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Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Chris Penn, Steve Buscemi, Lawrence Tierney, Eddie Bunker, Quentin Tarantino and Tim Roth
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Opening Quentin Tarantino's rather startling career on film with banality, profanity and obscenity turned out to be rather appropriate. Eight men sit around a table, six of them in identical suits, and they talk about things like the meaning of Madonna's Like a Virgin, the ethics of tipping and how Joe Cabot can't remember names because he's getting old. In 1992 this was as bizarre as the fact that almost everyone was recognisable. OK, nobody had seen Tarantino before and Tim Roth was new to American audiences after making his name in England, but there's Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi, recognisable faces one and all. There's even Lawrence Tierney, though nobody had seen him for a while unless they rented videos from the crappier end of the store. Wizards of the Demon Sword may have been fun but it wasn't close to the same level of quality of Born to Kill or The Devil Thumbs a Ride back in the late forties.

While the credits roll, the George Baker Selection play Little Green Bag and these eight men walk down to the car in slow motion like they own the world. When the credits are done, though, we find out that the world didn't agree in the slightest. They're crooks about to rob a jewellery warehouse but we don't see a moment of the heist. We're thrown right into the aftermath with Tim Roth writhing around in the back seat of a car with his gut shot out and Harvey Keitel trying to keep him calm while he drives back to the rendezvous so Joe can get him a doctor. Needless to say there's blood everywhere and he's hurting bad. The rendezvous is a warehouse and Keitel dumps him down on a ramp to spend most of the rest of the film bleeding. The longer he stays alive, the more blood comes out and the sooner we know he's going to die. In the meantime we piece together what happened by watching these crooks piece together what went wrong.

Put simply, it had to be a setup. They know that, once they have a moment to think about it. One minute the cops weren't there, the next minute they were. There were no sirens, there was no four minute wait to allow for a reasonable response time. It was like the cops were right there waiting for them. So there has to be a rat amongst them and the film's dynamic revolves around nobody agreeing on which one of them it is. What helps the paranoia is the fact that nobody knows anyone else and Joe had gone to lengths to keep it that way, giving them all coloured aliases like the hijackers in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Tim Roth is Mr Orange, Harvey Keitel is Mr White. There's also Mr Blonde, Mr Blue, Mr Pink and Mr Brown, some of whom get much more screen time than others. All of them are working for Joe Cabot and his son, Nice Guy Eddie, confirmed crooks and killers who are the only ones guaranteed not to be cops.

After Mr White gets Mr Orange back to the warehouse, Mr Pink arrives in the form of Steve Buscemi. One of the main reasons I like Reservoir Dogs so much is that Buscemi gets a real part that he can get his teeth into. He's such a quirkily memorable actor that it always seems a shame to watch him only get a few minutes or even just a single scene in a movie. Maybe Miller's Crossing would have been better if he'd had more than a blink of the eyelids on screen. Voice work for animated movies like Monsters Inc excluded, this may be the most I've seen him on screen outside of Ed and His Dead Mother and Ghost World. Mr Pink brings the news that Mr Brown is dead, shot by a cop, appropriately given that Tarantino took this role himself and knew full well that while he had a vision of what he wanted to see, he wasn't up to a lot of extended screen time opposite the sort of actors he had managed to cast.

At this point Tarantino was merely a clerk at a video store called Video Archives in Redondo Beach but one who knew he wanted to make movies. Initially he made waves as a writer, Tony Scott being interested in buying one of two of his scripts, Reservoir Dogs or True Romance. He wanted the former but Tarantino managed to persuade him into the latter so that he could sink $30,000 of the $50,000 he got from selling True Romance into making Reservoir Dogs himself in 16mm. Opportunity knocked again when Harvey Keitel rang him with an offer of starring in the film and co-producing it too. His involvement meant that financiers were interested and the budget swelled to a million and a half, not bad for a debut director making a rather unusual independent film. Keitel had heard about it from the wife of the acting teacher of Tarantino's friend and producer Lawrence Bender. It sure pays to network and get your name out there.
Given these circumstances it's amazing that they managed to put together the ensemble cast that are a huge part of the success of this film. Tarantino and Bender joked about being the most inexperienced people working on the movie, but they were. Putting this cast together today, even just those who are still alive, would cost a lot more than a mere million and a half dollars because even those who weren't big names at the time have become so since. Circumstance and luck certainly seem to be the best friends of a budding filmmaker. Keitel is presumably the key to that, his presence sparking the money and stature that people are drawn to. He's also superb here as an actor, well established in tough gangster films after a string of pictures for Martin Scorsese but beyond that he was perhaps the most fearless actor in Hollywood at the time. As if to highlight this, 1992 also saw him play the lead in Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant.

The only member of the cast more experienced than Keitel was Lawrence Tierney, a handsome young man back in his heyday in the mid to late forties but a bloated bald thug three decades later with a voice of gravel, because he had, by his own admission, 'thrown away about seven careers through drink'. In an appropriate description, Mr Orange describes him as looking like the Thing from the Fantastic Four. He found a brief career rebirth here in an echo of his initial rise to fame in 1945's Dillinger, the characters of Joe Cabot and John Dillinger both being tough roles in low budget pictures. Tierney was a blistering bad guy back then, his continual air of impending menace running contrary to his charming looks, and he's just as dangerous without the charm in Reservoir Dogs. He only looks over the men he hires and sets the rules under which they're to work but even so he proves he's nobody to mess with, as the characters quickly realise.

The actors knew it too, every one of them having run-ins with Tierney, who was as tough and out of control in real life as he was in his movies. Tarantino nearly came to blows with him and tends to explode every time his name comes up in an interview, threatening to kick Norman Mailer's ass for suggesting to him that Tierney would only slow him down 20%. 'He personally challenges the entire concept of filmmaking,' he told critic Josh Becker. 'The man is insane. You can't talk to him. He's that far from having a nervous breakdown.' How much of that is truth and how much Tarantino hyperbole, I can't say, though there's a full half a century of stories to back him up, but Tierney provides the grounding to this entire movie. While he's not on screen for long, partly because he could never remember his lines, he's the man the cops want and the man the crooks don't want to cross. They hurl insults at each other but nobody dares speak ill about Joe Cabot.

The man who appears toughest on screen is Mr Blonde, played by Michael Madsen. Apparently a sensitive man in real life, Madsen had a lot of difficulty filming his notorious torture scene, a watershed moment in cinematic violence which above anything else is what polarises people's opinions of this movie. It's the point at which people have walked out of screenings since the film's first showings on the festival circuit. We've already discovered that Mr Blonde is insane, not just because he apparently went nuts and started shooting everyone when employees at the jewellery warehouse triggered the alarm, but because when he arrives back at the rendezvous, he's all calm and stylish like a French noir character, sipping a drink while he antagonises Mr White. Anyone who can calmly ask, 'Are you going to bark all day, little doggy, or are you going to bite?' of a character played by Harvey Keitel is obviously completely out of his brain.

So after continuing to bludgeon the audience with what I described in paragraph one as 'banality, profanity and obscenity', Tarantino deliberately aimed to disturb them with this scene and he succeeded. Mr Blonde escaped from the heist with a cop as hostage and when left alone with him and the unconscious Mr Orange while his compatriots hide their cars, proceeds to torture him. Already bloodied through the anger and frustration of the crooks trying to find out who the rat is, he finds himself tied to a chair while Mr Blonde dances around him singing along with Stealers Wheel's Stuck in the Middle with You and slicing off his ear before deciding to douse him in gasoline and set him alight. When Kirk Baltz, who played the cop, improvised lines about his child at home. Madsen found that an already difficult scene for him had become too difficult as he had recently become a father himself and so couldn't finish it.
Quentin Tarantino did finish it, perhaps quite an achievement for a debut filmmaker having to deal with Lawrence Tierney, and he set the stage for one of the most notable screen careers in modern film history. All those quintessentially Quentin trademarks are in place here, though at this point they were raw wake up calls to the rest of the industry rather than the sort of finished product that he delivered in polished form with his next film, Pulp Fiction. Reservoir Dogs, which Empire named the greatest independent film of all time, has all the subtlety of a punch in the face, one delivered by Mr Blonde rather than Michael Madsen, but it made its presence known. It disturbed people, it shocked people, it made them pay attention and to a large degree, that sort of thing is still going on almost two decades later. So much of what we've seen in other films over that intervening period of time sprang from what Tarantino set in motion here.

There's his memorable pop culture dialogue, which isn't always believable, slick or realistic but is inherently quotable. 'You shoot me in a dream, you'd better wake up and apologise,' says Mr White. 'Was that as good for you as it was for me?' Mr Blonde asks his prisoner after he slices off his ear. Of course the debate about the lyrics of Like a Virgin presage similar discussions about cheeseburgers or other everyday banalities that pervade Pulp Fiction. The ensemble cast are able to make blisteringly clever but unrealistic dialogue seem easy, the chemistry between them obvious, fortunate given that most of the film is taken up by dialogue. Penn, Keitel, Roth and Buscemi spend a whole scene talking about how black women are tougher than white women and they have each other in stitches. The impression is that even if Tarantino wrote this dialogue, they made it their own in the same way that the undercover cop learns his back story.

Of course there's a hip selection of songs, so impeccably cool that The Big Chill almost a decade earlier seems tame and safe. Tarantino is so effortlessly cool that he can make a fifties gangster movie with a seventies sound, courtesy of the imaginary K-Billy's Super Sound of the Seventies radio station, and make it feel right. Because Tarantino's taste in music is as eclectic as his taste in movies and because he has a knack for picking precisely the right song for precisely the right moment, suddenly teenagers started listening to The George Baker Selection or Dick Dale & His Del-Tones or Dusty Springfield. Ultraviolence and Stealers Wheel just doesn't seem right in the slightest until you watch Michael Madsen shimmy around with his straight razor and suddenly it's the most natural thing in the world. Instead of parents wondering what their kids are listening to, they began wondering why they were listening to their music instead.

There's an extreme edge to the material that comes directly from Tarantino's well known taste for exploitation flicks. Violence and its results are a continual presence, Tim Roth being forced to spend almost the entire movie lying in a pool of fake blood, so much so that more than once he had to be carefully peeled off the floor. Because the film never lets up, merely gets more intense with its torture scene and its Mexican standoffs, critic Jami Bernard has compared the reaction the film received at the Sundance Festival to Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat that had audiences in 1895 scrambling out of their seats in terror. It becomes like a piece of profane poetry, the F word and its derivatives being used 272 times and few swearwords being omitted. It was the racial element to this that prompted most criticism, though hindsight demonstrates that Tarantino was merely bringing elements from blaxploitation into a film with only a single black actor.

His well known cinematic influences are all over this story, not least from Ringo Lam's City on Fire, an influence he can deny all he likes in favour of Kubrick's The Killing but it's obvious to anyone who's seen it that it's there. However he's not a plaguarist, he's a cinematic mashup artist, taking from everywhere but creating something new, again as hindsight has proved. This may end up being the single most fascinating thing about watching Tarantino's films, trying to discover which movies, often highly obscure ones, he's borrowed elements from to build his films around. His memory for cinematic detail is legendary and it's amazing to see a filmmaker take influence from Kurosawa, Melville or Kubrick at the same time he's borrowing from obscure revenge flicks, spaghetti westerns and Japanese monster movies. Of course, after Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, everyone else started borrowing from him instead, though not as well.

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