wed 07/06/2023

Blu-ray: Reservoir Dogs | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: Reservoir Dogs

Blu-ray: Reservoir Dogs

Tarantino's debut's sly technique and visceral violence still grip in 4K

A dog's life: Mr White (Harvey Keitel) and Mr Pink (Steve Buscemi)Lionsgate

Quentin Tarantino’s is the first voice you hear in Reservoir Dogs (1992), riffing on Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”. The gang of fellow robbers we see gathered round his character all talk like versions of the obsessive ex-video store clerk at times, rapping pop culture opinion and relishing pungent language.

Soon Steven Wright’s doleful DJ is cueing a Seventies song, the gang leave their diner meeting in immediately iconic slow-motion and, after a fade to credits black, we hear Mr Orange (Tim Roth) scream before we see his shirt soaked in blood, supported by Mr White (Harvey Keitel) as they flee a heist which will gradually go wrong during artful flashbacks. Dialogue and violence make successive, complementary impacts, grabbing attention.

Reservoir Dogs Blu-ray coverExecutive producer Monte Hellman – director of Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) and a pair of existential Jack Nicholson Westerns – was the draw when the NME’s late, much missed film editor Gavin Martin asked me to Reservoir Dogs’ first UK screening. First impressions were of a then rare, welcome throwback to Seventies Hollywood’s penchant for rangy conversation, and gruelling, sardonic violence immediately comparable only to Goodfellas (1990).

Thirty years and eight films later, Tarantino has become baggy and baroque, his fetishes, from feet to insistent use of the N-word, brazenly familiar. Reservoir Dogs remains his most concise display. Authoritatively borrowing plot elements from Ringo Lam’s Hong Kong cop film City On Fire (1987) and its chronological shuffles from Kubrick’s sweaty heist noir The Killing (1956), it achieves movie-bred authenticity. Though its characters don’t talk much like contemporary criminals, they convincingly compound the argot of 100 crime films. Lawrence Tierney as burly, gravel-voiced boss Joe Cabot talks like it’s still the Forties, when he starred as a nihilistic killer in The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947). The gang of sharp-suited, self-styled pros he takes paternal charge of occupy a similar twilight zone, for all their modern, rhythmic profanity.

On a $1.5 million budget, Tarantino relied on a prime cast led by Keitel (just clawing his way back from career purgatory) and Roth (barely known in the States). “Betcha a big Lee Marvin fan, aren’t ya?” Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen) asks Mr White, who laughs in recognition. But Keitel’s abrasiveness, tender affection for his gut-shot young comrade and primal howl when he realises he’s a cop, Roth’s rasping and gasping in a pool of blood, and the then unknown Madsen’s cool, genuine menace are all more serious and less knowing than the heightened, cinematically self-conscious acting of subsequent Tarantinos (Jackie Brown apart). With Chris Penn on board too (pictured bottom, right with Steve Buscemi), Method macho abounds. (The only, small, female speaking part, Nina Siemaszko’s cop colleague of Roth’s character, was cut.)Reservoir Dogs the gangThe warehouse where the heist’s survivors gather largely keeps Reservoir Dogs to a single cheap set, often filmed in wide-angle, long-shot tableaus emphasising its theatrical nature. But with this script and cast at his disposal, Tarantino’s dreamily smooth, wrong-footing direction also pumps every frame with value.

The first time you see Madsen’s Mr Blonde dance round a tethered cop as Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” plays on the radio, feinting with his razor till he saws off his ear, you’re horrified by how far he’ll go. But the rest of the scene is conceived with equal originality: Blonde steps out into a sunny, quiet LA street, the sounds of ordinary life going on nearby, retrieves a petrol can, then re-enters the pop-soundtracked nightmare to slosh the cop with the liquid, the camera jerking in verité agitation; he flicks a lighter you’re now sure he’ll use, only for Orange’s forgotten gun to go off, and Blonde to slump in the frame’s distant rear.Steve Buscemi and Chris Penn in Reservoir DogsThe scenes between scenes, the transitions and undercurrents, work as hard as Mr Blonde’s razor. The revelation, an hour into its 99 minutes, that Orange is really Freddy, the gang’s cop traitor, triggers Reservoir Dogs’ most atypical flashback, as Freddy is tutored in his undercover mission by his black cop boss Hideaway (Randy Brooks). During their dialogue in another diner, Tarantino films Roth talking from over Brooks’ shoulder, slants angles (just as the bleeding-out, static Roth lies on the warehouse’s most interesting, sloping feature) and tracks in on close-ups, anything to keep a classic two-shot conversation visually jumping, even as the gliding edit coolly secretes this restlessness. When Hideaway provides an anecdote to add convincing life to Freddy’s alias, Tarantino then moves from them prepping on a rooftop – LA’s blue sky suddenly enormous in this claustrophobic film – to a huge, graffitied street backdrop, to Freddy telling the story to Joe’s gang, to a tense dramatisation of this cooked-up scenario. This minor, multifarious scene incidentally gives a rich, sketched portrait of Tarantino’s hometown, and suggestively muddies the film’s racial politics.

Such immediately masterful, immensely resourceful technique underpins Reservoir Dogs’ still vivid achievement. The US and Cannes woke up with Pulp Fiction (1994), but I watched its more superficial pastiche with creeping disappointment. Banned on home video in the UK until 1995 for its violence, Reservoir Dogs meanwhile went back to work as a cult, midnight cinema hit. It still stands apart from its many imitators and Tarantino’s later career, limber with youthful intent.

The 4K transfer means Roth’s shirt is redder than ever on this 30th anniversary edition, but the extras are minimal, with critics reassessing the film, a 2006 mini-documentary, and weak psychological profiles of the Dogs. Only deleted scenes – more Roth-Brooks, and filling in Mr White’s past – are worthwhile.

The scenes between scenes, the transitions and undercurrents, work as hard as Mr Blonde’s razor

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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