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From Under A Rock: Reservoir Dogs

January 1, 2016 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
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From Under A Rock: Reservoir Dogs  


I (Michael) like to take each movie on its own merit. I don’t usually gravitate to a film just because of its filmmaker — usually I need to hear a unique/interesting premise and some good word of mouth (although I’m certainly willing to take the chance just off the first criterion alone). Quentin Tarantino is my exception to the rule. I haven’t seen Jackie Brown, but I enjoy all of his other movies (yes, even Death Proof) to varying degrees, with Inglourious Basterds being in my all-time top five and Pulp Fiction not too far behind. That’s why when I heard that Aaron hadn’t seen Tarantino’s debut feature, I was thrilled because it gave us the opportunity to review it for this column.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show (determined at the discretion of my writing partner, Aaron Hubbard and I in alternation). This column is a companion piece to my podcast of the same premise, which you can check out here.

Last week Aaron went to his Christmas past to permanently change Michael’s Christmas future by introducing him to The Muppets Christmas Carol. This week Michael takes Aaron out from under the proverbial rock by giving him a color-coded nickname and having him watch Reservoir Dogs.

Reservoir Dogs
Released: October 23rd, 1992
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Harvey Keitel as Mr. White
Tim Roth as Mr. Orange
Steve Buscemi as Mr. Pink
Lawrence Tierney as Joe Cabot
Michael Madsen as Mr. Blonde
Chris Penn as “Nice Guy” Eddie Cabot
Quentin Tarantino as Mr. Brown
Kirk Baltz as Marvin Nash
Randy Brooks as Holdaway
Edward Bunker as Mr. Blue

Michael Ornelas: Quentin Tarantino is a seminal filmmaker – I don’t think anyone would dispute that – and so he’s one of the few directors where I think studying their entire filmography is worth doing. Reservoir Dogs is an oft-hailed film in its own right, let alone one that kicked off the career of one of today’s most popular filmmakers, so when you told me you hadn’t seen it, I immediately knew I’d want to pick this to coincide with the release of The Hateful Eight, eight films and twenty-three years later.

Aaron Hubbard: The most fascinating aspect of watching this movie for movie was seeing a Tarantino film before he really hit his creative stride. His style is evident right away, but it’s a bit untamed. However, it’s easy to draw a line between the things this film is known for and every other Tarantino film to follow. Appropriately, Tarantino’s career starts with a bunch of guys sitting at a table and talking. Which is at least 40% of the rest of his other films.

Imposing Opinions
Michael: One of my favorite components to Reservoir Dogs is the fact that Tarantino establishes the fatal flaw in each of his characters so well throughout the feature, and flies in the face of what audiences want. Mr. Pink doesn’t want to tip at the beginning? We dislike him almost immediately and want to see him die (yet in the end he’s the only survivor and he has the diamonds). Mr. Orange is the most likable, as we’re introduced to him (and I mean really introduced to him) at a very vulnerable time in his life — bleeding out in the back of a car. We want nothing more than to see this man survive because he immediately appeals to our sympathies, and yet he’s the mole that’s out to screw over our protagonists. Mr. White is the smooth operator who we also like because he’s taking care of Mr. Orange and lets down his guard to have a human moment with a man in need, and he gets betrayed for it. Tarantino wanted to make a movie where we felt strongly about each of the characters from the jump, and proceeded to give us the opposite of what we wanted in every single case. Reservoir Dogs is a tragedy in every sense of the word.

Aaron: I’m going to disagree with you slightly on the term of “our protagonists”; to me, Mr. Orange and Mr. White are the only protagonists. Most of the characters are criminals who are only out to serve themselves and their own interests, and those aren’t heroes in my book. Mr. White has some redeeming qualities and I felt really bad about how all of the events affected him; he’s the one who loses the most despite being the all-around nice guy of the bunch. But it’s certainly a subversive film by Hollywood standards; the bad guy wins in the end, the good guys meet terrible fates, and it’s emotionally disconcerting. But it’s still enjoyable, I think largely because movies like this aren’t all over the place.

RD Ending
The Value of Ending Strong
Aaron: I have to admit, Reservoir Dogs is not a movie with a particularly strong front half. I can’t put my finger on it; there are some good ideas and really good characters, but I had trouble getting invested in the movie until further along. I think after the scene in which Mr. Blonde tortures a police officer, the movie hits its stride and starts taking us toward a riveting finale. It didn’t necessarily make me love the whole movie or anything, but it left a strong final impression.

Michael: I can agree that the film’s pacing is not as strong as Tarantino’s later films, but I wasn’t as down on it as you were. The movie starts with a diner scene which is slow, but shows us the characters. Once we see Mr. Orange bleeding in the backseat though, we get some momentum. It definitely tapers for a while after that though, and I agree that it picks up with Blonde’s cop-torture scene. Many movies suffer from “a weak second act” and Reservoir Dogs falls victim to that, but I’m also more forgiving on a first-time filmmaker. I won’t adjust my rating to account for that, but there’s something to be said for creating this movie on your first trip around the block. The ending still holds up very strongly, as the glorious chain reaction of gunshots is an epic moment that – for as convoluted as it was – felt very organic, and I know that when I watched this for the first time I didn’t see it coming.

Aaron: I wasn’t “down” on the film, but I did find myself checking my watch every couple of minutes. Parts of the script meander and this film doesn’t have enough of a plot to merit it. There’s a rat. He set the team up, but who is it? That’s the gist and I thought the characters spent a bit too much time on it. I also felt that some of Tarantino’s more controversial tropes, such as hate speech and graphic bloodshed, aren’t used as artfully and came across a bit too gratuitous for my taste. I’m glad I stuck it out though because even early on it’s clear that Tarantino has genuine creativity and knows how to tell a good story. The pieces to the puzzle are on the table, but he hasn’t quite put it together yet. It’s pretty cool to see a movie like that that’s also good on it’s own merit. It reminded of the first time I watched Nightcrawler, a film that does a few things extremely well and leaves an impression despite some notable weaknesses.

Code Names
The Implementation of Code Names
Michael: So I think one of the most interesting storytelling devices in this film is the stressed importance of anonymity amongst those participating in the heist. It gives the audience an effective way to get to learn the characters because they’re all strangers to one another. This gives the script an organic way to inquire about basic characteristic traits without feeling forced, it adds to the mystery of the mole situation, and it takes us as viewers on that ride. It also makes it easy to see why a job like this would have a mole in the first place: I’d imagine that a tight-knit group of criminals who are all familiar with one another would be more successful at a job like this. Just look at Ocean’s Eleven or The Usual Suspects. Not everyone knows one another, but at least everyone knows someone (with the exception of Verbal in The Usual Suspects…and we saw how that played out). It’s a basic feature of this film that drives most of the action.

Aaron: Not to mention it makes it easy to remember the character’s names, something I tend to struggle with in most movies set in modern day. In a way, the color-coding reminded of the board game Clue, and I wonder if that’s intentional. This film is essentially a “Whodunnit?” that takes place largely on one set. Everybody is trying to decipher everyone’s motives and who might be the culprit. Intentional or not, having that connection makes me enjoy the movie a bit more, and I hear it’s a strong aspect of Tarantino’s new film. So we’re now seeing him come full circle.

Michael: I’ve stayed away from any information regarding The Hateful Eight but I’m totally down to watch a whodunnit. And the parallels to Clue are interesting; I didn’t see them before but it completely makes sense now that you mention it. And Tarantino has never been shy about referencing other works in his own movies, either with dialogue or blatant situational/visual homages. To add to the discussion of code names one last time: the conversation around “Why am I Mr. Pink?” is one of my favorite Tarantino conversations across all of his films.

Aaron: That’s probably the bit I’m going to remember most, along with Tim Roth committing his story to memory and reciting it over time.

Aaron: When I think about this movie and how I want to grade it, I’m torn. Part of me feels like this is a letdown just because I’m used to Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds, but I also think I should judge this film on its own merit and not against Tarantino’s impressive resume. For me, I think it has strong characters, an interesting premise, and some truly memorable scenes. But even at just about 100 minutes, it feels like it overstays its welcome a bit in the second act. Still, for a first effort, it’s a solid film and one I’m glad I took the time to see.


Michael: This is indeed a hard film to judge on its own merit because of who’s responsible for it. It’s a bit stronger to me than to Aaron, and that’s fine – I appreciate how distinct each of the characters are from one another, and I think the pace at which we found out their backstories keep things interesting throughout, even if we’re essentially watching a fishbowl movie take place. My biggest gripe with the film is repetition of emotion in the characters without a well-progressed heightening of it — it starts at an intense, cutthroat place, so it’s very hard to maintain that throughout (and also, where do we go from there?). That said, I think the introduction to what makes Tarantino’s movies feel unique is pervasive throughout the entire movie, and that’s enough to get it graded a little higher for me.


Where does this film fall when compared to Tarantino’s other works?

Next week:

Aaron: The next movie comes to us faster than a speeding bullet, and its legacy is stronger than a locomotive. It launched a new subgenre of movies almost twenty-five years before it started dominating American cinemas. It’s…


Michael: I’ve actually never seen any movie with Superman in it, as I’ve always gravitated toward Batman movies. With Dawn of Justice on the horizon, I guess it’s time I familiarize myself with the John Cena of superheroes, huh?

Aaron: Except Superman actually has a weakness; Kryptonite. But in all reality, I’m a card-carrying member of the Superman Fan Club. I hope both he and his movie manage to exceed your expectations.

What are your opinions on the Man of Steel and his film history? Are you looking forward to Batman v. Superman?

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The final score: review Good
The 411
Tarantino's directorial debut is a bit rough around the edges, but that doesn't dismiss what it accomplishes by any means. A likable cast and the starting block for one of the most distinctive voices in cinematic history (for better or for worse) make this movie very solid. Tarantino certainly has better films, but if you find that you haven't seen the movie that started his career, I think you'd walk away from it with a positive experience. The script is smart, the dialogue holds up, and the presentation is unconventional (in an innovative way). Thumbs up for Reservoir Dogs.