Reservoir Dogs

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.

Rating: 4 Stars

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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24 Responses to Reservoir Dogs

  1. yaykisspurr says:

    Cool post, I’ve never seen this. Pinned. Cheers πŸ™‚

    • Thanks, yaykisspurr. I don’t know if you’ve seen Pulp Fiction or not, but if you did and liked it, this is definitely one you’ll want to look up.

      • yaykisspurr says:

        Actually I think I did on tv. I know I saw the Kill Bills he made (right?) and LOVED them. I’m intrigued by this idea you proposed that he has characters ramble about things unrelated to the forward plot. πŸ™‚

        • OK, if you liked Kill Bill, you should be fine with this (and Pulp Fiction, if it turns out you didn’t see it). It’s not as intricate as KB, but it’s still pretty fun.

          And yeah, the rambling is present in all of his films, I think. Like Bill’s talk about Superman in KB, or the infamous “Royale with Cheese” discussion in Pulp Fiction; nothing to do with anything, really, but it’s entertaining to watch.

    • sanclementejedi says:

      its streaming via netflix, worth a watch fo shizzle

  2. Mark Walker says:

    Excellent review Morgan. You’ve really made me want to see this again soon. It was my favourite film for years but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen it. By the way, does …”Mr. Pink sound like Mr. Pussy”? πŸ˜‰ Quality stuff.

    • Yes… one thing Tarantino excels at as a writer is making dialogue that sounds like it’s something that would be said by real people. In this case, real racist vulgar people, but real people nevertheless. πŸ˜‰

      • Mark Walker says:

        Exactly, his dialogue has a ring to it, that you don’t tire of listening to. It’s all bravado from these guys but that’s exactly how it should be as none of them want to let their guard down. Tarantino himself, in the acting stakes, is this films only flaw. He doesn’t convince. Eddie Bunker who plays Mr.Blue was actually a real criminal that done time before he got involved in films.

        • Yeah, I consider it a good thing Tarantino’s role was as brief as it was. Bunker’s, on the other hand, might have benefited the film more had it been more substantial. He got, what, two lines? And they were fairly inconsequential ones in the diner scene. His experience might have added to the realism.

        • Mark Walker says:

          Yeah, I think Bunker was probably only onboard as an advisor. Tarantino was probably picking his brains on the behaviour of criminals. Steve Buscemi ended up directing a film based on one of Bunker’s stories “Animal Factory”. It’s not a bad film.

        • I might check that one out sometime. Thanks!

  3. sanclementejedi says:

    Nice review Morgan, I keep scrolling by this on Netflix when looking for something to watch. Going to have to give this a rewatch. At one time this was in heavy rotation as it one of about a dozen films I owned at the time.

    I actually ran into Nice Guy Eddie on the 3rd street promenade about 10 years ago, he was wearing a sweatsuit. I s**t you not. RIP Nice Guy Eddie.

    • Jeez, I didn’t even realize until you mentioned it that Chris Penn wasn’t still around. That’s tragic… I’ll grant I haven’t seen a lot of his work, but just from RD, it seemed like he could have been as successful as his brother given time.

  4. Eric says:

    Great review of a great film. I really ought to go back and rewatch Tarantino’s early films — it has been years since I have seen this, but I still have vivid memories of it. Of course, I can’t hear “Stuck in the Middle with You” without thinking of this.

    • Amazing how using a song in a particular scene can alter how the song itself is perceived, isn’t it?

      • Mark Walker says:

        This is not a comment to blow my own trumpet. Despite how it might seem, but Gerry rafferty (from steeler’s wheel) actually wrote that song in a flat in Paisley, Scotland, whilst full of the joys of alcohol. (I say this because I have known good folk who claim to have been there when he wrote it). I come from Glasgow, just outside Paisley but it has become a recurrent story amongst Scottish people, now that it has been part of popular film culture. (Sorry for the rant) πŸ˜‰

  5. Nice post. Nice discussion. Havent checked in in a bit, my apologies.

    I love this flick. I think youre right about the “Play” feel… most likely because of the single set. Doesnt mean its not great though. Great dialogue, great characters, great plot. Love this flick.

    One of my top fifty, for sure. Nicely done!

    • Oh, well, look who’s here. Mr. Thrice-Freshly-Pressed who doesn’t have time for his friends anymore. πŸ˜›

      Kidding, kidding, of course. I totally get being a bit swamped right now… I’m just glad that this time I wasn’t subscribed to the comments for the post that got FP’d, like I was with the Big Lebowski post. I can only imagine how much work it is when you actually have to sift through all of that. Hope some of the visitors stick around for you.

      It’s a very entertaining flick. I don’t know that I’d place it my top 50, personally — I only felt it earned 4 stars from me, not 5 — but it’s pretty clear a lot of people love this film. Certainly lighting up the comments section of my board more than usual.

  6. Jaina says:

    Only saw this film for the first time this year and I loved it. Out of all of Tarantino’s films, think this is probably my favourite, because it’s such a great character driven film. The dialogue is fantastic. The characters are real characters. Part of me wished that Tarantino would go back and do another film like this.

    • Yes, it does seem just a little bit like Tarantino’s characters are often reduced from personalities into just being vessels for “the awesome”. But they’re still fun movies to watch. Glad you liked this one.

  7. jonsilver1947 says:

    Here I have to vehemently disagree…I saw Reservoir Dogs first, then Pulp Fiction…hated them both and swore I’d avoid another Tarantino like the plague, and I have done a marvelous job keeping that vow…I love many heist movies (The Asphalt Jungle is superb), and blood and gore don’t necessarily put me off (The Wild Bunch is outstanding), but the sheer pointlessness of every bit of RD and PF is staggering…

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