Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Directed by Quentin Tarantino


Alright so Reservoir Dogs is Quentin Tarantino’s first film.  It’s an inspired little movie, self-contained in much the same way 2015’s The Hateful Eight is.  The movie is unmistakably a Tarantino film, complete with memorable characters, cartoonish amounts of blood, and an amount of gun violence that acts almost as the chorus of a song, the bridge of which is the fast-paced banter between characters.

Tarantino’s conviction in his own style is impressive.  He seems to have made the film he wanted to make.  Whether it’s the gore, the detours from the plot to discuss pop culture, or the non-chronological narrative, this is a story only Tarantino could tell.  Reservoir Dogs is innovative and inspired, made by a sort of madman who clearly loves movies and throws in a bunch of callbacks to other movies that served to educate him.  When Tarantino himself opens the film as Mr. Brown, discussing Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” you can easily picture Tarantino the person doing the same thing but with old movies.  Tarantino’s movies are based on other movies and reactions to the ways those movies are told.

Reservoir Dogs is a heist movie that never shows you the heist.  The movie opens with a group of men, bank robbers, eating breakfast together at an old school diner.  They banter about pop culture and soon about the custom of tipping in the restaurant industry.  The camera swirls around them, in a way shooting them like they’re old friends who we might already feel a deep attachment to.

Yet these are characters we don’t know and who barely know each other.  They are hired by a man, Joe (Lawrence Tierney), specifically for a one time job and told to use aliases so as to never get too close.  They go by Mr. Pink, Brown, Blue, Orange, White, etc.

The group is organized very much like in 1968’s The Thomas Crown Affair.  In that movie, Steve McQueen, as Thomas Crown, is a rich man who organizes bank heists with a surgeon’s precision.  Part of his plan involves hiring men on a one off basis, dressing them exactly alike, then sending them on their way.  They are complete strangers brought together for a single job and then released back into the wild.

That’s the same exact set up in Reservoir Dogs, and yet the first scene sets up a certain fraternity between these men.  Though they don’t even know each others’ names, they can banter like old college buddies and even rib each other like brothers.

Before we know it we’re in a small car with Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) and Mr. Orange (Tim Roth).  As White drives, Orange squeals like a stuck pig.  He’s been shot during the course of the robbery, and Tarantino makes sure you know this isn’t just a movie gunshot, this is real pain.  Orange’s expression of that pain is hard to bear but likely perfectly reasonable considering the blood loss and pain of a gunshot in the gut.

Again, despite the fact that these men hardly know each other, the bond between Mr. White and Mr. Orange is the movie’s through line.  It’s a very paternal relationship between the older man and the younger one, particularly as the older man cares for the young one.  It’s also the only clear demonstration of affection between any of the other characters in the movie.

White and Orange hide out in a warehouse where the rest of the movie (save for flashbacks) will take place.  Mr. Orange continues to bleed out, certain he’s going to die, and he lies there for the rest of the film and the rest of his life.

Soon Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) shows up, certain that the heist turned south because there is a rat in the group.  He’s hot-tempered, but not as much as the rest of the group, soon to arrive.

The wild card is Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen).  He arrives with a cop in his trunk as a hostage, and the most memorable scene in the film is when Mr. Blonde delights in a little song and dance number and slices off the cop’s ear.  When he’s about to light the cop on fire, Mr. Orange wakes up and kills Mr. Blonde, firing an entire round into Mr. Blonde’s chest.  This is when we learn that Mr. Orange is the police informant Mr. Pink is worried about.

So, the film is told in a series of flashbacks, each with a simple title card introducing us to one of the men.  In these flashbacks we learn how the group was assembled and who they really are.  It’s at about the film’s midpoint that Mr. Orange is revealed to be the cop, and he suddenly shows much more agency than before.

Mr. Blonde, we learn, I believe only after he has died, is a good friend of Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn), Joe’s son.  When Nice Guy Eddie arrives, we know he’s going to be pissed to find his pal dead on the ground, and it’s obvious Mr. Orange did it.  Couple this with the pre-existing paranoia about a cop in the ranks, and it leads to a three-way standoff between Nice Guy Eddie, Mr. White and old man Joe.  Joe was about to kill Mr. Orange, certain that he’s the rat, when Mr. White intervenes, ready to defend his surrogate son to the grave.

After a tense moment or two, all three men shoot each other and collapse to the ground while Mr. Pink, hiding in the background, runs away with the stolen money as the cops arrive.  By the point everyone is dead or dying.  Mr. White crawls over to comfort Mr. Orange as the sirens get louder, and though he only need to keep his mouth shut for a minute, Mr. Orange confesses to White that he is indeed the rat.  This allows Mr. White a single minute to decide what to do with the news.

As the cops arrive and the camera closes in on the two men, Mr. White appears to shoot Mr. Orange before being shot himself.  Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino.

Reservoir Dogs is very flashy, even when it’s quite silent.  While Tarantino delights in a certain amount of violence, he shows off just as much in the conversation between two characters.  Every man in the film speaks with the conviction of a 16 year old who just saw this movie and considers it the greatest of all time.

And, yeah this is a pretty well-made movie, but damn these characters speak as quickly as I do only they don’t mumble as they do so.  They’re all the smartest, most confident men in the room.  It’s testosterone to the max.  Every character tries to outman the other, and all I can think about when I see this movie is the influence it has had on high school student films in the decades since.  There’s something appealing about uncharacteristically macho men (because Steve Buscemi isn’t a conventional macho dude) who are assertive, witty, fearless and a little deranged.  These are characters who may not be able to beat you up, but they’re better read than you and have a gun, so don’t mess with them.

It’s a strange balance between what it means to be Alpha and what it means to be intelligent.  These are all criminals who seem too smart for the line of work they’re in.  They’re weird, but they’re certainly cool, and Tarantino hopes you find them as cool as he must have.  And they are cool, right?  But this is a macho movie with men, men and more men.  It’s a bunch of white men in suits with guns.

Up Next: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), International House (1933), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

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