Reservoir Dogs (1992): Tarantino’s Impressive Debut

Like Martin Scorsese, the innovator indie director Quentin Tarantino does not feel superior to Hollywood’s “debased” genres, i.e. crime movies.  Quite the contrary, Tarantino has used the conventions of B-movies to make personal A-films. Situated in Scorsese’s thematic turf, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are serio-comic meditations on manhood, honor, loyalty, and redemption.

Like Scorsese’s best, Tarantino’s movies are essentially European art films disguised as American crime movies. Tarantino’s work is not just an homage to B-movies, it’s re-spun with the attention allotted to  art-house veneer.

Despite thematic links, Tarantino’s tone and sensibility differ from Scorsese’s. Tarantino is an ironist who doesn’t believe in emotionalism, fearing that he might lose his edge–and his audience. Tarantino’s heroes are as hip, lurid, and self-reflexive as befit the pulp literary tradition that inspired them. He refuses to sentimentalize his characters, or force them to repent, the way Scorsese does in his spiritual films. Unlike the world of both Scorsese and Ferrara, Tarantino’s is an unsentimental world with little use for conventional notions of good and evil. Defying realism and noir fatalism, Tarantino sees no problem in granting his anti-heroes a second chance.

Nonetheless, Tarantino’s dissection of the macho code has not yet achieved the emotional richness or mature depth of Scorsese. His idol is Jean-Pierre Melville, the maverick French director for whom style was a kind of morality. Tarantino’s production company is named “Band Apart,” after Godard’s landmark movie, but, as John Powers noted, so far, he hasn’t shown Godard’s (or other New Wave directors’) sophistication about politics and philosophy.

Placed among his contemporaries, Tarantino stands in diametric opposition to Jim Jarmusch, who has shown contempt for the mass public. He is a natural-born entertainer who’s challenged by captivating his audience with frolicsome movies. Tarantino understands that his movies are as much a reflection of pop culture as they are pop culture themselves. Pulp Fiction is a frisky postmodern commentary on old movies, consciously playing with audiences expectations.

Before Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino wrote the screenplay for True Romance, intending to raise money and direct it himself. However, unsuccessful at attracting investors, he wrote another violent script, Natural Born Killers, but, again, rejections followed. Warner bought True Romance as a big-budget movie for Tony Scott and lost a bundle on it. Then Oliver Stone optioned the script for Natural Born Killers and turned it into a vicious, coldhearted farce. Even so, arguably, the highlights in both movies are the characters and their monologues, which are Tarantino’s trademark.

Though self-conscious about the noir tradition and based more on old movies than real life, Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s first movie as helmer, flaunted a sparkling script and superlative performances. The movie created a buzz in the festival circuit, winning the international critics award in Toronto for making “a spectacular debut that combines a brilliant narrative sense, an expressive use of space, and insightful direction of actors.” A moral tale suitable for a jaded, topsy-turvy world, Reservoir Dogs boasts dark humor and bravura stylistic command.

Centering on a group of men who, unbeknownst to each other, are brought together to assist a criminal mastermind in a jewelry heist, the movie explores the dynamics of the white male psyche–identity, camaraderie, paranoia and sexual ambiguity–under conditions of crisis and stress. Structurally, Reservoir Dogs bears resemblance to Stanley Kubrick’s heist film, The Killing (1956), with Tarantino using a similarly complex narrative format, though after its release, critics claimed that Reservoir Dogs borrowed heavily from the Hong Kong film, City on Fire.

The tale opens with seven mugs–played by Michael Madsen, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Chris Penn, Steve Buscemi, Lawrence Tierney, Edie Bunker and Tarantino–sitting in a restaurant and arguing about the meaning of Madonna’s song, “Like a Virgin.” They sound like macho blowhards, but they are in fact a bunch of crooks on their way to a bank job. The heist that follows goes very wrong, when it turns out the cops have been forewarned. The gang members slowly regroup in an empty warehouse, where they try to determine which of their members has squealed. The story is pieced together through sharp dialogue and inventively placed flashbacks.

Wearing black suits, white shirts, black ties and sunglasses, Tarantino’s guys are the epitome of cool. Early on, when they are assigned code names, one (Buscemi) objects to being called Mr. Pink and asks why they can’t choose their own names. Answers the boss: “I tried that once. It don’t work. You get four guys fighting over who’s gonna be Mr. Black.”

The Tarantino touch is also evident in a scene in which the undercover cop (Roth), who has infiltrated the gang, experiences a panic attack before the heist, fearing he will be unmasked. Recalling De Niro’s self-reflexive scenes in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, the cop stands in his apartment and talks to his reflection in the mirror. “Don’t pussy out on me now,” he says, “They don’t know. They don’t know shit. You’re not gonna get hurt. You’re fucking Baretta, and they believe every word, ’cause you’re supercool.” Baretta was a popular 1970s TV show, with a hero who was an undercover cop and master of disguises. One of the crooks, Mr. Blue, is played by Eddie Bunker, known for the crime novels he wrote while in prison.

A brutal torture scene, in which a cop’s ear is slowly cut off, had squeamish audiences fleeing the theater. But, for all the gore, the film’s most striking image is that of a wounded Keitel holding in his arms the fatally wounded Tim Roth and combing his hair. The graphic violence, as Amy Taubin observed, not only exposed the sado-masochistic bond between the filmmaker and viewers but also expressed the violence of the underclass and its paranoid abhorrence of other groups. The all-male, white cast suggests that violence is the only way for the white underclass to assert its superiority over non-whites–including women and homosexuals.

End Note

Space doesn’t permit me to dwell on the outstanding music and sound tracks, which includes such songs as “Little Green Bag,” “Hooked on a Feeling,” and “Stuck in the Middle with You,” all integrated into the narrative at the proper, poignant moment. Comedian Steven Wright introduces some of the tracks by imitating a deadpan radio DJ on “K Billy’s Super Sounds of the 1970s.”

I’ll return to this landmark debut in other columns.