I remember the first time I saw RESERVOIR DOGS it was with a bunch of dudes that had seen it a bunch of times and knew all the dialogue and shit. I thought it was great but I didn’t really get those guys, I didn’t think I would end up watching it over and over again.
Since then we’ve seen Quentin Tarantino go through the hip hop arc of exciting new thing, “it’s only a fad,” a decade later it’s obviously here to stay and still growing so quit your grumblin ya old grouch. In fact I did the math wrong when I was watching this, I was thinking it was turning 18 this year, it would be old enough to vote. And let’s be honest, it’s not voting for Obama, ’cause it’s kinda racist and also it probly thinks any Democrat wants to take its guns away.
Of course DOGS actually came out in ’92, released October 23rd, so we’re coming up on the 20th anniversary in my opinion. I knew I still liked it but it’s been a few years and a few Tarantino movies since my last viewing. It was definitely before DEATH PROOF came out. Maybe before the KILL BILLs too.
Isn’t it funny that on the poster it says “Four perfect killers. One perfect crime.” Come on man, you know that’s not accurate. It’s nice that now they can just write “QUENTIN TARANTINO” on the poster, they don’t gotta come up with some bullshit formula to pretend it fits into.
RESERVOIR DOGS is not the type of directational debut where you only notice glimpses of the voice and craft that the director would grow into (PIRANHA II), and it’s not the type where it’s a rougher and lower budget version of what would come later (BOTTLE ROCKET). Sure, Tarantino has evolved and grown over the years, but he really hit the ground running here, he didn’t need alot of polishing.
This thing is so thoroughly him in content and style, it’s almost like he arrived fully formed. It has so many things we still associate with his movies: criminals during the parts of their day that most stories skip over, characters discussing pop culture (especially ’70s TV shows and old song lyrics), no score, a great soundtrack of obscure tunes mostly from the ’70s, non-linear storytelling, diners, fast food, comic books, Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, great performances from actors who deserve more of a shot than they’ve gotten, careful, confident camera angles and moves that don’t call attention to themselves…
We also get Tarantino’s love of his own voice. It’s the first voice we hear in the movie, him with his bullshit interpretation of a Madonna song where he’s arguing it’s about big dicks. He’s always been really into these show-offy interpretations of things. There was the one about TOP GUN being homoerotic, apparently started by Roger Avary but performed by Tarantino in SLEEP WITH ME. I’ve complained before about comic book fundamentalists who hate KILL BILL because they disagree with its villain’s interpretation of Superman. You know what’s funny, Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), the maniac psycho of the bunch, is the reasonable one when it comes to Madonna. He’s the one that says no, the song is not about a black guy’s big dick, dumbass.
It’s funny to see Tarantino in the movie now. I don’t think I noticed him sticking out the first time but now you kinda laugh at the idea of that nerd fitting in with these scary hoodlums. Or maybe he didn’t – he mouthed off at the diner and then he got shot in the head. Tarantino originally wanted to play Mr. Pink, but I’m glad he thought better of it.
Actually, it’s weird that he didn’t want to be Mr. Orange, because that seems to be the Tarantino surrogate/Clarence type character. His superior officer is pretty much an acting teacher, giving him tips about staying in character and even making him learn a monologue. In flashback he wears a Speed Racer t-shirt, has a Silver Surfer poster on the wall, and I thought something called “Karate Cowboy” but I can’t find any evidence on Google that that’s really a thing. He has a box of Fruit Brute cereal in his apartment. In his undercover-in-character fictional story he complains about people calling him up for pot when “Motherfucker! I’m trying to watch THE LOST BOYS!” THE LOST BOYS doesn’t seem hip enough to be a Tarantino reference, but it does seem like something that would be on his top ten list at the end of that year. Like last year he had Paul W.S. Anderson’s THREE MUSKETEERS.
In an early script that I found online it has Mr. White saying all the dialogue about not believing in tipping. I’m glad they changed it because he’s the thief you side with the most, it would’ve thrown off the whole balance to make him such an asshole from square one.
There’s something weird about the tip discussion. First of all, when they’re joking about tipping well only if the waitress sucks your dick,
I could swear Mr. Orange Nice Guy Eddie says “I’d go over 12% for that.” Now of course 20% is the standard tip. I guess it was a little lower back then, but I don’t remember it being that low. Is it supposed to identify him as a cheapskate? Is that why he (maybe jokingly) comes over to Mr. Pink’s side on this issue?
Joe (Lawrence Tierney), who strongly believes in tipping, calculates the tip as one dollar per person at the table, in other words $7. If that was 20% that would mean each of the 8 people had $4 worth of breakfast. But look at this:
I mean there are plates there, I think I see bacon, possibly pancakes and eggs. And are those beer bottles? These were actual meals, not just toast and coffee.
So I’m guessing Joe must go by this 12% rule too, that’s where Eddie learned it from. Then the bill would be about $58, a pretty good deal even in ’92. But these guys are expecting a big pay day, they oughta tip better than that. I hope somebody straightened Tarantino out on that issue after this. Also I hope that diner started adding automatic 18% gratuity for parties of 6 or more like most places. Then Mr. Pink can’t complain, it’s part of the bill.
On a related note, when I was a school kid I always thought I wasn’t gonna need math in real life, but I never foresaw reviewing RESERVOIR DOGS. I had to ask somebody and get out a math book and everything to figure out that 7 is 12% of x shit.
The IMDb message boards, in their ongoing mission to depress the shit out of me every time I look their way, have taught me that cheapskates like to use this scene as justification for not tipping. People worry about movies glorifying violence, but perhaps the real toll is on low wage workers. (Yep, this movie’s definitely voting Romney, while muttering something about socialism.)
I think Tarantino’s talky personality comes through in the way his characters just love to drop little facts all the time: waitress is the #1 job for female non-college graduates, the gut and the knee are the most painful places to be shot, there is an average police response time of 4 minutes after an alarm is pulled… But these actors are so great that to me anyway it doesn’t come across like they’re all just talking in Tarantino’s voice. They sound like different people, they’re just in the world where people talk like that.
On the other hand I’m not sure about the chances of Mr. Pink and Mr. Orange’s boss both using the word “commode.” That’s not common jargon for California circa 1992 in my opinion.
As blatantly Tarantino-y as DOGS is, it also kinda stands out from the rest of the filmography because of the nature of doing a low budget first feature. It’s cleverly designed to mostly take place in this one sparse location, branching out to other places for various pieces of backstory, but still being mostly dudes in a warehouse talking. It could definitely be done as stage play. That gives it a really powerful simplicity that’s different from everything he’s done since. (Though I guess if they did WAR HORSE with a puppet they could figure out a way to do the car stunts from DEATH PROOF.)
Even though it skips around chronologically, the warehouse location gives it kind of a real time feel, like you’re hanging around waiting with them. They got nothing to do but pace and debate dropping of Orange at a hospital and get shit off their chests. Mr. White wants to put water on his face and comb his hair. If that’s what makes him feel better let him do it. I’m glad he brought the comb with him during the robbery if it’s gonna help relax him.
I like that the all ’70s soundtrack is explained by the movie taking place during “K-BILLY’s Super Sounds of the ’70s Weekend.” That must be an interesting station since they play pretty obscure songs and not the obvious ’70s shit that everybody knows. In later Tarantino movies the music doesn’t need an explanation, it’s just good music. I guess it’s kinda like how in ABOVE THE LAW they explain why this cop Nico Toscani knows aikido, but in the other Seagal movies it’s just a given, they know nobody needs an explanation.
A favorite part for me has always been the “Stuck In the Middle With You” scene, not for the DePalmian “you know what, I’m gonna point the camera over there for a second” cutting off of the ear, or even the way Mr. Blonde does a little dance like it’s all a big joke, but for the shot of him walking out to the trunk to get the gasoline. It’s this little tension building interlude, the music is out of ear shot, the camera follows him in real time going outside and back in. The most fucked up part is that you can hear the sounds of children playing nearby. This is all going on right near a bunch of happy little kids. It’s kinda like the end of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2 where you realize the park is right next to the road and people are driving by all day not knowing about all the dead bodies and murders down there.
By the way, notice that Nice Guy Eddie doesn’t think information from the tortured cop could be useful. He says he’ll just tell you what he thinks you’ll want to hear. Nice Guy Eddie knows that torture gets you bad intel. They shoulda watched RESERVOIR DOGS before starting the War on Terror. In fact it’s the reverse – Marvin Nash does know who the rat is and does not tell them. He heroically doesn’t give him up. That’s one aspect I forgot about. They both end up dead, but he didn’t give him up. I mean, they both woulda been dead anyway I think. He did the right thing.
I never thought of Tarantino as an action director until he knocked it out of the park with KILL BILL and then DEATH PROOF. But revisiting this I realized that there is a short action scene in this one, when it flashes back to Mr. Pink’s escape after the robbery. It’s a foot chase on a sidewalk, an escape in a car, shots are fired. A whole lot of shots. Quick and simple with a visceral, right-in-the-middle-of-it feel that feels very raw and old school but also reminds me of recent great scenes in DRIVE and UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION.
This has gotta be one of the most masculine movies at least of its decade. I believe there are only two women in the movie other than blurry background extras, neither with dialogue, both carjacking victims. There’s the one Mr. Pink drags out of the car by the scruff of the neck (Linda Kaye as “Shocked Woman” – she plays “Shot Woman” in PULP FICTION), you don’t even see her face I don’t think. And there’s the one who shoots Mr. Orange and then gets shot (Suzanne Celeste as “Shot Woman” – she appears to be Tim Roth’s dialect coach).
Actually there was a character named McClusky, played by Nina Siemaszko, who ate a burger while giving the background check on Mr. White:
but that scene got cut out, and without it the cast is all men and they’re all completely macho, always yelling at each other, pointing guns at each other, in one scene wrestling and calling each other gay.
I guess it’s because of this atmosphere that there’s more than one actor comfortable enough to turn his acting dial up to max. Tim Roth, suffering what must be the most prolonged and painful gunshot wound ever on film, grunts and cries and makes his voice sound like Grover from Sesame Street. Kirk Baltz, as the mutilated cop hostage, makes similar voices, spraying blood, spit and sweat all over as he screams. Chris Penn, apoplectic about claims that his good friend is a traitor, is much cleaner, but he spits all over the place too. The original Bad Lieutenant himself, Harvey Keitel, does some of his trademark Chewbacca moans at the end when he realizes what’s happened to him.
Of course this movie helped to revive Keitel’s career, it really kicked Steve Buscemi into stardom, and helped Michael Madsen (or at least got him KILL BILL), and it put Tim Roth up there for a while (although it seems weird that he’s not doing more these days). Chris Penn was already in BEST OF THE BEST 1-2, so he didn’t need RESERVOIR DOGS, but it’s gotta be his most memorable role. He was so perfect in that role, the pudgy son of the boss, thinks he’s hot shit in his cowboy boots, sideburns and windbreaker, with his brick phone. He’s a macho asshole, but whines and calls his dad “daddy,” should be hatable but I kinda like him.
But let’s take our hats off to a few actors who for some reason didn’t go much further:
Kirk Baltz as one-eared cop Marvin Nash. I spotted Baltz in a small part in NATURAL BORN KILLERS and wondered what else he’d been in. Turns out he’s in FACE/OFF somewhere. And in BULWORTH as “Debate Producer.” And alot of TV. He played the villain Clayface in the one-season Batgirl TV show Birds of Prey. He’s gonna be in that PARKER movie coming up.
Randy Brooks as Holdaway. Who is Holdaway? I didn’t know the name either. That’s Mr. Orange’s boss, who meets him at diners and roof tops, coaches him about his case, gives him the script for “The Commode Story.” Also he wears a sleeveless jean jacket and headband that looks more like a guy in an ’80s movie or music video than one from ’92. Brooks had previously been in MONKEY HU$TLE, COLORS, some episodes of Hunter, stuff like that. I think he’s really good in the role. Since then his career is about the same, doing some movies I never heard of and alot of TV episodes. Most notably he had a character named Arthur Leeds who was in 20 episodes of The West Wing. So that’s good.
You know there are the four sheriffs in the bathroom in Mr. Orange’s fictional Commode Story? Those must be Tarantino’s buddies, because three of the four appear in other Tarantino or Roger Avary movies. Look for Sheriff #1, Rich Turner, in MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY, KILLING ZOE, PULP FICTION (Sportscaster #2) and BOOGIE BOY. Sheriff #2, David Steen, has done quite a few movies but he’s gonna be in DJANGO UNCHAINED. Sheriff #4, Stevo Polyi, is in MY BEST FRIEND’S BIRTHDAY, MR. STITCH, RULES OF ATTRACTION and the KILL BILLs (as Tim. Who’s Tim?).
Yeah, so RESERVOIR DOGS is 20 years old, but it sort of exists outside of time. Any weekend now or 20 years from now could be a day to wear black ties and listen to Super Sounds of the ’70s.
I was wrong that first time. I did watch it over and over again, and it only got better. This is an all time classic. In my opinion it is every bit as good as other dog movies like MARMADUKE or EIGHT BELOW.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.