25 years later, ‘Reservoir Dogs’ is better than the film bros who champion it
Quentin Tarantino is what the internet has termed a “problematic fave.” It’s a distinction reserved for an aggravating or otherwise objectionable artist who produces work so good you can’t help but favor them anyway. That particular debate — of whether it’s responsible, or even possible, to separate an artist’s work from their persona or life outside of work — is one that’s always brewing, and it’s likely to get even more pickup for the next few months, as more and more accusations of sexual harassment and assault come out of Hollywood.
It’s a conversation Tarantino now finds himself involved in following his recent admission that he had been aware of Harvey Weinstein’s campaign of alleged widespread sexual impropriety. True to form, Tarantino drew a polarized response; some commended him for his candid honesty, while others seethed that he hadn’t done something when he, as he said, had the chance. Some did both. It remains to be seen if this latest news will affect how Tarantino’s films are viewed, thought of and discussed; considering the themes of his 21st-century output, it’s hard to believe there won’t be some damage.
But aside from the man himself, Tarantino’s movies have another real-world liability to answer for: the fans. If the question of distinguishing the art from the artist is one that’s constantly being asked, it’s also worth looking at the impact an entertainment’s disciples have on its legacy. Enter Reservoir Dogs, which opened in limited release in the United States 25 years ago, on Oct. 23, 1992, and has received a few of the customary re-appraisal pieces. This anniversary feels particularly loaded given the timing, but it’s still intriguing to examine the film’s cultural imprint and the strain of fandom it’s inspired.
And checking in on Tarantino’s early, star-making hits — his debut and his 1994 magnum opus, Pulp Fiction — reaffirms that the works are worth the many petty, public annoyances they have indirectly wrought.
That was the man’s goal from the start, after all: to inspire imitators. Tarantino’s films actively angle for that singular feeling of cucumber-cold composure that makes viewers want to go out and buy a new pair of shades. He draws admiration for his conspicuous sense of style, fully formed even on arrival in his first full-length feature.
Tarantino synthesized an eclectic array of his own pet obsessions — the two-fisted gun-fu freakouts of Hong Kong’s John Woo, French New Wave master Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï — into a pop-art collage of badassery signifiers that would enrapture movie nerds just as those earlier films had transported him. It’s all right there on display in Reservoir Dogs’ instant-classic credit sequence, as our collected crooks stride down an alley to the strains of George Baker Selection’s 1969 bop “Little Green Bag” — sunglasses, skinny ties, cigarettes, slow-mo. No wonder Steve Buscemi puts up a fuss about being codenamed Mr. Pink for the diamond heist they’re soon to undertake. In Tarantino’s universe, appearances count for a lot.
But they don’t count for everything, and that’s where there’s trouble. Reservoir Dogs contains many elegantly crafted surface-level pleasures, and an inability or disinterest in looking beyond the superficial has led to a lot of noxious tributes at the cineplex and beyond. The mid-’90s saw a deluge of knockoffs attempting to jack Tarantino’s swagger, aping his look without ever grasping the deeper mechanisms that make his films go. Such awkwardly titled films as Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, The Boondock Saints and 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag pilfered many of Tarantino’s moves without any underlying organization, resulting in hollow shells of aestheticized dialogue and snappy camerawork.
The image of a college freshman, referred to pejoratively by some as the archetypal “film school bro,” plastering his dorm room walls with Reservoir Dogs posters has long since passed the point of cliché.
These critical punching bags learned the hard way that mimicking Tarantino’s distinctive speech-writing requires more than a liberal sprinkling of pop-culture references; we’re still quoting the “I don’t tip” speech from Reservoir Dogs’ diner opening not because it’s all that mind-blowing, but because Tarantino has an ear for the natural patterns and rhythms of conversation.
Likewise, aping Tarantino’s blithe fusion of over-the-top violence and ironic humor without a guiding moral framework led to empty gestures of sadism. Reservoir Dogs’ most widely known scene also happens to be its gnarliest, as Michael Madsen does a little soft-shoe while super-smooth radio station K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the Seventies blares “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel, then slices a hostage cop’s ear clean off. The scene has been so thoroughly absorbed into the public consciousness that even the coy pan away is an essential part of the homages.
Eliding the money shot should be a palpable hint that Tarantino’s more interested in the ramifications of violence than the spectacle unto itself;in Pulp Fiction, too, an accidental murder happens in the space of a split second, while the laborious cleanup occupies the following 20 minutes. Like all of Tarantino’s films, Reservoir Dogs finds a tough guy wrestling with an ethical quandary, the role filled in this instance by Tim Roth’s undercover cop, Mr. Orange. His struggle to be and do good in a world seemingly intent on pushing him toward sin forms the backbone of the film, and without it, so many imitators end up spineless, chuckling at bloodletting.
But the real dings to Reservoir Dogs’ reputation came from outside the theaters. Early Tarantino films have grown (undeservedly, mostly) synonymous with a specific strain of entry-level cinephilia, and to their detriment. The image of a college freshman, referred to pejoratively by some as the archetypal “film school bro,” plastering his dorm room walls with Reservoir Dogs posters has long since passed the point of cliché. A personal friend in academia once mentioned a hard-and-fast policy forbidding all undergrads from turning in papers on Tarantino’s films.
Online discourse has painted an unflattering portrait of the average Reservoir Dogs fan in the present day, and by proxy, an uncharitable assessment of the film itself. It’s the movie that ex-boyfriend you couldn’t stand made you watch either before or after Fight Club, another film far cleverer than its more thick-skulled fans might lead one to believe. It’s looked down on by some as the de facto favorite movie of people who haven’t seen enough movies to have a different favorite. This is, of course, untrue. But inclusion on the fan-determined IMDb Top 250, getting named the “greatest independent film of all time” by fan-favored magazine Empire and constant fan-made video essays might make it feel that way from time to time.
And, yes, there is the possibility that Tarantino might be his own worst enemy. Virtually every time the man opens his mouth, he says something that makes the general public like him a little less — and that was the case long before the rightfully troubling revelations about Weinstein and what Tarantino knew. Aside from that, there’s his notoriously cavalier attitude about race, of course, but that still leaves his tiresome teases of retirement, the open dissing of fellow filmmakers and that quip about hoping the Academy renames the Best Original Screenplay Oscar “the Quentin.”
Reservoir Dogs is the odd film that a person could theoretically like less the longer they go without watching it, as constant fanboy kvetching and commentator counter-kvetching threatens to eclipse the actual content. (Add to that further marring by association with Weinstein, whose mere name now taints everything he produced.) Because the unending back-and-forth over the film has made it so easy to lose sight of what endeared it to moviegoers in the first place, it helps to periodically reestablish the movie as just that — a movie, and not a talking point.
Actually sitting down and spending a couple of hours with the foul-mouthed diamond thieves immediately cuts through all of the extraneous chatter around it. Everything a viewer retains of the film — the idle gabbing, the non-chronological structure, Madsen going Van Gogh on his captive — is more calculated and purposeful while it’s happening than in retrospect. Tarantino lives for style, and he’s gotten away with it because he’s a skilled filmmaker in more commonly banal ways as well. He knows how to finely shade characters and ground them in a narrative with meaningful personal stakes. He doesn’t just want his audience braying for blood by the time the film’s final Mexican standoff erupts; he wants them rooting for the characters to live.
Dedicated analysis of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” isn’t what makes Reservoir Dogs a great film. It’s more about how that train of thought gets integrated into the film, how people communicate meaningful parts of themselves by bullshitting about bullshit, a subject with which Tarantino himself is clearly familiar. He forges his own language, where trivialities speak more directly to a person’s moral character than anything else. That’s what will endure long after the message boards and listicles have fallen into virtual disrepair — a hot cup of coffee, some gum-flapping and the enduring struggle between right and wrong.