Quentin Tarantino’s first feature may not be to all tastes, but it is an admirable feat of commercial filmmaking — what other director has broken into the front rank with such panache? The fifth time through, the splintered, elliptical structure still impresses, and there’s always something new to see in the performances of Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, and Steve Buscemi. The (rather bargain-priced) 4K disc set has everything — two formats, a digital code and those deleted scenes to ponder. And a Pulp Fiction 4K is due in just a week or so.
Reservoir Dogs 4K
4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray + Digital
1992 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 100 min. / 30th Anniversary Edition / Street Date November 15, 2022 / Available from Amazon / 22.99
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Chris Penn, Steve Buscemi, Lawrence Tierney, Randy Brooks, Kirk Baltz, Eddie Bunker, Quentin Tarantino.
Cinematography: Andrzej Sekula
Production Designer: David Wasco
Film Editor: Sally Menke
Dedicatees: Timothy Carey, Roger Corman, Jean-Luc Godard, Lawrence Tierney, Lionel White
Produced by Lawrence Bender
Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino
We can’t think of any debuting modern writer-director who emerged so fully formed as Quentin Tarantino. Most earlier directors known as geniuses served in apprentice-like positions. They learned movie work by doing, in the old studio system that didn’t necessarily demand that every film be a solid hit.
Through both talent and sheer force of personality Quentin Tarantino went directly from ‘hot, trendy writer’ to ultra-cool director. The vehicle was Reservoir Dogs, a blood-soaked & profane crime saga perfectly calculated for the early ’90s. The former video store clerk was able to rally several influential names to his cause, especially one actor who liked the screenplay. Tarantino had a way of making his opinions prevail. When Tony Scott’s True Romance was released the next year, the buzz was more for Tarantino’s script than Scott’s direction.
Reservoir Dogs’ critical success was not a creation of a studio publicity machine — it’s not the kind of picture that gets plugged on Entertainment Tonight. Stories from its low-budget shoot sprang up like spontaneous combustion. Proof of the effectiveness of Tarantino’s loudmouthed diplomacy arrived with the buzz that he had prevailed in crucial arguments with Harvey Weinstein, whose company Miramax routinely re-edited the acclaimed foreign pictures he bought at festivals.
Six criminals meet for breakfast before committing a jewelry store robbery they hope will net them several million dollars. The big boss Joe Cabot (noir legend Lawrence Tierney), his son ‘Nice Guy’ Eddie (Chris Penn) and their previous associate Vic (Michael Madsen) all know each other, but Joe assigns everyone a ‘color’ name for secrecy. Vic becomes Mr. Blonde, while gunmen Larry (Harvey Keitel) and Freddy (Tim Roth) use the names Mr. White and Mr. Orange. Rounding out the gang are the unidentified Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr. Brown (director Tarantino) and Mr. Blue (noted ex-con and crime author Eddie Bunker).
The continuity then leaps forward to the robbery’s chaotic aftermath. Three crooks arrive at the warehouse rendezvous, one of them gravely injured. Arguments begin over what happened, who is responsible and what they should do. Were they betrayed? Will Joe Cabot show up as promised? The non-linear structure skips about in time. Fractured bits of earlier moments reveal more about the characters. Back in the present tense, one of the thieves reveals himself to be a sadistic psychopath: when he gets the opportunity, he submits a police officer he has kidnapped to a horrendous torture.
Quentin Tarantino first gets our attention with his thieves’ brutally profane trash-talk, dialogues guaranteed to intimidate civilized sensibilities. The crooks talk a foul sexist & racist streak that far eclipses the outbursts heard in Martin Scorsese’s street films. The ugly malice and sick humor go even further when the thieves become violent. The walkouts at festival screenings provided just the art + exploitation buzz the producers needed: This is volatile, dangerous.
Tarantino tailored his script and direction to do without lavish production resources. Most of the film plays out in an open warehouse space. No filming permit was needed for a scene of two characters meeting in Hollywood. They hatch their scheme on a rooftop, over which peek the very tops of the Capitol Records building and the tower at Hollywood and Vine. Other scenes take place at the upper end of the Valley, way out on San Fernando Road . . . the kind of nondescript area real crooks might know well.
Most of the show unspools in real time, as the wounded thief bleeds out on the floor of the warehouse rendezvous. Dialogue tells us that the unseen robbery became a bloodbath, with innocent victims executed and some of the gang shot dead in a police ambush. Tarantino lets his actors fill in the details, trying to sort out the chaos. By not filming a literal robbery Tarantino puts the emphasis elsewhere, distinguishing his picture from 101 interchangeable crime pix hold-ups. This trademark Tarantino ellipsis almost always increases our interest: his subsequent pictures frequently skip conventionally ‘essential’ scenes, teasing the audience with a game of Narrative Catch-Up.
It’s no crime to be turned off by Reservoir Dogs’ depraved characters. Critics that deplore exploitative trends were not charmed. But the movie’s influence was undeniable. American and English crime films changed immediately, as innumerable QT wannabees strained to assemble quirky actors doing quirky things, punctuated by ‘shocking’ violence. The low end of this trend came with titles like Mad Dog Time and 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag.
Tarantino adores cult/trash cinema of the ’70s, yet his own pictures skew in a different direction. They’re 75% talk, a strange fallback to the studio days: the classic Lubitsch screenplay was ten scenes of equal length that carried a group of characters forward, mostly through dialogue. We initially assumed that Tarantino opted for non-stop talk because he couldn’t afford spectacular action, which wasn’t the case at all. He’s remained committed to his brand of interpersonal drama, and the speechifying of his dynamic performers. How else can one explain the three hours of The Hateful Eight, which imprisons its 65mm Ultra Panavision in a single log cabin location?
The Traditional Linear Storyline, R.I.P.
One of Reservoir Dogs ‘dedicatees’ is Lionel White, the author of the source book for Stanley Kubrick’s classic The Killing, the first action-genre movie with a non-linear time structure. Tarantino has made the Splintered Narrative his primary cinematic building block, his spiritual template. Kubrick used a narrator to repeatedly jump back to a specific moment in time, to consecutively show each criminal’s parallel actions in the crucial minutes of the heist.
Tarantino instead leaves the actual crime completely off-screen, choosing to let the audience piece it together in the frenzied aftermath. For most of the film’s running time, we’re missing key information: what really happened in the jewelry store? Was there really an informer in the gang? Should the surviving crooks adhere to the original plan, or are they being played for suckers?
Tarantino’s fractured time scheme stays clear because his main present-tense narrative thread in the warehouse remains intact, un-splintered. The construction feels fresh because standard exposition is kept to a minimum. We don’t wait an hour while characters are established. In 1992, Tarantino’s film felt like a new way to tell a story.
The narrative isn’t a jumble, it’s Quentin’s thought process writ large.
The narrative games of later Tarantino pictures expand on this approach. He would soon interrupt his main continuities with ‘narrative sidebars’ that explain character backgrounds and technical details, as if the movie were consulting an encyclopedia. Kill Bill includes a self-contained anime sequence. In Inglourious Basterds we’re given a quick lesson about the properties of nitrate film stock.
Here in Reservoir Dogs there pops up a sudden text card bearing a character’s name, as if Jean-Luc Godard had sneaked into the editing room. Then, a rehearsed ‘made up’ story by Tim Roth’s Mr. Orange, suddenly plays out as if it were real . . . it’s not just a cutaway to a non-linear action, but a cutaway to a complete fiction. We’ve all heard the way Tarantino talks — he switches subjects and spins off into tangents with the energy of an excitable teenager. His refreshing innovation was to assemble his movies with the same blasts of unexpected narrative energy. *
The casting of Reservoir Dogs is a minor miracle. Co-producer Harvey Keitel’s involvement was a huge asset, as his name and reputation attracted talent like Tim Roth. The little independent picture enjoyed the luxury of being choosy with a field of big, desirable name performers. Several not chosen showed up in later Tarantino pictures. Of the final cast, few played the part they auditioned for. The savvy applied to the picture is obvious — the casting is far better than the average major production.
Tarantino broke some of the rules of action / crime cinema, but he observed the mandate to provide a requisite action climax. The show ends with characters pointing guns at each others’ heads, as in the Chinese crime pictures of John Woo. But most of the interest lies in his characterizations, which give his talented cast plenty to work with. We fans of crime films certainly have a double standard — we enjoy the company of scum we’d never want to meet in real life. A violent death is too merciful for the average Tarantino character, but we instead choose our favorites, making distinctions between their relative merit.
Harvey Keitel’s Mr. White is loyal to the point of sentimentality, and of course gets our vote. This show and the Coens’ Miller’s Crossing first brought Steve Buscemi to our attention. His Mr. Pink follows a code and considers himself a professional, even if he verges on hysteria when thing go badly. Buscemi’s hapless characters for the Coens belie his physical fitness — when we see him sprint down a sidewalk and bodily drag a motorist through her car window, we’re reminded that he served four years as a NYC firefighter.
Michael Madsen also had his share of parts in prominent films prior to Dogs. In a solo ‘cool’ showcase, his psychopathic Mr. Blonde mercilessly tortures an unfortunate policeman while dancing to the hand-picked song ‘Stuck in the Middle With You.” The moment purposely goes over the top, into hipster exploitation — we easily imagine the bloodthirsty, vocal approval of the latter-day grindhouse audience. **
Back in 1992 we hadn’t realized that Edward Bunker was the author behind the good crime movie Straight Time. But we knew Lawrence Tierney very well, having met him briefly at Cannon Films. Even in old age Tierney fully lived up to his unpredictably volatile legend. A sound department technician at Cannon advised me, ‘whatever you do, don’t tell Tierney where you live.’ He explained that, after Tierney shared a drink with him, he showed up at his door at midnight and barged right in. He went straight to the refrigerator, became furious when it contained no beer, and started wrecking the place.
The film’s biggest casting coup is Tim Roth, who we already knew well from Stephen Frears’ The Hit and Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo. Tim Roth’s Mr. Orange spends most of the movie gut-shot and spilling blood on a concrete floor, and he’s incredibly convincing. Fellow editor Steve Nielson and I wished that Roman Polanski could film the legendary script for Harrow Alley, and cast either Roth or Bob Hoskins as the character Ratsey.
This reviewer has a low tolerance for some of the exploitation films that Quentin Tarantino worships. Most of his pictures are entertaining, and three or four are transporting — and that’s a high percentage of his output. Sure, he can be abrasive when he broadcasts odd taste in film. But he’s no phony, and he has the courage of his convictions.
Perhaps the reason Tarantino’s rude and crude movies are untouched by PC concerns is because they avoid the sexist content that pervades the ’70s trash cinema he loves so much. His shows are curiously non-exploitative when it comes to women — most of the edgy content is carried in dialogue. He so far hasn’t been pulled into the moral maelstrom around Harvey Weinstein. His Once Upon a Time in Hollywood wins us over because it makes a profound positive statement (in a roundabout way). Its sentiments are so strong that we happily embrace its fairytale version of historical events.
Back in ’92 Roger Ebert tolerated Reservoir Dogs and advised Quentin Tarantino to “move on and make a better movie.” But this director has always known exactly what he wants to do. We’ve chosen to appreciate what he does well rather than expect him to ‘graduate’ to more high-toned subjects.
Lionsgate’s 4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray + Digital disc release of Reservoir Dogs delivers exactly what Tarantino fans want. The high-quality images come across well in the 4K remaster: the show may have been filmed in the Super-35mm format, as were James Cameron’ movies of the time. We’re told that things could have been much different. Before Reservoir Dogs came together, Tarantino almost produced it as a no-budget, no-names 16mm feature, in which case he might have spent several more years getting his feature career going.
Yes, the brilliant 4K disc plays as if the movie were a Road Show epic. With the added contrast boost of Dolby Vision, even the step-printed optical sections look sharp and clean, like the post-breakfast ‘Ocean’s 11’ walk to the car. The fancy Dolby TrueHD audio doesn’t hurt either.
Lionsgate includes the standard older extras. The best is still the selection of scenes that Tarantino wisely deleted. Some look as though they would give away important plot points too early. A couple that include a female character play like material for an ordinary TV crime show. The finished film has no female characters with dialogue . . . but Tarantino would integrate vivid, energetic women into all of his subsequent pictures.
A character profile piece is a little amusing. The featurette Playing it Fast and Loose may have some decent content, but I turned it off, without apology, as soon as I saw & heard Harry Knowles.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Reservoir Dogs 4K
Sound: Excellent Dolby True HD, plus 2.0 Spanish
Playing it Fast and Loose making-of featurette
Profiling the Reservoir Dogs quick rundown of character traits of four leading characters.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, Spanish (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: November 23, 2022
* Of course, two decades’ worth of bizarre fantasies have since abused the style, using unnecessarily fractured storytelling and outright obfuscation to ‘complicate’ simple narratives into annoying puzzle boxes.
** For three or four years in the early ’70s I’d go to see Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch every time it showed up on a double bill. After a while the movie began to attract ugly audiences that reveled in every violent moment. I quit when I couldn’t go to the Fox Venice without the show becoming an interactive experience, with individuals shouting encouragement to the screen, like “Kill the bitch!” This also happened at Oliver Stone’s supposedly anti-war Platoon — self-styled psychos in the audience shouted vocal approval of every moment of violence or torture, especially when women were involved.
Text © Copyright 2022 Glenn Erickson