Overview: Seven color-coded, armed criminals come to grips with a heist gone wrong and attempt to discern and discover the traitor in their midst. Miramax Films; 1992; Rated R; 99 minutes.
The Pen is Sharper Than the Sword: In a film that is full to the brim with remarkably well-written and superbly performed narrative set pieces, the scene that opens writer-director-actor Quentin Tarantino’s theatrical debut is among the very best of any to be produced over the course of his entire career. In a diner, over a conversation on the sexual promiscuity of the popular recording artist known only as Madonna, a diatribe on the ethics of leaving a tip for the wait staff in a public eating establishment is discussed with equal parts snark, judicial prudence, and dismissive satire, with certain character’s moral outrage answered in kind by the disarming lack of urgency in others. The rest of the film follows this general pattern rather succinctly, with every scene and sequence of intimated and explicit violence erupting according to the whims of a group of thugs who are dissimilarly guided by their own sense of what is right and wrong, or otherwise socially unhinged and accordingly psychopathic. In creating these characters on the page, Tarantino writes with a hyperbolic eloquence unrivaled in his field. This makes his first film so genuinely surprising and viscerally gripping, even if his subsequent attempts to recapture some of that same cinematic magic has proven misguided at best and amorally unfocused at worst.
Aesthetic Sadism: In the realm of Tarantino’s filmography and cinematic language, graphic depictions of sadism and unrelenting violence are applied for the sake of aesthetic flourishes. In a Tarantino film like Reservoir Dogs, a cop having his ear cut off sans-anesthetics is a moment of intense humor and horror, as the radio continues to blare its featured pop radio playlist in tonal juxtaposition to a tableaux that is otherwise personally unsettling. It’s no secret that the celebrated director enjoys violence for the sake of violence, but in his specialized take on aesthetic sadism, his films often come across to an audience strictly within the vacuum of their own narrative logic, negating any contact with the outside world, and relegating films like this one to the realm of surreal fantasy and abject horror. Which is not exactly a bad thing, only that it marks and designates films like Reservoir Dogs rather harshly apart from the rest of the contemporary film canon. There is no other filmmaker who makes movies as illicitly entertaining as Tarantino. The implications and consequences are far trickier and more complicated than they might appear at first glance, however much fun violent movies like Tarantino’s undeniably can be.
The Blood Keeps Flowing: A little over twenty years later, Tarantino’s directorial debut is still as bloody as ever, and the blood hasn’t stopped flowing since the seminal American auteur first shot American audiences through the heart with his distinctive authorial vision. Whatever his stylistic excesses and or redundancies might be, Tarantino’s vision, especially in Reservoir Dogs, is airtight and rhetorically unimpeachable. His voice rings with the intention of delivering style over substance, again and again, he hasn’t let up since his initial cinematic spectacle was unleashed on unsuspecting audiences at the tail end of the twentieth century. Borrowing from the heady mobster crime dramas of Martin Scorsese and James Cagney, while paying equal acknowledgement to skuzzy, grindhouse fare, Tarantino is at the very top of the list for many mainstream moviegoers, and rightfully so.
Overall: Say what you will about the historical legacy of its director, but Reservoir Dogs is an American movie masterpiece, and deserves to remembered, viewed, and discussed within the context of film history well into the twenty-first century.