Thursday, March 1, 2012

Violence And What Is Not Shown Makes Reservoir Dogs!

The Good: Good acting, Some interesting characters, Concept, Mood
The Bad: Carnage, Too much exposition, Lack of fleshing out of some characters
The Basics: In Quentin Tarantino's classic crime film Reservoir Dogs, a bunch of guys get together and talk about events we don't see and find hard to get passionate about caring about.

Quentin Tarantino seems to be one of those directors whose work people either love or hate. It's rare to find someone with a middle-of-the-road view on the way he continually pushes the envelope with violence in his movies. At long last, I was able to sit down and watch Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino's first successful film and I found myself with a razor decision on my hands (no pun intended, for those who have seen the film).

Reservoir Dogs follows the lives of a small group of career criminals. They set out to make a heist, but things go horribly awry. Now, following the botched job, the criminals converge on an abandoned warehouse to figure out what happened, who survived, and what to do next. But the problems what went down before and during the heist, like the presence of a snitching undercover cop and a bona fide psychopath, resurface and threaten the survival of the survivors.

The first thing of import to know about Reservoir Dogs is that it is not terribly violent. Indeed, almost all of the gore and horrific violence occurs off-screen. The viewer, for example, does not see the actual heist or how it degenerates into a killing spree. We are only told about it by the surviving characters.

So, unlike some of Tarantino's other films, this is a real talking picture. It's a bunch of people standing around, for the most part, talking. It is, essentially, a stage play performed on a movie screen by a group of very well-cast actors. But, in the end, the bulk of the movie is a bunch of people talking and it could conceivably have been pulled off as a play.

Two of the criminals, Mr. White and Mr. Orange, arrive at the warehouse, Mr. Orange having been shot in the belly. Mr. Orange is dying, rapidly, and Mr. White is trying to figure out how to save his life. As he frets about, Mr. Pink arrives. Mr. Pink is mostly a professional, quickly emphasizing that the speed at which the police appeared on the scene of the heist indicates a snitch in their midst. Acting as a professional, Mr. Pink wants to make a getaway, fearing that whoever set up the group, is likely to show up at the warehouse. Mr. White and Mr. Pink provide needed exposition, describing how Mr. Blonde began killing people in the jewelry store, when Mr. Blonde arrives.

Mr. Blonde's arrival introduces the criminals to their opportunity for vengeance, as the criminal has abducted a police officer from the scene of the heist. The officer is tied to a chair and tortured, but it is through his presence that all of the truths about the bungled heist are revealed. Interspersed with the present pageant of the failed heist are the stories of how each of the main surviving characters arrived at the job.

In the final analysis, it's easy to see why Tarantino achieved so much following this film. It's a decent film. The characters are mostly interesting, especially Mr. Pink and Mr. White. But beyond that, the acting is tremendous. Tarantino cast the parts in Reservoir Dogs perfectly, with wonderful visual differences and distinctive characteristics for each character cast.

Harvey Keitel is wonderful as Mr. White. He is at times hard, at times surprisingly tender and likable. Tim Roth is decent as Mr. Orange, taking a role that could easily have degenerated into a whiny, annoying character, and presenting him with genuine pathos and emotion. Roth makes Mr. Orange tortured and sympathetic in his plight. And Michael Madsen is wonderfully stone-faced as Mr. Blonde, adding true menace to the psychopathic character.

It is Steve Buscemi who steals the show, though, as Mr. Pink. Buscemi has presence and serves as more than simple comic relief. He infuses a character with a catch phrase ("I'm a professional") with real emotion, connoting in his body language and the passion expressed through his eyes that he is someone who believes in what he is doing and the "rules of the game." Buscemi is quick and has an excellent sense of timing to keep his character feeling very real and genuine.

And Tarantino must be credited with keeping in so much of the movie's moments where the characters are expressed by miniscule slips by the actors. Indeed, there are moments where Buscemi is yelling at Keitel that he pauses awkwardly, clearly rephrasing on a line, and it works to make the character seem more frantic and true-to-life and Tarantino keeps it in the film. It adds to the tension and reality of the time and place the viewer finds themselves in.

But ultimately, like the most mediocre of plays, Reservoir Dogs suffers because of the burdens that are put on the characters to explain the plot. I, for one, like the fact that we do not see what went down at the heist. However, it forces the characters to tell and retell their stories and the process of trying to piece together the events sometimes comes across as clumsy or repetitive. And the line that opens one of the film's most memorable scenes, delivered by Michael Madsen, seems a bit on the nose, even for a psychopath who knows what he is.

As well, the movie suffers from character inconsistencies. Mr. White seems like an intelligent criminal, a guy who has been around. His loss of professionalism in his conversations with Mr. Orange, then, are terribly troubling. Nice Guy Eddie is a terrible waste of space (he is overshadowed by his boss, Joe Cabot, played powerfully by Lawrence Tierney) and the film could have done without him. As well, two of the characters, Mr. Brown and Mr. Blue, are completely underused and one wonders why they were present other than to add realism to the carnage related by revealing they have been killed.

In all, Reservoir Dogs is not a bad movie, though it has its moments of graphic violence, the majority of the worst of it happens off camera. But it's also one that is hard to want to rewatch for someone who is a fan of a well-conceived crime caper (The Usual Suspects still reigns supreme in my book for the genre) because too much of it is repetitive or explaining what happened. Thus, the razor falls just barely on the side of "not recommend." A great cast populating a world of characters that are on the edge of worth-watching, falls just short of the classic I had hoped.

For other works by Quentin Tarantino, please visit my reviews of:
Kill Bill, Volume 2
Kill Bill, Volume 1


For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all movies that I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2007, 2005 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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