Gangster Movie Month: "Reservoir Dogs" Review

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After a simple jewelry heist goes terribly wrong, the surviving criminals begin to suspect that one of them is a police informant.
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Gangster Movie Month: "Reservoir Dogs" Review

-- Rating: R
Length: 99 minutes
Release Date: Oct. 23, 1992
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Genre: Crime/Thriller

"Reservoir Dogs" was the directorial debut of Quentin Tarantino, introducing the world to his bloody, take-no-prisoners film-making style in a way that only this film could. Drama, comedy, smart dialog, and a focus on the characters instead of the crime go a long way toward setting "Reservoir Dogs" apart from most other heist films. The question is that are those differences enough for "Reservoir Dogs" to really earn its reputation and its avid fan following? Or is it revered because it launched Tarantino's career as a director, causing it to have trouble living up to its own hype?

The core story of "Reservoir Dogs" is fairly simple. Six career criminals are hired to work together on a jewelry store heist by a crime boss named Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney). To keep the men focused on the job instead of personal issues, Cabot ensured that the six men he hired were strangers and went so far as to give each man a color-themed nickname: Mr. Blue (Eddie Bunker), Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), and Mr. Brown (Tarantino himself.)

The men have trouble getting along with each other in the beginning, with each argument and heated exchange giving the audience more and more insight into exactly who they are and how they differ from each other. There are several memorable exchanges within the group, including Mr. Pink's reasoning behind not leaving tips at restaurants and a discussion about the meanings behind some of Madonna's early hits. As one might expect, the diamond heist the men were hired for doesn't exactly go off as planned.

The fact that nobody doesn't actually get to see the heist is one of the brilliant things about this movie. Most heist movies build up to the crime and then focus on it heavily, often leaving just a little time at the end to tie up a few plot points and give resolutions to the characters once the job is done. "Reservoir Dogs" starts in the middle of the story, skips the heist entirely, provides backstory through flashbacks, and spends a decent amount of time analyzing the off-screen heist from the viewpoints of characters trying to figure out what went wrong. The focus on resolution is a major strength of the film, since moviegoers not only get to see how the surviving characters react to the pressure of a botched job but also feel the increasing paranoia that comes from suspecting that they were set up by someone.

Of course, a Quentin Tarantino movie would not be one without a significant amount of blood. Even though the action of the jewelry heist happened off-screen, flashbacks and post-heist conflicts offer plenty of bloodletting. Some of the violence gets a bit disturbing, especially when the audience sees Mr. Blonde obviously enjoying the torture of a captured police officer. Though not as over the top as some of Tarantino's later films, what audiences see in "Reservoir Dogs" doesn't really have to be; it's brutal and painful, echoing the world that surrounds these career criminals and the situation that they've found themselves in.

Perhaps the best thing about the film is the fact that there isn't really a "good guy" or a "bad guy" in the film. Most of the main characters are very bad men, and the one who wasn't was also the character who spent a decent portion of the film unconscious. There is no hero who gets to ride away into the sunset at the end of the movie, and there isn't a likable antihero who will escape from the law at the last minute with a charming smile or a look back at the cop who let him escape. Life in the world of "Reservoir Dogs" is cheap, and in the end almost everyone has to learn that lesson the hard way.

So looking back over twenty years later, does "Reservoir Dogs" really live up to its reputation? Absolutely. The film contains a decent amount of foreshadowing and subtlety, allowing fans to watch it several times and pick up on new elements with each viewing. The writing and characterization are gritty but intelligent, giving the film a timeless quality that doesn't insult your intelligence when you watch it. Best of all, if you're a Tarantino fan, you'll start to discover little links between his films that really help bring his universe to life. Mr. Blonde, for example, is the brother of John Travolta's character from "Pulp Fiction." While the violence isn't for everybody, if you're a fan of Tarantino's other films or just a fan of the genre, then "Reservoir Dogs" is definitely an enjoyable experience.

Rating 4 out of 5