Reservoir Dogs hit the film community like a small nuclear bomb. I can’t remember a movie getting me so excited about what you could do with a little bit of money, some fine actors, and lots of beautifully profane rhythmic dialogue. Now that video clerk Quentin Tarantino is big shot director Quentin Tarantino the film has taken on even more mythic proportions. It’s a little like Woodstock everybody wants to believe that they were there and on board from moment one.
I saw this movie in an art house theater in San Francisco on a screen probably no bigger than Steven Speilberg’s largest TV set. Most of the movie takes place in a dingy abandoned warehouse that probably cost about thirty cents a day to rent. There is almost no fancy camera work just the actors, the words and a lot of attitude. I remember reading how entertained Tarantino was that some viewers couldn’t stand the intensity of the film and had to turn their eyes away. The truth is that for all the controversy there really isn’t that much violence in Reservoir Dogs. The reason people were so affected was because the film shows you the true impact of its violence. I’ve probably seen millions of people iced in any number of PG rated movies. They fell to the ground and we moved on. In the case of that big guy with the sword in Raider’s of the Lost Ark everyone even laughed. When Tim Roth gets shot here, he bleeds like a stuck pig and cries like a teenage girl whose leg is stuck in a grisly bear trap.
The scene that got everyone so worked up was Michael Madsen cutting off that poor police officer’s ear, but what you may not remember is that the camera panned away from the dirty deed and you never really see it happen. It’s about a hundred times less graphic than that Nazi in Raider’s who gets sliced to pieces in that airplane propeller. The brilliance of the ear cutting scene is our interpretation of Madsen’s character. Before he cuts off the cop’s ear both Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi tell us that he is a stone cold psycho, who has just blown away any number of people including a twenty year old girl, but the guy is just too damn cool in an Elvis sort of way for us to believe it. The guy has a cop in his trunk and he calm enough to stop off at the Burger King drive thru! We’re so used to bad guys scaring the bejeezus out of their hostages just to get information out of them that we’re sure it’s all just a menacing pose. Madsen tells us he couldn’t care less about getting information out of the cop, that he just likes to torture people for his own amusement, but when he starts dancing around to Stealer’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle” we are too much in love with Madsen’s bad boy act to really care. Then when he slices the guy’s ear off, pours gasoline all over him and pulls out a lighter, we are left with nobody to blame but ourselves. Oh my God, Michael Madsen is psychotic! The movie tried to tell us that at every turn, but our knowledge of the ins and the outs of the Hollywood thriller wouldn’t let us believe it.
Then as you sit there stunned, thinking about how horrible it would be to go through life deformed without an ear, Tim Roth speaks up and reminds you that he is dying. The worked audience member can only sit there and say oh my, he’s right, I forgot that is worse. Instead of caving in and using violence like sugar, Reservoir Dogs reminds us what it really entails.
Essentially Reservoir Dog’s is just a bunch of guys in a room nattering back and forth at each other, but despite it’s megadose of profanity or maybe because of it, the film provides any number of great monologues and verbal sparring for it’s great cast. If you want to see an example of great acting paired with unbelievable dialogue, check out Tim Roth’s commode anecdote. He starts out reading it like the White boy geek he is and then eventually transforms himself right before your eyes into a grade A believable low life. It’s the best example of the undercover cop as master thespian ever filmed. If you can’t believe Roth, then Harvey Keitel’s key fateful mistake wouldn’t for a moment be believable. Think how horrible this movie could have been had it been done by hacks.
Of course all the other Tarantino stuff is here in his debut outing. The time hi-jinx, the pop culture debates, the cool Beatle suits, and the lost gem pop songs that get transformed by their presence in his film. It is impossible to ever hear “Stuck in the Middle”, or “Little Green Bag” ever again without visualizing their presence in this movie. There was a completely sane and valid reason the Knack wouldn’t let Tarantino use My Sharona for his sodomy scene in Pulp Fiction no matter how much money he offered them. For better or for worse Reservoir Dogs is the most influential film made in the ‘90s, just don’t blame me when you get fooled into sitting through 2 Days in the Valley, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, or any number of other weak kneed knock offs.