RESERVOIR DOGS, 1992. Directed by Quentin Tarantino. Cast: Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Chris Penn, Steven Buscemi, and Lawrence Tierney. Miramax Films. 99 mins
Taking last year's film critics literally, one would be led to believe "Reservoir Dogs" is one of the great films of this young decade. Admittedly, Quentin Tarantino's first film boasts an intense and powerful screenplay, and his characters are fleshed out through a well-above-average ensemble of actors, but "reservoir Dogs" is also more of a statement about the culmination of a classic film genre and American cinema's current lack of vitality than it is a superior achievement in its own right.
Tarantino's independent film production represents the logical conclusion of a cinematic genre, the organized crime caper, that has simmered through the history of American film with a steely vengeance. And while, of course, there will be plenty of other organized crime films made in the future, his film reflects a decisive finality within the tradition. Like Stanley Kubrick's seminal 1956 "The Killing," which "Reservoir Dogs" vaguely resembles, Tarantino's underworld corporativism manages to score its considerable points without ostensive resort to mob-oriented conveniences such as Coppola's "Godfather" trilogy; or even the cyclical mad dog knock-offs centering around such luminaries as "Machine-Gun" Kelly, john Dillinger, and Bonnie and Clyde.
"Reservoir Dogs," rather, is an unflinching look into the psychoneurotically skewed perspective of petty crime figures whose vaguely fascistic behavior ultimately marks their destruction. These (dis)organized criminals' mindless savagery, like that of all good reactionaries, ultimately gripes their better sense and judgement. But before it does, Tarantino launches us on one hell of an uncompromising ride.
Crime-boss Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and his son, Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) have assembled a motley group of "professionals" to knock off a jewelry wholesaler. In order to insure that their handlers have no way of squealing on each other if things get out of hand, each member of the gang is given a pseudonym based upon a totally illogical color scheme; Mr. White (Keitel), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Blond (Michael Madsen), Mr. pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr. Blue (Eddie Bunker), and Mr.Brown (Quentin Tarantino).
Predictably, things go very wrong, very quickly. Tarantino then does something daring--at least daring for an American film-he omits depicting the robbery itself for an incisive investigation of the gang members' outrage and bewildered reaction to the bungled affair in an abandoned warehouse. With two hoods shot dead, one mortally wounded, and the ringleaders out of touch with the survivors; White, Pink, and Blond accuse each another of being the undercover cop who's blown the whistle on the heist. They've turned out to be their own best enemies when the crunch is on.
It's in this over-heated environment that these men's true colors reveal themselves. Ratcheting his narrative's tension for all it's worth, Tarantino dissects the pathology of this star-crossed band with relentless skill and energy. not exactly high drama, but certainly more than mere blood-curdling terror; his unsettling, yet rousing black comic use of an ambient moldy but goldie 70s AM radio is-and will always be--as chilling a use of pop music as will ever be made in film history.
Ultimately, it's these abrupt shifts in violence--as well as a few oddly phrased, presumably synchronized flashbacks--which gives "Reservoir Dogs" its minimal unwieldy dramatic weakness. These narrative flaws combine with the fact that it's a little hard to sympathize with a bunch of rats bent on offing each other at the first opportunity. So it's to Tarantino's credit that he's given his ensemble of actors sufficient creative latitude to work themselves through the narrative jam in which they find themselves.
What survives of his "Reservoir Dogs" is the reified notion of the ensemble itself. The fusion of the gang serves as a perversely familial bond which allows Tarantino's criminals to uncomfortably co-exist despite their instinctual distrust of one another. They're somewhat like any other extended family...only with the veneer rubbed raw and the stakes sufficiently high enough as to warrant taking their patrimony before its time is due.
Their legacy is thus a rabid oath enforcing a thoroughly twisted honor which supposedly sprouts among thieves. In fact, however, their fate is actually a desperate grasping particularly on the part of Mr. White, towards some vague sense of justification. HIs desperate grasping towards loyalty is the heart of the story. And like those whose last call is unknowingly missed somewhere down the line, White nobly stands by his wounded comrade despite the reality that the gang is also ready to destroy itself as soon as, if not before, each partner perceives himself as being double-crossed by the others.
Given that Hollywood seemingly fears literacy only slightly less than offending their ideal customer's imagined maturity (couched somewhere between six and sixteen years of age), it's no wonder that "Reservoir Dogs" has been embraced by appreciative American audiences and film critics weary of reading sub titles as though they were hanging on by the slenderest of cinematic life buoys.
As "Reservoir Dogs" hurtles towards its remarkably kinetic conclusion, we're left breathless by an American filmmaker whose sheer unwillingness to compromise--and whose lack of studio polish--has left the most accomplished masters of this era toiling in his wake. For indeed, even Martin Scorsese's fabled grit pales in comparison to this razor-edged heist.
-John Carlos Cantú