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Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Drama Rated R

A tantalizing debut from Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs is an action movie comprised almost entirely of words.

The film centers on a pack of would-be thieves (Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi, Eddie Bunker and Tarantino himself) who hole up in a warehouse after a heist goes awry, each trying to figure out which one of them squawked to police. The scripted banter here – even, perhaps especially, the incidental stuff – is so funny and fresh this easily could work as a play, though Tarantino’s handling of music, camera staging and pacing reveals him to be a born filmmaker. It’s a relief that most of the action takes place off-screen; we’d rather just listen to these guys talk.

The movie’s pre-credits sequence is rightly the stuff of movie legend. Gathered at a diner for breakfast before pulling the job, the crew jokes and teases about everything from the meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” to the ethics of tipping. The excitement lies not only in the clever dialogue and razzy delivery (of which Buscemi is the undisputed champion), but also in the way Tarantino moves the camera. For most of the scene, it slowly circles around the outside of the table, emphasizing the communal nature of the gathering. But when a moment of tension arises between Keitel’s Mr. White and Lawrence Tierney’s Joe, the boss, Tarantino transitions to a standard shot-reverse-shot scheme that chops up the camaraderie. After cooler heads prevail, we start circling again.

The meta elements of Reservoir Dogs guaranteed this would be a juicy bone for cinephiles.

The meta elements of Reservoir Dogs guaranteed this would be a juicy bone for cinephiles. That opening, especially Tarantino’s Madonna monologue, is a primer on the critical practice of deconstructing artistic text. And then there is the way the movie functions as a rumination on the essence of acting. (“You have to be naturalistic as hell.”) The story proper pauses for extended flashback sequences in which the cop among thieves (spoiler, it’s Roth’s Mr. Orange) rehearses his undercover part with his senior officer (Randy Brooks). This, too, Tarantino makes masterfully cinematic. While Mr. Orange is telling Joe a (made up) story – about walking into a public restroom with a bag of drugs and running into a handful of cops and a police dog – Tarantino cuts to a recreation of the (again, fictional) yarn. Dialogue gives way to imagery here – almost pointedly so when Mr. Orange brazenly hits the air dryer and drowns out the cops’ own storytelling, to their obvious annoyance.

So the formalistic brilliance of Tarantino was here from the start, but so was the thing that – at least for me – would go on to be a nagging, distancing element of his particular brand of cinema. There is a glibness to Tarantino’s work that is his Achilles’ heel. And while it’s undeniably crucial to his voice – a fleetness of informal wit, without which something like the opening dialogue scene here wouldn’t work – it also betrays a certain shallowness and insincerity. In Reservoir Dogs, I especially feel it in the frequent use of the “n word,” which so silkily slides into the criminal lingo, without much thought as to why. Glibness drips from the infamous scene in which Madsen’s Mr. Blonde torments a captured officer to the tune of “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel. “It’s amusing to me to torture a cop,” Mr. Blonde says. (Is it amusing to the movie? At least until that moment when it becomes too much and the camera pans away.) And then there is the self-satisfaction of the nihilistic ending, which is too eager to leave us in a state of bloody shock.

It’s not the content of these scenes that gives me pause, but the facile manner with which they unfold. I’m not suggesting Tarantino need erase this glibness – without it, he wouldn’t be Tarantino. But I do think his ability to modulate it separates his minor films (Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds) from his great ones (Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown).