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Dissecting the Classics – Reservoir Dogs

March 14, 2019 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Reservoir Dogs

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

This month, we’ll be taking a look at the works of Quentin Tarantino, one of the defining directors of our time. We’ll look at his most famous movie, his best movie, and his last genuinely great one. But we’re gonna start at the beginning.

Reservoir Dogs

Wide Release Date: October 23, 1992
Written and Directed By: Quentin Tarantino
Produced By: Lawrence Bender
Cinematography By: Andrzej Sekula
Edited By: Sally Menke
Production Company: Live America, Inc. and Dog Eat Dog Productions
Distributed By: Miramax Films
Harvey Keitel as Mr. White/Larry
Tim Roth as Mr. Orange/Freddy
Michael Madsen as Mr. Blonde/Vic Vega
Chris Penn as “Nice Guy” Eddie Cabot
Steve Buscemi as Mr. Pink

What Do We All Know?

Reservoir Dogs is the first feature film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. While it was a modest success in its theatrical run, it found its true place on home video, especially after the monster success of Pulp Fiction raised awareness of the writer/director. Like Pulp Fiction and basically all of Tarantino’s work, Reservoir Dogs is a violent, vulgar film that uses shock value to punctuate it’s non-linear plot, while showcasing exceptional dialogue. And while it’s not held in the same regard as Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds or even Kill Bill, the film is a cult classic that is generally well received and fondly remembered.

In the interest of full disclosure, Reservoir Dogs failed to land with me on my first watch. I’d seen too much of Tarantino’s later work that seeing what is by far his most amateur piece couldn’t help but be a letdown, especially since I would consider myself a Tarantino fanboy at the time. Having cooled on the director somewhat and with the burden of expectations removed, how does Reservoir Dogs hold up on a second viewing?

What Went Right?

Amusingly, Reservoir Dogs is a story where nothing goes right. While ostensibly a heist film, we see very little of the actual crime and instead start en media res to view the consequences of what went wrong. If the stellar dialogue in the cold open diner scene failed to grab your attention, the sight of Tim Roth bleeding to death in the back of a car as Harvey Keitel tries to assure him that he won’t die will certainly demand it. So, yeah, in case you haven’t seen the movie, I hope that indicates the massive spoiler warning, because this is a movie where you just can’t really get into the film’s high points without discussing major events.

From there, we get a mostly well-paced three act structure. The first third of the movie details Mr. White and Mr. Pink discussing the crime and their belief that things were a set up, which ends with the arrival of Mr. Blonde, whose carrying a young cop in the trunk of his car. The second act shows us who Mr. Blonde is; a sadistic criminal for life named Vic Vega, fresh out of prison and ready to get back in the game. The third act pulls the trigger on revealing what set this all in motion; that Mr. Orange is the undercover cop, and that everything we have seen is the result of him doing his job. Each of these acts focus on revealing character and changing our understanding of what has happened, and showcase the value of the film’s non-linear structure. Watching the movie in chronological order simply would not yield the same experience.

The plot of Reservoir Dogs and the structure it uses to reveal that plot are solid enough as it is, but as is often the case with Tarantino films, the story is elevated by the quality of the writing and the actors saying the lines. While this wasn’t exactly the screenplay gamechanger that Pulp Fiction would be, we see many of that film’s hallmarks on display here: the opening diner scene contains a discussion about Madonna songs and tipping while allowing us to get a grasp of Mr. White and Mr. Pink’s characters, the excellent sequence in which Mr. Orange learns, rehearses and finally tells his made-up encounter with sheriffs to get in with the criminals is an excellent use of a character telling an entertaining story, and we get several conversations where characters reference one form of pop culture or another. And we have the good fortune of having Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi and Michael Madsen to deliver most of this dialogue. The majority of the movie almost feels like a stage play, and these guys know how to execute a movie that relies on very few props and a lot of compelling conversation.

What Went Wrong?

Reservoir Dogs is a very good, bordering on truly great film that most directors would be proud of. But it’s also a film by Quentin Tarantino, a director who has grown by leaps and bounds and who would leave this film in the dust in just two years. So, with the acknowledgment that the movie is still very good, I feel the film does have some pacing issues, feeling longer than it really is. Some of the conversations feel redundant or unimportant and aren’t entertaining enough to justify it, and there is a slew of racial slurs that don’t seem to be in the movie for any real reason except for Tarantino’s seeming need to shock the audience at every turn. This is a pretty serious issue across all of his films, but one I have some mixed feelings about and feel it would be better saved for a different movie of his. But in Reservoir Dogs, they serve no real narrative or character purpose and thus just feel like they simply exist to be offensive, which is a cheap and lazy screenwriting technique for someone of Tarantino’s caliber.

And In Summary…

Grading on the curve that Tarantino’s later filmography provides, it’s easy to see Reservoir Dogs as simply a pretty good but not that special film. It’s better than The Hateful Eight or Death Proof, but doesn’t quite feel at home among Pulp Fiction or Inglourious Basterds. That said, when I see Empire rank it as the greatest independent film of all time, it feels like a fair appraisal of the movies quality. I quite enjoy this movie, and I think it gets better on rewatches, something that is true of Tarantino’s best movies. While I feel like adjusting one’s expectations to account for the fact that this is Tarantino’s proper directorial debut is a good idea, this movie is a very good time for those looking for a gritty, bloody crime movie that’s smarter than anything from its era not directed by Martin Scorsese.

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