Skip to main content

Where’s the commode in this dungeon? I gotta have a squirt.

Reservoir Dogs
(1992)

(SPOILERS) I’m not shy to admit that I fully bought into the Tarantino hype when he first arrived on the scene. Which, effectively took place with the UK’s reception of Reservoir Dogs (and its subsequent banning from home video), rather than the slightly tepid post-Sundance US response. That said, I think I always appreciated the “package” more than the piece itself. Don’t get me wrong, I admired the film for what it achieved, shrewdly maximising its effectiveness on a limited budget by, for example, making a virtue out of notshowing the all-important heist. But its influence was everything, more than the sum total of the film itself – that slow-motion parade in cheap matching suits (not so much Chris Penn’s track one), the soundtrack CD that was a fixture until, basically Pulp Fiction came out, the snatches of dialogue, most famously the “Like a Virgin” monologue, even the poster, adorning every student’s wall for the next half decade – so I wouldn’t quite say I fell in love with it.

Whereas Pulp Fiction was, and remains, an instant masterpiece. True, both are, at points, put onto a back heel by the director’s multihyphenate tendencies failing to draw the line at writing and directing – those deadly lofty acting ambitions – but at least that’s limited here. It’s nevertheless an amusing sign of the director’s vanity that he assembles the cast he does and then assigns himself the first “signature” Tarantino scene (“What the fuck was I talking about?”), as a means both of massaging his egoic thespian aspirations and showing he can play with the big boys (he knowshow to deliver his own dialogue, sure, but there’s never any doubt that he’s in the shallow end of the pool wearing arm floats). Mr Brown does get probably my favourite line in the movie (“… that’s a little too close to Mr Shit”), though, and unlike Pulp Fiction, after Like a Virgin, he’s largely insignificant.

What’s most noticeable from revisiting Reservoir Dogs – which I saw at least twice on the big screen, possibly more, given its extended period excluded from home entertainment circulation – is the extent to which Quentin plays his debut straight. Sure, there’s his de rigueur movie and music nerd tics, from The Lights Went Out in Georgia to Lee Marvin to Silver Surfer, but the picture has more genuine emotion in it than – well, I was going to say anyof his other movies, but that isn’t fair to Jackie Brown, in its own low-key way.

Its heartbeat is that of the old hand/apprentice relationship, with a twist, between Harvey Keitel’s Mr White and Tim Roth’s undercover cop Mr Orange, the latter bleeding out from a gunshot wound to the gut (one of the director’s many neat but unshowy twists is revealing this is nota result of the heist, but a carjacking that sees the driver shooting Mr Orange, the cop then shooting the woman dead in instinctive response). And even by his next film, Tarantino was indulging in movie-indulgent self-awareness (rear projection), much keener on glorifying the medium than finding “truth” in it.

It’s undoubtedly the case that there’s a lack of finesse at times in the stage play-esque manner Tarantino circles his subject matter; he returns to the matter of the possible rat repeatedly and breaks up the present tense with flashbacks that sometimes stray into the over-extended or inessential – you can sense him deciding he could simply spitball these riffs between Mr White and Steve Buscemi’s Mr Pink and Michael Madsen’s Mr Blonde all day – but with the performers he has, these interactions are never less than watchable, and at their best, they’re riveting. In particular, Roth and Keitel iron out the cadences of the director’s dialogue into something more earnest and intimate, such that, come the final scene in which White has killed his partners and effectively been killed in return, the cruelty of learning he was wrong is supremely affecting. Although, I’d never noticed before how much Roth sounds like Bobcat Goldthwaite when he’s in agony.

The picture’s infamy is, of course, based on Mr Blonde and the ear-lopping sequence, rather than, say, the more visceral impact of Orange slopping around in his own bloody outpourings. The irony is that Tarantino shows a “tastefulness” here – panning left when Blonde moves in for “the kill” – that would later be entirely foreign to him (the scalpings in Inglourious Basterds, for instance). It’s long enough since I last saw the film – and I’d experienced the fatigue, as with Pulp Fiction, of knowing it too well – that the moment where Orange decisively stops Blonde from inflicting any further damage on the cop becomes a masterfully cathartic moment once again… only to be promptly undercut by Lawrence Tierney’s Joe blowing away Marvin (Kirk Baltz).

Good as Roth and Keitel and Madsen and Penn and Tierney undoubtedly are, my favourite performance is undoubtedly Buscemi’s Mr Pink. In my head, I think I had him down for several other Tarantino pictures, probably because he was in so many indies around that period, but this was it, aside from his waiter cameo in Pulp Fiction (he was earmarked for the Tarantino role). He perfectly encapsulates the weaseliness of Pink, from the first scene about tipping, where he fails to have the courage of his convictions, to his attempts to be the peacemaker between White and Blonde after bad mouthing the latter. On the other hand, he’s goodat being a weasel; when he says he shot his way out, we see he actually did (unless he’s an unreliable narrator), he’s the one who hid the jewels, andhe’s also the only one to survive (albeit arrested). Imagine if Tarantino had played the part as he originally planned. Or try not to.

I don’t think you can really talk about purity when discussing Tarantino, since he’s a self-confessed magpie (or homage merchant), but Reservoir Dogs is definitely a picture that feels bracing in its directness when set against his subsequent wilful meanders and indulgences. It may have spawned a thousand imitators, and itself been influenced – by the Taking of Pelham 123 and City on Fire amongst others – but it carries weight beyond merely being “cool”.






Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Everyone wants a happy ending and everyone wants closure but that's not the way life works out.

It Chapter Two (2019)
(SPOILERS) An exercise in stultifying repetitiveness, It Chapter Two does its very best to undo all the goodwill engendered by the previous instalment. It may simply be that adopting a linear approach to the novel’s interweaving timelines has scuppered the sequel’s chances of doing anything the first film hasn’t. Oh, except getting rid of Pennywise for good, which you’d be hard-pressed to discern as substantially different to the CGI-infused confrontation in the first part, Native American ritual aside.

That woman, deserves her revenge and… we deserve to die. But then again, so does she.

Kill Bill: Vol. 2  (2004)
(SPOILERS) I’m not sure I can really conclude whether one Kill Bill is better than the other, since I’m essentially with Quentin in his assertion that they’re one film, just cut into two for the purposes of a selling point. I do think Kill Bill: Vol. 2 has the movie’s one actually interesting character, though, and I’m not talking David Carradine’s title role.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

When you grow up, if you still feel raw about it, I’ll be waiting.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
(SPOILERS) It sometimes seems as if Quentin Tarantino – in terms of his actual movies, rather than nearly getting Uma killed in an auto stunt – is the last bastion of can-do-no-wrong on the Internet. Or at very least has the preponderance of its vocal weight behind him. Back when his first two movies proper were coming out, so before online was really a thing, I’d likely have agreed, but by about the time the Kill Bills arrived, I’d have admitted I was having serious pause about him being all he was cracked up to be. Because the Kill Bills aren’t very good, and they’ve rather characterised his hermetically sealed wallowing in obscure media trash and genre cul-de-sacs approach to his art ever since. Sometimes to entertaining effect, sometimes less so, but always ever more entrenching his furrow; as Neil Norman note in his Evening Standard review, “Tarantino has attempted (and largely succeeded) in making a movie whose only reality is that of celluloid”. Extend t…

Check it out. I wonder if BJ brought the Bear with him.

Death Proof (2007)
(SPOILERS) In a way, I’m slightly surprised Tarantino didn’t take the opportunity to disown Death Proof, to claim that, as part of Grindhouse, it was no more one of his ten-official-films-and-out than his Four Rooms segment. But that would be to spurn the exploitation genre affectation that has informed everything he’s put his name to since Kill Bill, to a greater or less extent, and also require him to admit that he was wrong, and you won’t find him doing that for anything bar My Best Friend’s Birthday.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.