How does a robbery turn out this badly?
Bloody, violent, profane, and full of pop culture references, writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s feature film debut is a masterpiece of crime and confusion, dialogue and characters, action and irony. The film stars the following: Harvey Keitel as Mr. White, Michael Madsen as Mr. Blonde, Steve Buscemi as Mr. Pink, Tim Roth as Mr. Orange, Chris Penn as “Nice Guy” Eddie, Quentin Tarantino as Mr. Brown, Eddie Bunker as Mr. Blue, and Lawrence Tierney as Joe Cabot, featuring the voice of Steven Wright as DJ K-Billy.
The set-up is that a group of guys plan on stealing a jewelry store in a get-in-get-out heist. As one might expect, all goes to hell, tensions rise, people don’t know who to trust, and blood is shed. While we never see the robbery in process (knowing only what happened by the various accounts given by the characters), the film’s focus is on the people involved in the crime and not the main crime itself. This provides us with an interesting film which believes that, above all, characterization is king. Sure there’s violence, blood, and death, but that all comes from the characters. There’s never any moment of violence for violence’s sake. Tarantino directs everything with finesse, never framing a bad shot, always knowing what he’s doing. Even though it is a debut (not including his first short film), he knows what he’s doing. Sure, you could say it isn’t perfect, but there’s no doubt that Tarantino knows how to direct.
When it comes to who in this film is the better actor, there’s almost no definite winner. No matter how much screen time a particular character might get, each and every actor in this film is excellent, believable, and naturalistic. Keitel is excellent as White, a veteran criminal who tries to keep his cool as things get chaotic. Buscemi is phenomenally likeably hilarious (in both senses of the word) as Pink, a guy who has trouble keeping is cool and is the first to believe that the robbers were set-up, meaning that there is a rat among them. He also doesn’t like his alias. Madsen unnervingly and convincingly plays Blonde, a criminal fresh out of prison who might be calm and loyal but is also a complete psychopath (this is displayed best during the famous torture scene). Penn is great as Eddie, son of Joe (Tierney’s character); both are fantastic in their roles as good ol’ gangsters. Roth is probably my favorite (as far as the acting goes) as Orange, a guy who spends a lot of his screen time bleeding and screaming. Bunker (who plays Blue) and Tarantino (who plays Brown) do not get as much screen time, but they make their roles their own through dialogue and character traits. (For the record, Mr. Brown’s my favorite Reservoir Dog, but as far as the main Dogs go, Mr. Orange is my favorite.)
An important trait in this film (and all subsequent Tarantino films) is the writing. None of the dialogue in this film feels forced, wooden, or like something someone wouldn’t say. Of course, this has a lot to do with the way the actors treat the material, but none of it would really matter if the actors were great but the writing wasn’t. Tarantino infuses his script with rich reveals of his characters, from their general interests, to their relationships with other characters, to how they handled (or would handle) certain situations. For a film full of violence and blood, there are many scenes in which characters are merely talking to one another. It is in these scenes where Tarantino shows his real talent for dialogue and characterization.
Style is also an extremely important part of this film, which also has to do with the film’s soundtrack. From the black suits to the cars that are driven, these sorts of details matter to Tarantino and add to the film and its mythology. Small things from an old cereal brand to a scene specifically dealing with details needing to be remembered, Tarantino breaths his film with real people, real things, and real attention while also juxtaposing it with stringing moments of movie moments, movie situations, and movie awareness. The soundtrack adds to the style, featuring “super sounds of the seventies,” which acts as soundtrack dissonance when mixed with violent moments. Above all, the soundtrack makes the whole thing a lot more cool/awesome while being a homage to older films from the 1950’s and ’70’s. Homage is something Tarantino probably loves more than anything else, being a film buff first and a film maker second.
Reservoir Dogs ranks as a classic crime film, as well as a classic independent film. The performances are top notch, the writing is top notch, the action is entertaining and also realistic. The soundtrack is classic and the dialogue is incredibly memorable and quotable. When it all ends, we are left with a sad scene of a heist gone awry, with a sad sort of ending that cuts to end credits featuring a song that gives off the opposite feelings that the film’s end has provided. Reservoir Dogs isn’t there to make us laugh (although there’s plenty of laughs to go around) as much as it is there to tell a story about a group of criminals who get involved in something bad when it was supposed to have worked out all right. It’s like an excellent crime novel that leaves you floored with its characters, situations, action, and understanding. When the end credits roll, I don’t have any realization, I don’t have any sort of feeling that I’ve learned something new or that I am emotionally effected (although that’s possible). More than anything, I sit back, take it in, and enjoy what has been witnessed, revel in its greatness, and above all, feel satisfyingly entertained, even inspired. I wish I could put it into better words, but in all honesty, for something as simply done as this, I can’t. It just is.