Reservoir Dogs is an action film without much action. A crime drama in which you never see the main crime take place. A comedy that makes you sometimes feel uneasy about laughing. A buddy movie where the buddies end up killing each other.
What is it exactly?
“It’s a heist film,” says writer-director Quentin Tarantino, “about a bunch of guys who get together to pull a robbery and everything goes wrong. It all leads to violence and blood, but it ends up being black, gallows humor.”
All true. And Reservoir Dogs is more than that. It’s the movie that launched Tarantino’s career at age 29, and turned American cinema on its (severed) ear. Tarantino’s idea was to focus his story on the robbers, not the cops. And, rather than discuss their caper on-screen, they would spend most of their time—as guys do—engaged in small talk about pop culture or fast-food joints or women they want to sleep with.
That dialogue has the sneaky effect of putting the audience on common ground with the gangsters. Turns out, we listen to the same oldies on the radio, crack the same jokes and have the same debates about issues like tipping. In a strange way that prompts you—as the viewer—to feel sympathy for these dark-hearted characters.
Mix into that Tarantino’s creative use of time arcs and unconventional pacing. It all made Reservoir Dogs a sensation—with critics and filmmakers at least—when it came out in 1992. And so this movie begat Pulp Fiction, of course, as well as The Usual Suspects and Memento and Suicide Kings. Not to mention dozens of copycats that don’t match up.
But you needn’t care about all that. You just have to enjoy Reservoir Dogs as a powerful movie.
The story centers on six crooks hired by gang leader Joe Cabot (played by old-time Hollywood tough guy Lawrence Tierney) and his son Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) to pull off a big diamond heist. None of the crew knows each other going in, and that’s deliberate. This way, as Joe sees it, anyone who gets caught cannot rat out his mates.
Each is assigned a color-coded alias—Mr. Blue, Mr. Brown, Mr. Blonde, etc. There’s a great little moment when Steve Buscemi’s character balks at being given the name Mr. Pink. “Be thankful you’re not Mr. Yellow,” barks Joe.
There’s a strong cast here, led by Harvey Keitel (who helped find funding for the film) as Mr. White. As a group they joke, they posture, they bond and they prep for the crime.
But something goes wrong. The diamond robbery (which, again, we never see) is interrupted by an army of cops who obviously got tipped off. The job blows up, leaving one of the gang dead, one missing and one—Tim Roth’s Mr. Orange—bleeding to death from a shot to the belly.
The survivors rendezvous at an empty warehouse and try to figure out what went wrong. They engage in some paranoid finger-pointing, assuming that one among them must be working with the cops. And they try to beat an explanation out of an unfortunate LAPD rookie taken hostage by the psychotic Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen).
The movie leaps around in time. It opens with the characters arguing over the lyrics to Madonna’s song “Like a Virgin.” Then it moves to the opening credits, with our antiheroes rambling down the street in slow motion, all decked out in black suits and sunglasses. Then we cut to the getaway car, where Mr. Orange writhes in pain in the backseat as Mr. White tries to comfort him, figure out where things went awry and drive away from the scene of their crime.
It all requires you to pay close attention. Not that doing so is a challenge. You, as an audience member, know the bottom line of the botched heist before the movie’s characters do. The fun is seeing who on-screen will figure it out and how many will kill each other along the way.
Reservoir Dogs borrows a lot from Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 classic The Killing. That film also uses flashbacks and fast forwards to flesh out the characters and show how the caper got botched.
Tarantino mulled over Reservoir Dogs for eight years before writing the script in less than a month in a spiral notebook (no typewriter). He expected to make the movie himself on a minuscule budget of $30,000. But an acting coach who knew somebody who knew Keitel agreed to show the script to the prominent actor. Keitel was enthused, agreeing both to act in it and find $1.5 million to finance it.
What makes Reservoir Dogs snap is Tarantino’s terrific dialogue. In a news conference at Cannes after the movie premiered, the screenwriter/ director was asked how he comes up with his on-screen conversations.
“I just keep a notebook with me at all times,” he said. “So, if we’re discussing Pam Grier or Madonna or macaroni-and-cheese or Coca Cola, I just write it down. Everything you see in the movie is just a conversation I’ve had in real life.”
HIT: One of the joys of watching a Tarantino movie is catching inside references to his other works. So we have Mr. White being asked about formerly working with a woman named Alabama. That character, played by Patricia Arquette, actually shows up in Tarantino’s next script, True Romance.
There’s also a reference to Pulp Fiction’s big boss Marsellus Wallace as a fence for the stolen diamonds. Notice, too, that Mr. Blonde’s real name is Vic Vega. It’s the same surname, of course, of John Travolta’s Vince Vega in Pulp Fiction. Tarantino envisioned doing a prequel to both of those films called Double V Vega, but scrapped it when Madsen and Travolta got too old for the roles.
MISS: We appreciate Tarantino’s gritty dialogue. But maybe, in just one of his movies, could he back off the incessant use of the N-word? The blanket of racial epithets has been questioned by many, including Spike Lee, who told Variety, “I’m not against the word. I’ve used it. But Quentin is infatuated with the word. What does he want—to be made an honorary black man?”
For his part, Tarantino—like Lenny Bruce a half-century ago—says that by repeating a loaded word so frequently and randomly, he hopes to defuse its impact.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Glengarry Glen Ross with guns, Diner with gore, GoodFellas minus girls.”—Village Voice
PIVOTAL SCENE: Few movie moments make you cringe like Mr. Blonde’s seven-minute torture of Marvin the cop.
Left alone in the warehouse with Marvin and a dying Mr. Orange, Mr. Blonde announces he will torture the hostage officer—not because he thinks it will yield helpful information, but simply because he will enjoy it.
As the helpless cop sits taped to a chair, his tormentor turns on the radio. Mr. Blonde begins to dance to the ’70s hit “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel. Then he pulls out a straight razor, struts up to Marvin and slices off his ear. Even as his victim gasps in pain, Mr. Blonde mocks him by talking into the now-severed ear. “Hey, what’s going on?” he says to the bloody flesh. “Can you hear that?”
The scene was shot so that the camera pans away from the action right as Mr. Blonde begins his razor surgery—although most viewers swear afterward they witnessed the actual cutting. The DVD contains deleted scenes that are even more graphic, including one where blood begins to spurt from poor Marvin’s ear hole.
After the attack, Mr. Blonde douses the cop with gasoline, a prelude to burning him alive—until those plans are interrupted. We don’t want to give away that part.
A few other things you should know about the scene:
• Madsen had a tough time carrying through with his sadistic role. At one point, actor Kirk Baltz, playing Marvin, improvised the line where he begs for his life by saying he has a child at home. Madsen, a new father himself, had to stop and leave the set.
• Tarantino deliberately chose a sugary Top 40 song for the scene to give the audience false comfort before the violence. “You’re tapping your toe, you’re enjoying Michael Madsen doing his dance and then, voom!—it’s too late, you’re a co-conspirator,” he said in the book Quentin Tarantino: The Cinema of Cool by Jeff Dawson.
• Right before release, Miramax Films head Harvey Weinstein pleaded with Tarantino to delete the scene, telling him it would prompt audiences to walk out. “And that happens every single screening,” Tarantino later told the Seattle Times. “For some people the violence is a mountain they can’t climb. That’s okay. It’s not their cup of tea. But I am affecting them. I wanted that scene to be disturbing.”
VIOLENCE LEVEL: You’re kidding, right?
GOOF: During that torture scene, Marvin the cop’s legs are alternately duct-taped to the chair and kicking in the air.
REALITY CHECK: We can’t imagine Mr. Orange would survive for all those hours after being shot. He’s spilling enough blood to supply an Army hospital.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: The scream heard when Mr. Pink pushes a woman to the sidewalk during his escape from police. The sound is the so-called “Wilhelm Scream,” a Hollywood effect that has been dubbed into more than 200 films—from Star Wars to Batman Returns to Toy Story. Tarantino, a Hollywood history buff, edited it into this movie, as well as into Kill Bill: Vol. I.
Although no one is sure, most believe the scream was first heard in 1951’s Distant Drums, and was voiced by Sheb Wooley. You might recognize Wooley as the kindly but weak-hearted principal in Hoosiers, or as the singer of the old novelty song “The Purple People Eater.” You can see a three-minute compilation of more than 30 movies using the Wilhelm Scream here:
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE II: The film doesn’t have a single woman in a speaking part.
CASTING CALL: Christopher Walken and Vincent Gallo declined roles, while George Clooney, Samuel L. Jackson and David Duchovny auditioned but were turned down. Tarantino sought James Woods, making five separate offers to his agent. It later came out that the agent never forwarded the offers to Woods—prompting Woods to fire the man.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Right before filming started, all eight of the principal actors met at a dinner party hosted by Keitel. It came out in conversation that each of them had spent time in jail—most notably Edward Bunker (Mr. Blue), a convicted bank robber who made the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list.
“Whatever they had done in their lives to get there,” said producer Lawrence Bender, “all of that energy was about to be put to good use.”
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: Deadpan comedian Steven Wright provides the disc jockey’s voice for “K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the 70s,” the radio show constantly playing in the background.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Extremely high. This is a richly textured film that reveals further nuances upon each viewing.
BEST LINE: Mr. Pink (Buscemi), suggesting that there is a rat among the group: “Somebody’s shoved a red-hot poker up our ass, and I want to know whose name is on the handle.”
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: Kaante, Indian director Sanjay Gupta’s 2002 reimagining of this film. In the Bollywood version, the six conspirators also favor black suits and sunglasses, and spend much of their time in restaurants engaged in small talk. Unlike the bad guys in Reservoir Dogs, they also sing and dance.
BODY COUNT: Twelve that you see, plus four offscreen that are referenced.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”