1992’s Reservoir Dogs was a landmark in the history of independent cinema. The first film directed by Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs broke the mold with its nonlinear deconstruction of cinematic narrative, and set the tone for Tarantino’s films to come; with violence, profanity, and pop-culture references abound.
One could sum up the uniqueness of Reservoir Dogs with one simple factoid: it’s a heist film in which we never actually see the heist, only the events leading up to it, and its consequences. Summing up Reservoir Dogs as such wouldn’t quite do it justice, but it is a good starting point in describing its unique style.
Reservoir Dogs centers around a band of criminals, each of which have been given nicknames: Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr. Blue (Edward Bunker), and Mr. Brown (portrayed by Quentin Tarantino himself). These six men are strangers to each other, but are acquaintances of mob boss Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney). Joe and his son “Nice Guy” Eddie Cabot (Chris Penn) have recruited the six men to steal a fortune in diamonds.
Things go awry, however, and the heist goes disastrously wrong. Mr. Blonde, a violent psychopath, starts shooting civilians, Mr. Orange takes a bullet in the stomach, and cops were ready and prepared at the scene, leading the criminals to grow suspicious that one of them is an undercover cop, and that the whole thing was a setup. Mr. Pink is the only member of the gang to have absconded with diamonds, which he has hidden as he rendezvous with Mr. White and Mr. Orange – who is slowly bleeding to death – at a warehouse where they wait for any other survivors to show up.
Reservoir Dogs set the stage for Tarantino’s nonlinear storytelling. While most of the film takes place in the warehouse in the aftermath of the botched heist, there are three different ‘chapters’ spread throughout that showcase one of the characters in the events leading up to the formation of the planned heist. Before the opening credits, we see the criminals enjoying breakfast at a diner, which gives us a little insight to some of their personalities by means of Tarantino’s trademark ‘removed-from-the-plot’ dialogue. One conversation revolving around Mr. Pink’s vehement aversion to tipping being a particular example at just how entertaining Tarantino’s dialogue can be.
If there’s any notable drawback to Reservoir Dogs, it’s that there isn’t quite enough of that kind of dialogue and other such trademarks that define Tarantino’s works. That’s certainly not to say that there’s anything wrong with the writing at any point in the film, but seeing as the majority of Reservoir Dogs takes place after a horrific shootout, that is understandably the focal point of most of the film’s dialogue. Again, the writing is excellent throughout, but with the writing being so scenario-focused for most of the film’s running time, there’s not as much character to Reservoir Dogs as there is in most of Tarantino’s later work (you may even wonder why Mr. Blue even needed to exist in this movie given his minuscule amount of screen time). You could say the director’s hallmarks are present, but being Tarantino’s first film, they still had yet to grow. It would be with his second film, the masterful Pulp Fiction, that Tarantino’s trademarks were set loose to wreak havoc on conventional movie storytelling.
Still, that’s only a relative complaint. It makes sense that a director’s first film would be a little rough around the edges. And when you consider the limited budget and recourses Tarantino had to work with here (reportedly, some of the suits worn by the cast were owned by their respective actors, as the film’s budget could only afford so many costumes), then the achievements that Reservoir Dogs does make seem all the more impressive, making the shortcomings of both the film’s personality and some of the characters a bit easier to forgive.
Of course, this being a Tarantino movie, Reservoir Dogs doesn’t hold back on violent imagery. Mr. Orange spends most of the film writhing in a pool of his own blood, and the film’s most infamous moment sees the deranged Mr. Blonde torture a kidnapped police officer while listening to the Stealers Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle with You. Per the norm, the violence is all part of the style and craft of Tarantino’s work, though some audiences may understandably find the torture scene hard to watch (even if it isn’t as graphic as a lot of movie’s you see these days). So a small warning for sensitive audiences, but Reservoir Dogs’ merits certainly outweigh any moments that may make you wince.
Reservoir Dogs remains an immensely entertaining and captivating film even today. It can feel a bit like an unpolished diamond when compared to later Tarantino films like Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, and the under appreciated Jackie Brown, but it’s a diamond nonetheless. One worth absconding with.