When Reservoir Dogs premiered at Sundance Film Festival, it was nothing short of disastrous.
Firstly, being a rookie to the circuit, director Quentin Tarantino allowed them to screen the film – shot with a CinemaScope lens – on a non-CinemaScope projector, leaving the product looking, in his words: ‘caca’.
Then at the moment of the climactic Mexican standoff, there was a power outage, bringing the lights up and effectively ruining the tension that had been so expertly led up to.
‘It was a total f*cking disaster,’ he later said.
First appearances aren’t always right. Quentin Tarantino now stands as one of Hollywood’s most pre-eminent and lucrative auteurs, and his debut crime caper, against all possible odds, has become one of independents film’s greatest success stories, sitting nicely in his back catalogue as a mantra for student wannabes across the globe.
Yet at the same time Reservoir Dogs remains a cult film. And that ‘success’ lies in its cultural preservation, not what it made at the box office. Shot on a measly $1.2 million, it grossed a respectable $2.8 million, later amassing $6.5 in the UK following the release of Pulp Fiction. Not only was that okay, it was apt for a film of its kind: slick, unusual, and most importantly, new.
Gen-Xers had gotten Slacker and to an extent, Boyz N The Hood, but nothing that had brought the stoner laughs of slackerdom and put it in a classically mature cinematic setting like that of an old fashioned jewel heist.
What Hollywood badly needed was a new crop of filmmakers. The Scorseses, DePalmas and Coppolas of the 1990s were already on their way in the form of Wes Anderson, Robert Rodriguez and – to an extent – Kevin Smith, but were yet to break the mould. When Reservoir Dogs began filming, Rushmore and Clerks were mere pitches.
Unlike his idols, Tarantino was not an academic. The majority of his twenties were spent at the now-defunct video rental shop Video Archives in California’s Manhattan Beach where he and fellow movie aficionado Roger Avary (co-writer of Pulp Fiction) would pass the time dissecting and recommending films to customers. Somewhere in the middle of this tenure, he wrote and directed his first ever project, My Best Friend’s Birthday.
Doomed from the get-go, and already largely unfinished, the second half eventually burnt to pieces in a lab fire. But for Tarantino, a high school dropout, it served as his film school. A year later he wrote the scripts for True Romance and Natural Born Killers, selling the former for $50,000 in 1990.
It was enough for him to walk away from Video Archives and begin doing rewrites for indie production company CineTel. At one party, Tarantino rubbed shoulders with budding producer Lawrence Bender to whom he expressed his desire to shoot Reservoir Dogs on the $50,000 budget in black-and-white 16mm, and made up of a cast of his close friends.
But Bender, whose friend was the ex of Lily Parker – an acting teacher and confidante of Harvey Keitel – passed the script on to the acting veteran who enjoyed the work so much he ended up putting some of his own money into making it happen, as well as helping Tarantino with casting.
Months later the film debuted at Sundance, quickly embarking on a broader film festival circuit, the numbers of dissenters growing with each showing.
‘It was great because I had barely left Los Angeles county, let alone visiting other continents,’ Tarantino recalled. ‘The things is, at a film festival screening sometimes people don’t know what they’re about to see, so it’s understandable that at a film festival that maybe this is not what they want to see and they have to leave.
‘So I started counting the walkouts.’
At one such screening, he claimed 33 people left in disgust. On another occasion in Spain, renowned horror legend Wes Craven infamously jessied out. ‘The f**cking guy who did Last House on the Left walked out of my movie,’ Tarantino rejoiced afterwards.
It’s remarkable to think how much Reservoir Dogs shook up American cinema given the obvious emulation and recycled tropes. Were it not for Tarantino’s distinguishable ‘vision’, his first feature could’ve been the doing of David Mamet. For whatever reason, Glengarry Glen Ross didn’t celebrate a quarter-century anniversary this year and Dogs did.
The person behind the picture obviously had lots to do with it. Here was a guy that you saw and met countless times and now he had his own Hollywood movie. Better yet, he was in it.
Our introduction to the world of Tarantino would come not just from his vision but in the physical embodiment of Mr. Brown who at the beginning of the film explains to a table-full of assorted crooks that Madonna‘s Like A Virgin is really about a woman being seen to by a man so endowed that it feels like her first time.
Cinema-goers emptied their pockets to see a heist film expecting the standards but found themselves more amused at Steve Buscemi’s philosophy on tipping than anything involving the actual plot. They envisioned a disaffected Harvey Keitel trying to do good for his family, not creasing up as he and the late Chris Penn (Nice Guy Eddie) quoted blaxploitation TV. But it worked. The heist, as audiences eventually discovered, wasn’t even shown.
And then there was the slow-mo credit sequence. A scene seldom out-parodied in the years to come save maybe for Leonardo DiCaprio holding Kate Winslet at the beak of the Titanic, or Keanu Reeves dodging gunfire in The Matrix.
‘Why am I Mr. Pink?’ and the name assignments. K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the 70s. The baloney drug flashback. Joe Cabot’s near-constant bad mood. Stuck in the Middle with You and the infamous ear-cutting scene. Reservoir Dogs is teeming with all the zany quotes, culture nods and stellar soundtrack choices fans have come to adore in Tarantino’s work. But it also goes deeper.
While critics continue to slate the 54-year-old for touring sub-genres with the same revenge flick crux, it’s good to remember that his freshman film serves as proof that he is capable of creating visceral characters. That he’s not all one-liners and swagger.
After the hip, dreamlike opening credit sequence, we are flipped 180 and confronted by a writhing Mr. Orange, played by Tim Roth, who lies bleeding out in the back of a car being hauled by Mr. White. It’s the first scene of the film that establishes White as an emotional liability. Whereas Mr. Pink, Blue, Brown and Blonde would’ve skipped over the wounded body of a colleague with little more than an itch in their eye, White helps and escorts Orange – a total stranger – away from the chaos and to a warehouse that acts as the sting’s HQ.
Somebody ratted them out, and for the remainder of the film the men go to work trying to expose the Judas. Mr. Brown and Blue are dead; Blonde has gone temporarily AWOL after firing shots inside the jeweller’s, and Mr. Pink is pacing around the warehouse obsessing over the intricacies of the botched job. White is simply trying to reassure Orange as he squirms about on the cold concrete, his puddle of blood dilating, that he’s going to be okay.
Over the course of the non-linear narrative, we learn that the two have struck up an unlikely camaraderie. Once it’s revealed Orange is an undercover LAPD cop, the friendship becomes depleting – particularly the scene where White delights in his bogus run-in with the police story.
Yes, the good guy is not the take away from Reservoir Dogs, or ever will be. The image of the sadist Mr. Blonde, played by Michael Madsen, dismembering a hostage cop to Stealers Wheel is the ‘No, I am your father’ of the film, and what cemented its reputation upon release.
A peak at almost any syllable written about the film from 1992 will be scarce anything beyond the topic of what the NY Daily News called ‘overflowing violence.’ But 25 years later, to the Live Leak generation Reservoir Dogs is probably not all that shocking. And if it is, glorification doesn’t come into it.
By the end of the film, crime couldn’t pay less. The crooks are outed as failed blowhards and end up, with the exception of Mr. Pink who scarpers off with the suitcase of diamonds, meeting their maker. It’s the perfect indictment of how mindless the lives of the shady can be.
The cool gunslingers we see confidently strolling towards their robbery at the beginning of the film are in conclusion the biggest losers. As a result, Reservoir Dogs surely must remain Tarantino’s if not greatest then certainly most moral motion picture.