Director: Quentin Tarantino (USA). Year of Release: 1992
Some goodfellas sit around a café table discussing the real sexual meanings behind Madonna songs. Their theories are even more salacious than any that Madonna would think up. The conversation switches to whether they should chip in for tips. Look, why am I even telling you any of this? This is Reservoir Dogs. Thirty years on, you’ve either seen it already or have taken a conscious decision to not go. Or you’re the next generation and probably not my main audience.
How has the film survived the passage of time? Well, generally, pretty good, although the gratuitous sexism and racism was never cool. Yes, I know the argument, Quentin’s not a bigot himself, he was just showing us how bigots talk. But the film seems so childishly excited by every offensive expletive that you feel that it’s just pulling its pants down in church – behaving badly less for important dramatic reasons than to provoke outrage. If you must, Quentin, if you must.
It is funny that the scenes which now feel most derivative were the most exciting at the time. We weren’t used to all these cultural references, delivered by people who took us as being intellectually serious – better said, delivered by people who wanted to show off about how much they knowe about popular culture. You feel that Tarantino did it better with the Travolta-Jackson scenes in Pulp Fiction, but on this film’s release, it was something which was new and exciting.
Shall we just skip through the plot? The opening scene was the prelude to a heist, but most of the film takes place after everything has all gone horribly wrong. The heisters don’t know each other and have been allocated names (Mr. Brown, Blonde, Pink) which they continue to use in case one of them is pulled in by the cops. Messrs White and Orange turn up at the warehouse where they’d agreed to meet afterwards, to find no-one there but the anxious Mr. Pink.
As they recount their various stories, we learn how everything went horribly wrong. The cops arrived way too early, which leads them to think that someone has betrayed them. When someone rang the alarm, Mr. Blonde went loco and started shooting everyone on site. White and Orange bust out, but Orange took a hit and he is bleeding severely. He should go to an ambulance, but has seen too much. Pink also shot his way out and has hidden the diamonds they stole somewhere.
Although we spend time with a number of characters, they are not drawn as mere stereotypes. Mr White (Harvey Keitel) is the veteran, ready to shoot if he must, but annoyed by the impetuous youngsters around him, Mr Pink is the Steve Buscemi type – nervy and slightly untrustworthy, Mt Orange (Tim Roth) is mainly there to bleed stoically. Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen) is the psychopath – mainly calm, but someone who can be triggered into That scene.
It is a plot that we have seen in various forms, many times before, but Reservoir Dogs is not trying to tell us anything new. Instead it is playing with the way in which stories are told. On top of this, many of the techniques which it deploys have been used to death in the last 30 years, but were innovative at the time. Others – like the use of flashbacks – were not really new, but were deployed in a way that made the revelations part of the story.
If it is anything, Reservoir Dogs is a film about story telling. Most of the main characters have to tell a tale, often with embellishments and diversions, with the aim of not bringing the story forward but of keeping us entertained. We see them rehearsing their story, before they tell them to an audience which confirms the validity of the story by their laughter and incredulity. Let’s try that with fewer syllables. This is a film that wants to tell us a story (or rather, many stories).
The key scene here is that of Tim Roth’s Mr Orange. Roth is an undercover cop, which isn’t a big plot spoiler as (1) this is revealed half way through the film, and (2) you’ve surely seen the film already. To support his credentials, Roth learns a complicated anecdote about an incident with drug cops in a toilet. The importance is not to remember the story word for word, but to inhabit the story so he can tell it despite interruptions or awkward questions
In this sense, Orange’s story is a metaphor for the film – a shaggy dog story, which has been written to entertain us, nothing more. When you see how much pretentious nonsense has been written about Reservoir Dogs, you wish that more people had noticed the simplicity of its story. The aim was not to radically change cinema, but to use a whole horde of old tropes to play with our expectations. It’s noticeable that a film renowned for its violence actually contains little blood.
Where does the film stand in film history? It’s become a cliché to say that Tarantino’s best films were this one and Pulp Fiction, which were made before film producers just gave him the money and didn’t question his self-indulgence. But some clichès are basically true. (Re-)Watching Reservoir Dogs is a good reminder to anyone who thinks that Tarantino is all about hype and undeserved self-belief. The joke is, he was much better when he wasn’t so sure of himself.
Reservoir Dogs I incredibly well structured and tightly paced. Yes, it contains some scenes that it really shouldn’t. Yes, this is a man’s man film, which has no place for women. Yes, it indirectly led to a horde of embarrassing imitations. But it shows a wealth of acting talent, and a fine sense of the theatricality of film. It withholds and reveals information at just the right moments. It’s a shame that Tarantino turned into such a self-indulgent monster, but we can relish this one.