|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 18 March 2003|
For anyone who loves the tough-guy crime genre, "Reservoir Dogs" is its essence in a bottle, or rather a 100-minute movie. For anyone who wonders just how writer/director Quentin Tarantino became such a cultural fixture, "Reservoir Dogs" is a reminder – Tarantino’s gifts over time appear to be somewhat finite, but what he knows how to do, he knows inside and out.
"Reservoir Dogs" justly shot Tarantino to fame in 1991 with its mixture of frenzied violence, timeshifting storytelling full of flashbacks and flashforwards, pitch-perfect dialogue among a cadre of hardcore robbers and crack performances straight down the line. If told in linear fashion, "Reservoir Dogs" would no doubt be fairly straightforward – it’s an urban diamond heist that goes catastrophically wrong, with dead and dying people littering the landscape, and plenty of tension as the armed, paranoid survivors try to smoke out the traitor who alerted the cops.
In other hands, this might seem more or less mundane territory, but Tarantino is so in love with the possibilities of how these larger-than-life gun-toters talk to each other that he sells us on the sheer kinetic wonder of it all. The opening sequence, which covers two DVD chapters and lasts for seven minutes and 40 seconds, consists of the gang talking to each other over breakfast, mulling over the possible interpretations of Madonna’s song "Like a Virgin," arguing over whether or not to tip the waitress and threatening (not entirely unseriously) to kill each other over expressions of disrespect. The ambient sound in this section is agreeably realistic, with diner sounds filtered into the mains and rears so that we indeed seem to be with the characters in the middle of a coffeeshop, even though the center channel is a bit soft.
Chapter 3 brings us the much-imitated opening credits sequence, introducing the main cast members as these hard cases walk in slow motion over the asphalt to their cars and destinies. The movie makes the first of its many time jumps, initially skipping over the robbery to deal with the aftermath, as one of the men (Harvey Keitel) drives a car and tries to reassure his colleague/passenger (Tim Roth), who’s bleeding from a gunshot to the abdomen. The duo wind up in an abandoned warehouse, where they’re eventually joined by several other members of the gang, one of whom brings a hostage. Tarantino pulls out every narrative stop in showing us how these men wound up in this horrendous mess.
It’s a shame that there’s no audio commentary, because even if one knows nothing about the behind-the-scenes life of "Reservoir Dogs," it’s clear that the film was made for next to no money and was ingeniously designed so that budget would be of little consequence. There are plenty of interviews and articles about the making of the movie by now, but it would still have been fun to have Tarantino and/or Lawrence Bender on the track, telling us how they pulled it off.
As a filmmaker, Tarantino gets everything he needs in terms of shots and locations, and every one of his actors rise to the occasion with killer zest and bedrock brute conviction – you can tell that they are reveling in talking the idiosyncratic talk, even as they make you believe that each one is a genuine badass. Roth gets what turns out to be the showiest part, playing a character of many facets (some brought to light by his grievous injury) and makes the most of it, giving us swagger when it’s called for and a low-key version of gentle innocence at other times, starring in a made-up flashback – call it a flash-sideways – that he narrates onscreen for us while it’s happening. Keitel, of course, has built a career on playing variations on men with a stare that can kill at 50 paces. Here his character is a lifetime criminal who also has a bone-deep integrity that is deeply affecting. Steve Buscemi as the most openly abrasive member of the team and Michael Madsen as the most viciously thuggish are also memorable. Chris Penn is solid as a loyal second-generation crime boss, whil Lawrence Tierney as his dad barks orders at the crew as if put in charge by divine mandate.
The quasi-bad news about the DVD version of "Reservoir Dogs" is that, lack of extras aside, it isn’t the prettiest boy on the block. To be sure, part of this is faithful to the release print – although the movie was made in 1991, its processing looks like something out of the ‘70s, with slighted washed-out, faded hues. The print is at least commendably clean.
The sound is advertised as 5.1, which in this instance means that the dialogue is in the center, sound effects and score are strong in the mains and more gently maintained in the rears, with no directional work. Chapter 5 brings a pronounced improvement in the center channel dialogue track, although there seems to be a slight bit of crackling that accompanies the bloody rasping of Roth’s critically injured character. Chapter 8 features good burglar alarm sounds, although a car motor comes off as a bit congested on the track. Chapter 11 has some impressive ambient work, with raised voices echoing realistically in the big, resonant warehouse, while quieter speech is contained. This chapter also features the iconographic, much reproduced shot of two characters aiming guns at one another. Chapter 13 starts with a black screen – don’t worry, your picture hasn’t cut out – and some classic ‘70s funk washing smoothly through the system. Chapter 16 features the cheery "Stuck in the Middle With You," which is Tarantino’s homage to the "Singing in the Rain" sequence in "Clockwork Orange," using an upbeat tune to counterpoint astonishing sadism. The mix of onscreen music source and ambient sound is good, although the song drops more immediately than it should as one of the characters steps through an open doorway.
"Reservoir Dogs" is not the kind of DVD that anyone will use to test a sound system. It is, however, exactly the kind of movie that will stimulate love of its genre – watching it, you’re caught up in its events at the same time that you feel like you’re having a fabulously energetic conversation about every heist-gone-wrong film ever made.