And Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), who isn’t blonde, has deep-seated issues, and is like a second son to Joe.
After the initial scene at the diner, the film cuts to the aftermath of the heist. The alarm was sounded. Mr. Blonde started shooting the hostages. And the cops showed up far too quickly. As Mr. Pink points out to Mr. White, it seems they have a rat on the team. He means a police officer undercover, but there’s another metaphorical meaning that applies here. The surviving criminals all start acting like rats in a cage: on edge, suspicious, and ready to tear into each other at a moment’s notice. While Pink and White debate taking the injured Orange to the hospital, Mr. Blonde arrives informing them he’s talked to Eddie and the scheduled meeting will still be taking place. Plus, he’s brought in a little extra — a police officer (Kirk Baltz) he’s taken hostage. He’s figured out the possibility of a mole as well, and he thinks maybe he can get the officer to talk.
Goons to the left of me, psychos to the right…
Despite the trademark Tarantino blood and gore, this isn’t exactly an action film. There are some shootout sequences, yes, but largely it’s a character study. Not so much of any particular individual character, however, though a few of them due get back story sequences showing their recruitment into the team (including, yes, the mole, or rat, or whatever rosorial descriptor you prefer). But rather, it’s a depiction of group dynamics, with a group that’s already been pretty well battered out of working order. With what we see of the characters, and how they interact, the film walks a narrow line with events that are shocking in their intensity but seemingly inevitable at the same time.
With the characters being the main part of the film, the actors bear the load of making it a decent film. Fortunately, Tarantino made some very good choices for the roles. His own character is essentially a one-scene cameo, and this is probably for the best; according to IMDb’s trivia page, he originally wanted to be Mr. Pink, but it’s doubtful to me that he would have been able to pull it off as well as Buscemi does. Buscemi appears constantly on edge, yet his character still maintains that veneer of decorum even when it’s clear he’s just a hair’s breadth away from bolting. Michael Madsen works well as the calm, collected psychopath, and Chris Penn provides an interesting counterpoint as the jovial, but no less psycho, “Nice Guy” Eddie. Tierney plays his crime lord like a businessman, and one that has iron control over himself and his operation. Tim Roth plays the inexperienced Mr. Orange perfectly, especially getting across the pain and fear that he’s in after being shot while escaping the heist. Keitel, of course, is brilliant; he makes Mr. White so likeable that it’s necessary to remind oneself that he’s still a remorseless cop-killer. Even Kirk Baltz, playing the abducted cop, puts in a good performance with the little screen time he actually has. And, of course, the actor playing the mole manages to portray the duplicity in such a way that it’s believable that the real criminals would be fooled.
Reservoir Dogs is not a particularly deep or complicated film. If it weren’t for the character flashbacks, it would be the equivalent of an especially bloody one-act play. And there are certainly some disturbing moments in it. But it’s an entertaining film, and well worth a look for anybody who has liked Tarantino’s other work. It is, at the least, a directorial debut he can be proud of.