Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Chris Penn, Steve Buscemi, Lawrence Tierney, Michael Madsen

The crime caper genre truly is a most intriguing one. As the audience, we will likely stand as the only living witnesses in following along as felonies are committed, money/jewels are lifted, and bullets fly. We champion one or more of the main characters as the action progresses. We do these things not because these are the characters the movie has chosen to focus on, but because the actors who bring them to life really know their shtick, and perhaps because we’ve seen something of ourselves within them. The hardened criminals, who are capable of gunning down teams of police officers (and the occasional bystanders) without even blinking, have been humanized.

Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) has arranged for six men to steal a satchel full of diamonds. To ensure that they have nothing to tell the police about each other should anything go wrong, all six men go by assigned colors as their aliases. After a pre-title sequence involving a discussion on the meaning behind Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” we find out fast that the heist did not go according to plan at all. Writhing in pain and screaming in fear at the sight of his own blood is Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), dying from a gunshot wound to the belly and sprawled out in the back of a stolen car with Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) at the wheel. At this moment, they have no idea if anyone else made it out alive, and Mr. White is focused on calming his hemorrhaging partner down and making it to the warehouse set up as the rendezvous point.

Once at the warehouse, White and Orange are soon met by Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), who managed to make it out of the chaos with the diamonds. That leaves only two they’re unsure about: Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) and Mr. Blue (Eddie Bunker). Mr. White and Mr. Orange (who is now lying unconscious) know of Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino)’s fate. Brown was to have been the getaway driver, but took a cop’s bullet right between the eyes. Mr. Pink and Mr. White talk about the events that led them into their current messy situation. Both are appalled at the actions of Mr. Blonde, who killed many civilians after the bank’s alarm was triggered. Mr. Pink is certain there’s a mole in their group, because he’d noticed two sets of police cars arriving at the scene. One, he surmises, was already there lying in wait while the second wave was the one responding to the alarm. The two start to argue over whether to risk apprehension by driving Orange to a hospital, where he might have a fighting chance to live, and draw their guns on one another.

This is where a very much alive Mr. Blonde makes his presence felt. He is truly a “psychopath,” as described by Mr. White. There is nothing about Mr. Blonde that should make the audience want to see him make it through to the end. Despite this, Michael Madsen does such a good job at making Blonde a despicable human being that we love to hate him. Quentin Tarantino’s subsequent films have often given the impression that they may exist within the same universe, and the theory goes that Mr. Blonde, whose real name is revealed later (as are one or two others) is the brother of John Travolta’s character from “Pulp Fiction.” Though never confirmed by “Pulp Fiction,” I do like the idea.

Though I’m sure it was done largely to cut down on set costs, I think it’s brilliant that we never see the actual heist. Most of the movie takes place at the warehouse. We have to allow the characters’ testimony to exist as fact, because we weren’t there and didn’t see what happened. We can also use our imagniation to fill in the blanks. This way, “Reservoir Dogs” can focus on its characters, showing in flashbacks how three of the six men got hired. There’s not much to Mr. White’s flashback. We already know he’s a tough guy who will do whatever is necessary to either see a job completed or get away alive. What we aren’t shown… and what WAS shown by that opening scene in the car… is his human side, his empathy brought out by Mr. Orange’s suffering. The other two flashbacks do tell us more about the men behind the colorful nicknames, what their true names are and what their motivations for taking the job happen to be. In addition to the minimization of the set locations, no one was hired to compose a musical score. The only times you hear any songs in the film are when someone turns on a radio (exceptions to this being the opening and closing credits). Otherwise, the roar of the warehouse’s pipes serves as the only background noise.

Everybody who has seen and enjoyed “Reservoir Dogs” has a favorite character. Some like the take-charge Mr. White, owing to Harvey Keitel’s familiarity with this type of role. For many, it’s Steve Buscemi’s pessimistic, paranoid Mr. Pink who tickles the funny bone. For me, it’s Tim Roth as Mr. Orange, the kid who’s in over his head with a job for which time could not have helped him prepare for all possible contingencies. At the time I first saw the movie, I had no idea of Roth’s true nationality, which only further goes to show how terrific an actor he is. (Exactly why is it that English actors seem to have no trouble in faking an American accent, but not vice versa?) “Reservoir Dogs” being Quentin Tarantino’s first go at a full-length motion picture signaled great things to come. No one could have known how great. Tarantino’s ability as a writer/director to communicate to his audience through his characters… often with the use of pop culture references… is part of what makes his movies as entertaining as they are. Even makes you forget that your rooting for the bad guys.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    I love your review. You are right on the money about the humanization of the characters in spite of their crimes. Yes, the minimalist sets are genius and allow us to concentrate just on their dire situation; no sound track is the perfect choice as well.

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