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Friday, January 4, 2013

First of Fourteen: Reservoir Dogs

This series is dedicated to the viewing of first films by fourteen different directors of my choosing. The purpose being a retrospective look back at each film and where it stands in their overall canon and how it may have shaped each director's style in subsequent years. Each director chosen is currently active, and has helmed at least five films.

A jewelry heist gone wrong, several members of their gang missing and holed up in a warehouse in a critical game of "who is the rat?"; this is the central mechanic of Reservoir Dogs, the debut feature of Quentin Tarantino. Reservoir Dogs has often been hailed as the greatest independently produced film of all time. You won't see me arguing this bit of hyperbole. It goes without saying that the film is quite the triumph, and set an incredibly high bar that Tarantino's career, to some, may have only matched or surpassed in fits and spurts. This past year (2012), the film celebrated its 20th anniversary, and beyond a few fashion choices on its extras, the film has held up remarkably well. I recently was able to watch it with some good friends of mine, one of which had never seen it before, the fact that she was transfixed throughout and cared enough to keep guessing the film's central "mystery" as it were is testament enough to the strength of Tarantino's efforts. Of modern directors, few debuts have been this strong or influential, for better and worse.

The film structure, while not overtly unique, certainly draws attention to itself. The actual heist in question is never seen except in its aftermath at the point when everything goes south for the thieves. Everything else is shrouded in dialogue and character building, and scenes centered around a few key set pieces give or take. It's somewhat shocking to me that no one has tried to put together a Reservoir Dogs stage adaptation, as the film has a keen sense of staging in cramped spaces that would be perfect for that type of black box atmosphere. Its the sense of genre conventions that the script sheds that make the film work so well. Reservoir Dogs isn't a movie of posing gangsters or exaggerated tough guy acts; in its opening scene, we see Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino) discussing with Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr. Pink (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) and his father Joe, the gang ringleader (Lawrence Tierney) at a diner the actual meaning of the Madonna song "Like a Virgin". The back and forth then morphs into a discussion of why Mr. Pink doesn't tip wait staff at restaurants, hardly the stuff of your typical heist film, but it works so well.

That initial discussion acts as a preview for the direction Tarantino's career would traject into, long branching conversations where the dialogue informs you of characterization rather than actions of the plot. In truth, there's very little that plot tells you of lead characters Mr. White, Blonde, Orange or Pink. We don't even know their real names, other than due to the slip-ups of Mr. White and Orange. But in dialogue, you can get a glimpse of every single thing you need to know about each lead character. From Mr. White's interactions with Joe, we learn he's a veteran thief who recently ended his partnership with a female accomplice but also is quick to develop almost brotherly like bonds with someone he barely knows as with Mr. Orange. For his part, Mr. Orange gets a little more plot background as per the necessary role he plays, but even he as the eventually outed police officer is deeper than just the cog that ruined all the well-laid plans. Take the scene at the very end when Mr. White is cradling Mr. Orange by the head and they've both been shot, the sense of betrayal that Mr. White feels towards Mr. Orange is one of utter disappointment, almost like a micro-version of Fredo betraying Michael Corleone, and Orange's near death apologies are not what an audience member would expect out of an undercover cop trying to bust a jewelry heist. We get even less background about Mr. Blonde and Mr. Pink, but their actions speak volumes. Mr. Blonde particularly, who cuts the most menacing picture and is the member of the gang everyone else is the most critical of. The irony of a bunch of criminals that have murdered countless numbers of people being critical of the murderous ways of one of their breathren is somewhat humorous in a bleak way. On the other hand, Mr. Blonde might be the most loyal member of the entire gang, as Nice Guy Eddie is quick to point out that Blonde did "four years in the joint" for his father without selling him out for any deals. It's all in the company we keep I guess.

As I pointed out in my Django Unchained review, Tarantino has a clear cinephile's eye for not only the history of the medium but also some of its essential conventions. In Reservoir Dogs, this approach manifests itself in the scene where Det. Holdaway teaches Mr. Orange (then known as Freddie) how to act when going undercover, going so far as to give him a monologue to learn and make it his own. This piece of memorization acts as a story he can relay to Joe, Mr. White, and Eddie so they can believe him as a competent thief; but in a scene where Freddie rehearses this piece for Holdaway, it resembles the kind of monologue recitation you might see at an audition for a role in a play or movie, to the point where Freddie is standing on a makeshift stage in the back of an urban stretch of buildings while performing. This metaphor moves even further as Freddie (now morphing into what will be seen as Mr. Orange), performs this same reading for his intended audience and were he to falter, the game would be up. Freddie's performance is so spot-on, the audience is allowed to see the visualization of the story which is clearly intended to act as the formation of the thoughts of Joe and company around the words coming from Freddie. Needless to say, the audience must have liked him enough, as Freddie got to keep the part. It's nice to see these key touches show up even this early in his career. The script also plants some key connections in what is now seen as the "Tarantino universe", Mr. White mentions his former protege/possible paramour Alabama who will show up in True Romace. In more of a stretch, Mr. White and Joe discuss a Marsellus Spivey who serving twenty years in lock-up, a name that appears to be an amalgam of the eventual Drexl Spivey (True Romance) and Marsellus Wallace (Pulp Fiction), the latter of which was almost played by Sid Haig, so a possible greater connection may have been intended between the two characters prior to Ving Rhames' casting in that eventual film. Finally, Mr. Blonde is actually named Vic Vega, whose brother, who dresses quite similarly on the job, is Vincent Vega from Pulp Fiction. We still haven't gotten the long-promised Vega Brothers film, at this point, its unlikely we ever will.

While most Tarantino films in the present sense seem to hover around the 2 hour 30 minute mark give or take, Reservoir Dogs is by far the breeziest of his features, and this sense of tightness proves that not a minute of the film is wasted. Little moments, such as Mr. White walking to get cigarettes for Mr. Pink, and the camera following him just work so intricately well. At the time, few filmmakers ever concerned themselves with the realistic minutia of character interactions in such a way, in such Tarantino proved to be quite the trailblazer. When Mr. Blonde/Vic and Eddie playfully wrestle in Joe's office, the scene is shot from behind the door and down the hallway rather than what would seemingly be a more obvious shot right on top of them from the area surrounding the desk, and during their violent horseplay, they go at each other not once but twice without any cuts whatsoever. Rather than portraying what violent individuals Eddie and Vic are, it highlights their brotherly bond. It's the small moments that make the film the standout that it is.

Acting is a highlight throughout, I'm particularly a big fan of Lawrence Tierney, whose hulking visage and gruff demeanor really does resemble that of The Thing from the Fantastic Four, he also gets some of the choicest lines in the film. I'm particularly fond of him shutting down Mr. Pink for being upset about being named Mr. Pink. Additionally, this is by far my favorite Michael Madsen performance, he's absolutely menacing throughout without chewing up the scenery, and the sequence of him torturing the cop the remaining gang is questioning for intel may be my favorite scene in the entire film. Roth, Keitel, Penn and Buscemi all give great performances and were it not for Keitel's amazing resume, it would be a career-best. Interestingly Harvey Keitel has the rare distinction of not only starring in Quentin Tarantino's first film, but also Martin Scorsese's, a film that may just be featured in a future article. Even Tarantino probably gives the best acting performance of his career as Mr. Brown, it's nothing spectacular, but he does nothing to detract from the film and its likely he practiced that "Like a Virgin" monologue for most of his then-adult life.

In my eyes, Quentin Tarantino's career has been one of two really giant peaks and an unfortunate plateau in the middle. While Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction form a terrific one-two punch and arguably one of the best debuts and follow-up films from a director ever. and Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained mark his version of consistent prestige fair, having cultivated the revenge genre to a perfect mix; his stretch of films from Jackie Brown to Death Proof suffer by comparison. Certainly they are strong works taken on their own, and have their fervent defenders, but they pale in comparison to these two stellar twin bills. I don't know if I could argue that this debut is better than either of those other three films, in truth I still favor Inglorious Basterds the most, but having watched it for the first time in years I definitely find it to be Pulp Fiction's equal.

If I were to grade it today, I'd give it 4 out of 4 (or an A+ if you prefer).

Next time in First of Fourteen, I'll be viewing Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket and Christopher Nolan's Following. A big thanks to Andy Slagle and Stephanie Grant for watching this one with me!

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