I don’t know if I can explain the seismic shift in my film consciousness before and after Reservoir Dogs. Sure, I’d been obsessed by the grimy crime movies of America and the kinetic gunplay of movies in Hong Kong, but I had yet to delve into the worlds of poliziotteschi. I did not know how important the Shaw Brothers were. I knew the films of regional and direct to video filmmakers mattered to me, yet I was certain they were worthless to nearly everyone else. The films of video store educated Quentin Tarantino changed all that.
Today’s viewers have grown to live in a world where Tarantino is available for acerbic interview, to weigh in on what movies matter and to create controversial films yet ones that endure. Yet in 1992, this did not exist. He existed, but he was a different Tarantino. He was about to go from someone working to being a filmmaker to someone the world would pay attention to.
Tarantino was working at Manhattan Beach, California video store Video Archives, a video staffed by film experts like Tarantino, Roger Avary and Daniel Snyder, all of whom would make movies someday. When the store closed four years after this movie came out, Tarantino had grown so powerful that he could buy its inventory and remake it inside his house.
The original plan was to make this movie with friends for $30,000 in black and white 16mm. Producer Lawrence Bender was to play a cop chasing one of the gang’s members, Mr. Pink, but when he gave the script to his acting teacher, that teacher’s wife gave it to Harvey Keitel who became a producer, raising $1.5 million in funds and casting the movie in New York City, where they found a different cast than they’d have in Hollywood. Director Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop, Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out!) also helped by cleaning up the screenplay and securing from Live Entertainment (which is now Lionsgate, who released this 4K UHD). He was originally picked to direct but Tarantino lobbied hard to make this. As a result, Hellman was the executive producer.
Even in his first major film, Tarantino was smart enough to not make a traditional story. We never see the actual robbery, only the aftermath. Some of that decision is budgetary. Yet it works, as the story is less about what has happened instead of what happens.
He was also smart about who he cast as his characters. Each is named for a color — taken from The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three but then again, the entire story could be said to be stolen from Ringo Lam’s City On Fire — with Keitel’s Mr. White as the main character, if there can be one, the one that we’re supposed to identify with. Tim Roth is Mr. Orange, a man with a secret. Michael Madsen is the sociopathic Mr. Blonde (also Vic Vega, the brother of Pulp Fiction‘s Vincent Vega, as well an inside joke as Madsen is the real-life cousin of musicians Tim and Suzanne Vega). Mr. Pink is Steve Buscemi, while Tarantino himself appears briefly as Mr. Brown and Edward Bunker is Mr. Blue. While both are killed in the heist, Bunker informed so much of this film, as he was a real-life convict turned writer and actor, appearing in movies he wrote like Straight Time, Runaway Train and Animal Factory. Beyond the gang, other actors include Chris Penn as Nice Guy Eddie, Randy Brooks as Holdaway, Kirk Baltz as police officer Marvin Nash and in real life maniac Lawrence Tierney as the boss who gets the gang together — and memorably names them — Joe Cabot. Steven Wright, who never physically appears, is a character himself as the DJ whose voice moves the tale forward.
After a diner scene that sets up each character — but mainly allows Tarantino the opportunity to unleash his pop culture heavy dialogue, mostly about Madonna — we catch up on a heist goen wrong. Orange has been shot and White is trying to save him. They meet Pink in one of Joe’s warehouses and everyone is sure the job was a set-up before Blonde went nuts and just started killing people. An argument over running with the diamonds or helping Orange ends with guns drawn. Then Blonde arrives with Marvin Nash, a cop that they all take turns beating.
Blonde waits until the others leave before the infamous “Stuck In the Middle With You” scene in which he attacks the man with a razor and slices his ear off. When this played Sitges Film Festival, Rick Baker and Wes Craven — of all people — walked out during this scene. Tarantino would say, at the time, “It happens at every single screening. For some people the violence, or the rudeness of the language, is a mountain they can’t climb. That’s OK. It’s not their cup of tea. But I am affecting them. I wanted that scene to be disturbing.”
Tarantino also said, “I can’t believe the guy who directed Last House on The Left walked out of Reservoir Dogs“. Craven replied, “Last House was about the evils and horrors of violence, it did not mean to glorify it. This movie glorifies it.” Yet another in my large list of reasons why I think Wes Craven is overrated.
But I digress.
What follows is death, more death, betrayal, Mexican standoffs and an ending that cements that this filmmaker may not be a force yet, but he was only getting started.
For what it’s worth, Bunker told Empire magazine that this was all pretty unrealistic. He would never pull a job with five people he didn’t know. He also said that they’d never dress up and eat a meal together before a crime, giving people something to remember when they heard about their crime. He had also met Tierney before before, as they had a fistfight in a parking lot in the 50s. Tierney didn’t remember that, but if he remembered every fistfight he was ever in, he’d be overwhelmed.
My favorite thing is that Tierney was literally Mr. Blonde for the cast. Everyone had a difficult time with him because he was easily distracted and kept forgetting his lines. On the second day, he’d arrived directly from a bail hearing as he’d threatened to kill his nephew. Finally, Quentin fired him on the third day of filming. The line where White asks Pink, “I need you cool. Are you cool?” is a real line Tarantino said to Tierney after he got in a fight with Madsen and was holding up shooting. Tarantino rehired the actor, who went drinking afterward and ended up firing a gun into the walls of his Hollywood apartment later that night. He spent the weekend in jail only to be bailed out by his agent so that he could finish the film. These may all be carny BS stories, but when you lived the life that Tierney did, these stories end up getting told.
This is the kind of movie that I find myself watching every few years to remind myself just how good it is. The most amazing thing is that Tarantino’s films would get so much better.
Lionsgate 4K UHD release of Reservoir Dogs has the same extras that were on the blu ray release, such as thirteen minutes of deleted scenes; Playing It Fast and Loose, a historical feature on the movie and intros to the main characters. The main reason to buy this is the near-perfect video and audio of a classic film.