A show-off piece of filmmaking that will put debut writer-director Quentin Tarantino on the map, “Reservoir Dogs” is an intense, bloody, in-your-face crime drama about a botched robbery and its aftermath, colorfully written in vulgar gangster vernacular and well played by a terrific cast, this piece of strong pulp will attract attention but looks like a modest b.o. performer.
Clearly influenced by Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” and “Goodfellas” and Kubrick’s “The Killing,” Tarantino would love to be grouped in such company and employs many bravura effects in making his bid. Undeniably impressive pic grabs the viewer by the lapels and shakes hard, but it also is about nothing other than a bunch of macho guys and how big their guns are.
Strikingly shot and funny opening scene has eight criminals at breakfast arguing about the true meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” This vulgar, unlikely discussion, coupled with subsequent shots of them emerging from the restaurant like the Wild Bunch, instantly demonstrates that a smart filmmaker is at work here. Telling a story much like “The Killing” or “Odds Against Tomorrow,” script fractures very cleverly into an intricate flashback structure that mixes the post-robbery mess with telling character and plot details from the planning stages.
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To put it chronologically, crime kingpin Lawrence Tierney and son Chris Penn recruit six pros to whom they assign false, color-themed names, so that no one will know anything about the others. The diamond heist at an LA jewelry store goes awry, however, when it becomes apparent the cops have been tipped off. Two of the robbers and a couple of cops are killed, and the gang splits up.
Hotheaded Harvey Keitel takes his injured cohort, Tim Roth, to a hideout where they are soon joined by Steve Buscemi, who is obsessed with remaining “professional.” As they ponder who the rat may have been, in comes psychotic Michael Madsen with a hostage cop. The young officer is brutally tortured in a scene that drove numerous fest viewers from the unspooling here, and may make even the brave look away. The worst is left off-camera, but it’s still a needlessly sadistic sequence that crosses the line of what audiences want to experience.
This launches the bloodbath for real, and when Tierney and Penn finally show up to identify the fink, Tarantino stages a rather amazing shoot-out that hilariously sends up the climaxes of Sergio Leone’s “For a Few Dollars More” and especially “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.’
Tarantino’s complex plot construction works very well, relieving the warehouse setting’s claustrophobia and providing lively background on robbery planning, the undercover cop’s successful preparations and the gang’s crude male bonding.
Dripping with the lowest sexist and racist colloquialisms, dialogue is snappy, imaginative and loaded with threats, and the director, presumably with the help of Keitel, has assembled a perfect cast. Seemingly relishing in the opportunity to pull out all the stops, the actors could all be singled out for their outstanding work, but the same adjectives could be used to describe this terrific ensemble as they yell, confront, joke and strut powerfully and explosively.
With cinematographer Andrzej Sekula’s considerable help, Tarantino has but strong visual on the screen, alternating from ominously moving cameras to recessive long shots to put the action in relief. Sally Menke’s extremely impressive cutting keeps scenes tight and the time-jumping plot comprehensive.
As accomplished as all the individual elements are, however, pic feels like the director’s audition piece, an occasion for a new filmmaker to flaunt his talents. Undeniably juicy, with its salty talk and gunplay, film is nihilistic but not resonantly so, giving it no meaning outside the immediate story and characters. Pic is impressive, but impossible to love.