Sunday, January 18, 2009
Written and Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino's directorial debut caused quite a stir back in 1991. It, along with Richard Linklater's Slacker, paved the way with the independent film explosion in the mid-90s on the shoulders of films like Clerks and Tarantino's hit follow-up Pulp Fiction. Upon release, Reservoir Dogs established the former video store clerk as a bold new talent who had probably the most extensive knowledge of film of any director since Godard and used that knowledge to fill his films with endless references and quotations that fans could pour over for weeks. Yet for all the praise that was heaped on this film and all the people who still list it among their favorites, I never really connected with Reservoir Dogs.
The film is told out of sequence and mostly in flashback following a botched diamond heist leaves a six-man crew in disarray. Mr. Brown (Tarantino) is dead, Mr. Blue (Eddie Bunker) is missing, and Mr. Orange is bleeding like a stuck pig. Meanwhile Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) and Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) fret over how they can get Orange to a hospital without the cops getting him, and the two come to the conclusion that someone in their midst is a rat.
Seems simple, right? Well it is. No matter how complicated the out of sequence editing makes the film seem, the fact is the plot gets summed up in about 2-3 minutes of dialogue. Even before a flashback reveals the undercover cop in their midst you can easily guess who it is. Yet the film ultimately succeeds despite this shortcoming thanks to Tarantino's justly lauded gift for dialogue.
The opening diner conversation that ranges from a critical analysis of Madonna to a debate on tipping remains one of the hallmarks of Tarantino's career. It tells you a lot about the characters and sets the stage for meaty, hilarious dialogues to come. From there we cut to the aftermath of the failed heist. This first act stands as the high point of the film, in which the events of the robbery are only alluded to in the dialogue, which the actors deliver at a frenzied pace without ever losing themselves.
Then we have to watch all this play out. Imagine if The Third Man's Harry Lime was not a person but the entire story, constantly mentioned and alluded to, then suddenly thrust onto the screen. This can work for a person, but not a plot. These flashbacks kill the momentum of the present timeline, in which the crazed Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) tortures a captured police officer in order to get the name of the rat.
The infamous ear scene might be Tarantino's most defining. Ask the average person to name a scene after Quentin Tarantino, and they're likely to name this one. Madsen's hulking shuffle to the beat of "Stuck in the Middle With You" as he moves in to slice the ear of the hapless cop horrifies even as you laugh in amazement at how outrageous Tarantino can be. The writer-director would cause a similar sensation (albeit much more intense) in the Zed sequence of Pulp Fiction.
And that's where the flashbacks kill everything. After this shocking, landmark scene that leaves us on the edge of our seats, we have to go through an extended flashback of Tim Roth's mission to infiltrate the crime ring, working out a cover story to get leader Joe (Lawrence Tierney) to trust him. We already know Roth's character is the cop, and frankly I don't care if he wormed his way into a well-organized band of thieves with a well-told story about how he carried marijuana for a friend. Honestly, it just raises questions about the level of secrecy and planning Joe claims to utilize.
Nevertheless, this is an entertaining film, if for no other reason than it introduced Tarantino's dialogue to the world. Indeed, the conversations in this film remain his most naturalistic. Some people maintain that Tarantino's dialogue works because it's how people actually speak, but I think by the time a vapid, self-absorbed DJ makes a Zatoichi reference we've moved somewhat away from reality. His dialogue remains inherently fascinating and brilliant, but this, along with about half of Pulp Fiction, remain his only work with dialogue that sounds like it could come from people. It's a fun enough movie, and I continue to rewatch it even now, but I'd much rather see any of Tarantino's other films on a rainy day. Except maybe Death Proof. Let's not get carried away.