johnlink ranks RESERVOIR DOGS (1992)

For me, Tarantino was a big influence on the way I approach movies. I was ten when RESERVOIR DOGS came out, but I first saw it as I was entering high school. RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION were revelations. The way a movie worked, the way a movie played out, the way a movie spoke… it was as if all those things changed because of these two movies. So, as I approach 500 movies for this site, how is there no Tarantino anywhere on here to be found? That needs some fixing.


I watched RESERVOIR DOGS (1992) on 12.22.12. It was, oh, probably my twentieth viewing of the film. But it was my first time watching in a decade or so.

DJANGO UNCHAINED is Tarantino’s seventh feature, if you count KILL BILL as one movie and you ignore his segment in FOUR ROOMS (which is a great segment). Is that cheating? Perhaps. But if you look at his filmography, there have really only been seven projects which he has brought from development to the screen.

Around 1995, when I became aware of Tarantino and his early magic, the sky was the limit. I look now at his career and see several quality films. But I’m not sure he ever matched RESERVOIR DOGS or PULP FICTION. I liken his career, in a way, to Tom Brady. After Super Bowl XXXIX, Brady was 27 years old and had three rings. He seemed destined to have a career unlike anyone in history. In the years since, he has made it to the big game and lost twice. He’s never quite capitalized on the potential that was there. But there is still time.

Tarantino had the movie-going world by the balls after PULP FICTION. He could have gotten anything he made that he wanted to make. He is notoriously picky. He could have made junk. Instead he took his time, carefully picking project after project. He’s made it back to the big game a few times, but he’s never won it the way he did with his first two movies.

Any conversation regarding the best directorial debuts of all time must include RESERVOIR DOGS. Not only is the film intense, powerful, and tragic; it also helped reignite and highlight the independent film movement of the 90s. The last half of that decade is littered with Tarantino clones, but the mood and banter he works in is so specific as to make imitation a difficult task. Some bands are simply constructed, and being a tribute band for them is a fairly easy task. For some bands, being a cover band is pointless. You’ll never match the magic.

RESERVOIR DOGS tells the story of six criminals who have just botched a robbery. Most of the film happens in the warehouse in the hours after the robbery attempt. In what would become trademark Tarantino, we bounce around the timeline. We slowly learn about the backgrounds of these characters. The layers are pulled apart bit by bit until we are left with a climax which has no choice but to be tragic.

Tarantino is sometimes regarded as a racist. It is not a subject he is afraid to confront, as the release of DJANGO UNCHAINED undeniably exemplifies. On the site Grantland, Zach Baron writes “this was all written by a white man whose relationship with black culture has always been somewhere between respectfully adulatory and borderline exploitative?” For those on the exploitative side of the argument, if not the outright racist side, RESERVOIR DOGS is their starting point. This is a film which owes something to Blaxploitation films of the 70s in its look. It is also a film which is filled with white people dropping ‘n’ bombs, and not always in a meaningless way. These characters insult black people many times, often to make a point that they are better than those whose epitaphs they hurl so easily.

The counter-point, of course, is that these are criminals. Horrible people who do horrible things. This is valid, except for the fact that Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) represents the audiences’ viewpoint. While Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) may ultimately garner our sympathies, it is Mr. White who is most like us, most decent. He’s trying to sole the mystery of what happened during the robbery, just like we are. And while Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) is doing the same, we don’t relate to him the way we relate to Mr. White.

So it stings a little when Mr. White smiles before pulling a cop out of a trunk and beating him up to relieve his aggression. Sure, Mr. White doesn’t go to the lengths of Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), but it says all we need to know about these characters that the film needs someone as brutal as Mr. Blonde in order to make everyone else seem like someone we could possibly root for.

There is no question, clearly, that we are supposed to be rooting for some of these guys. They may be doomed from the start, but we want Mr. Orange, Mr. White, and (to some extent) Mr. Pink to make their way out of that warehouse.

This is a film which lives and dies by its dialogue. Entire scenes serve as non sequiturs in an attempt to build character. An entire opening scene goes mostly to Mr. Brown (Tarantino himself) who doesn’t ever make it to the warehouse. It’s important that we understand the world these guys live in, and their hyper-real existence, in order to begin processing what happens to them. Therein lies the genius of Tarantino: he creates characters we care about by exploiting their normalness before introducing us to their brutality. In his career, the best example of this is Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta talking about cheeseburgers for ten minutes before they decide to ‘get into character’ in PULP FICTION.

But the seeds of that perfection are sewn in RESERVOIR DOGS in that first scene around the table. Think about all we learn. Mr. White isn’t afraid of the boss. Mr. Pink is selfish. Mr. Blonde is quiet and chooses his words carefully. From that scene, however, we don’t know which guys become our heroes, which guys become our villains, and which guys we never see again. It is the sort of film making that MUST be independent, because a studio would never allow a film to get so far in with a scene which seems to trivial.

The flaws in RESERVOIR DOGS are easily glossed over because they are minimal. The racism is an argument you can pick a side on. It’s a little ugly for my taste, but I’m not offended by it. Chris Penn, who plays Nice Guy Eddie, isn’t as adept at handling the dialogue as some of the other actors. For most everyone else the rhythm feels natural, for Penn it sometimes feels forced. In the script itself, it is hard to fathom why everyone would need pseudonyms except for the guys at the top. I’m not sure why Eddie and Joe (Lawrence Tierney) are so concerned with protecting everyone else when they have no protection themselves whatsoever.

But again, these are easily glossed over because RESERVOIR DOGS is an intense, bloody, and spectacular piece of film history. Now over 20 years old, it still hold up partly because of the fact that it did not feel like a movie of the present even in ’92. It sits in this timeless place of filmic lore, easily accessible by anybody at anytime.



The bonus is for the music, of course. Tarantino may be the best in the business at putting together a stellar soundtrack. You never hear the Stealers Wheel song “Stuck in The Middle With You” the same way again after seeing RESERVOIR DOGS.



~ by johnlink00 on December 23, 2012.

4 Responses to “johnlink ranks RESERVOIR DOGS (1992)”

  1. Great write up John. One of my all time favourites 🙂

  2. […] the powerful INSIDER,  the joyous AVENGERS, a wonderfully rebooted BATMAN BEGINS, the well spoken RESERVOIR DOGS, the classic RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC, an old favorite CITY SLICKERS, vintage Cruise in A FEW GOOD […]

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