It was the feature film debut that cemented the directing career of a plucky video store employee who had initially planned to make the film for $30K USD with his friends. His self-written script would land in the hands of Harvey Keitel thanks to his acting teacher’s wife…and the rest is history.
Fans of Quentin Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs can celebrate the film’s 30th anniversary with a brand-new 4K Blu-ray package, featuring a super-cool lenticular cover, complete with 2 discs (the 4K Blu-ray version and the standard definition version) and a set of stills from the film. If you have yet to see the film, now’s a great time to do so.
The film centres around an audacious diamond heist, organized by criminal mastermind Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney). Cabot assembles a group of thieves to pull off the heist and gives them new colour-themed monikers: seasoned thief Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), whiny and curmudgeonly Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), newbie Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) and the psychopathic Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen). When the heist goes horribly wrong, Mr. Orange is shot in the stomach, forcing White and Orange to retreat back to the abandoned warehouse that is to be the team’s meeting point. It’s then that Orange, White and Pink (the next back to the warehouse) realise that there’s a rat in the team, due to the timing of the police reacting to the crime. What follows is the heightened paranoia of a heist gone wrong and trying to ascertain who the rat in their midst is.
While Tarantino received more attention for his subsequent film, Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs is an excellent example of an auteur making their mark with their first foray into features. Even though Harvey Keitel would co-produce and the film was signed to Miramax, the film still bears true indie film sensibilities. In order to avoid the logistics of filming the heist (and probably also for budgetary reasons), the details of the heist are explained in a scene where Orange and White run through the plan as they sit outside the diamond wholesaler (cheekily named Karina’s, a reference to French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard’s frequent collaborator and muse, Anna Karina). Locations are minimal, with the warehouse being the main location of storytelling. This sometimes gives the film the feeling of a stage play, something which works incredibly effectively (especially with the Hamlet-esque ending). In addition the film’s most notorious (and most harrowing) scene with Mr. Blonde slicing the ear off of a kidnapped police officer doesn’t actually show the act. Instead, it cuts away and subsequently shows Blonde holding the bloodied ear. This avoids the requirement for an overly complicated (and potentially expensive) ear-slicing special effect. Combined with Blonde’s chilling dancing to Stealer’s Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle With You as he gleefully engages in torture, a visual of the act might have been overkill. No pun intended.
So, how does Reservoir Dogs stand up after 30 years? It’s still a very tight, engaging and at times genuinely surprising film. In a time where violence is commonplace on screen, the violence is not as shocking as it may have been on original release but it still makes an impact. A completely bloodied Mr. Orange, writhing in pain in the back of a getaway car after being shot is still harrowing. The predicament of the kidnapped police officer is still as chilling as a first viewing of the film. The story itself feels timeless. You could replicate the story today and it would still be fresh and exciting.
But there are some elements that do warrant criticism. Tarantino’s frequent use of the ‘N’ word in his script is the first. There’s also an anti-semitic trope expressed during the café scene at the beginning of the film. They sexualize African-American women and there is an innocent female driver who is dragged from her vehicle in order for Pink to hijack her car and escape the blundered heist. You can love this film for its brilliance but still hold it to account for the dated elements within it.
That being said, there’s one really positive element of the film which stands out: the obvious warmth between White and Orange. The film doesn’t go too in depth into the relationships between characters, but it’s clear with Keitel and Roth’s scenes together that White and Orange have formed a kinship. This is apparent in White’s interactions with Orange after he’s been shot. Orange is vulnerable enough to ask White to hold him as he believes he is dying, and White obliges. The final scene also highlights their bond. It’s the kind of masculine affection that is more readily presented on screen these days, so in some ways this was ahead of its time.
The film also introduces the audience to some of Tarantino’s filmmaking signatures. For instance, the low-angle shot of characters peering downwards which also appears in subsequent films like Inglourious Basterds and Kill Bill vol. 1. The film is also brimming with pop culture references; everything from old detective shows to the Silver Surfer and the Fantastic Four. It also establishes Tarantino’s impeccable taste in soundtracks and the homage to radio DJs of the past. In Reservoir Dogs it’s a fictional radio DJ playing hits from the 1970s, and in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood it’s an all-out celebration of KHJ Los Angeles, complete with ads for Coty fragrances and Tanya Tanning Butter.
If you’re a fan of the film, it’s definitely worth nabbing this for your collection. For the uninitiated: take this as your sign to finally see the film.