Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi, Tim Roth, Chris Penn, Lawrence Tierney
Plot: After a diamond heist goes wrong, a gang of criminals head back to their secret warehouse to figure out what happened.
I forgot just how dated Reservoir Dogs was. Filmed with a grainy camera and, for the most part, condensed to a single set, this movie is the very definition of cheap. From the looks of it, Tarantino spent his meagre budget on convincing some established actors to come on board and check out his script. And in reality, this reflects the true power of Tarantino’s opening movie. Despite the lack of set-pieces and film equipment, the masterful director has created a story so effortlessly smooth, the low production costs never become an issue.
For one, the actors happy enough to come on-board with this independent production find themselves a handful of roles that really help them come alive as performers. Blockbusters might have the better pay-day, but occasionally an actor finds it worthwhile to venture outside of Hollywood to find the juicer roles. Keitel, for one, has rarely been better than Mr. White. A gangster with a moral code, Keitel’s mobster spends the entire running time of this film, defending his ethos. The film has become essential viewing to a degree that it is easy to drift over the fine-tuned performance. As the movie dumps us right into the middle of a story that is already coming to an end (we never see the heist that fell apart), it is up to the actor’s to bring their own charisma and the audience to piece together their back-stories from their manner and chemistry with other characters. It means Keitel, and a few of the others, are given a blank canvas in terms of acting. Keitel comes across as likeable from the other, caring yet merciless. He goes from protecting the younger, wounded member of the gang to totally convincing as a cold-blooding killer the next. The other actors have a field day as well. Madsen is given the most colourful character, a smooth-talking criminal that is hiding psychotic undertones. Buscemi channels his inner charisma, but to a different pace than he is usually given. It is surprising how well his nervous chattering fits with his gangster character. Tim Roth almost feels forgotten, spending most of the movie unconscious, an early scene seeing a bullet hit him in the gut. However, he gets most of the final third to play with, including an anecdote about a toilet that Tarantino films with invention and precision. A story this contained needs great characters and key performances to drive them. Reservoir Dogs has both.
The real charm of Reservoir Dogs is, looking back now Tarantino is at the height of his career, seeing all of the trademarks still present despite the low budget venture. The gangsters are dressed in slick suits and shades, a strong suggestion that we would like to see Tarantino return to his crime thriller roots. The soundtrack is vibrant throughout, used with a sharp sense of humour. The dry delivery of the DJ amuses, always backed up with a killer tune as the punchline. The opening credits sequence is burned into any independent film-maker’s mind. The audacity of ending his movie with a shockingly dark epilogue and following it up with one of the more light-hearted songs of the 70s. And then this film can be condensed into a single scene: Michael Madsen getting some alone time with a torture victim to the music of Stealer’s Wheel ‘Stuck In The Middle Of You’. It could be Madsen’s finest moment, as he coolly struts his stuff, punctuating with shocking violence. The gore is lacking now the film has aged somewhat, but that first watch was chilling, the brutality of what you were watching made all the more horrific by the juxtaposition of the song. Tarantino also shows invention here, as the volume of the song comes in and out, depending on Madsen’s proximity to the radio. A simple trick, but one that adds texture to a brilliant scene. It shows that despite a low budget Tarantino has total control of a story. A fine amount of evidence proving that he is ready for an ensemble cast, bigger production values and one of the biggest movies of the 90s.
Final Verdict: The age of the film doesn’t hurt the power of Tarantino’s opening. Shock moments, great performances and masterful direction all add to the power of Reservoir Dogs.