Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Tarantino’s revelatory gut-punch of a first feature, now 25 years old, has profoundly influenced crime movies. It established snappy dialogue on life’s banalities, 1970s nostalgia, extreme casual violence, vintage noir tribute, and foul-mouthed jokes as staples of the genre that endure to this day. The tone is set in the legendary pre-credit sequence, with the color-codenamed gang of veteran thieves eating at a diner. Mr. Pink (Buscemi) whiningly questions the need to tip the waitress, succumbing only under the baleful pressure of his fellow criminals. Once mayhem kicks in with a botched LA heist, Mr. Blonde (Madsen) tortures a cop as Stealers Wheel’s 1972 hit “Stuck in the Middle With You” plays on oldies radio. Nice Guy Eddie (Penn) utters a line so sophomorically racist, homophobic, violent, and filthy that the viewer is faced with the choice of either laughing or leaving—and usually decides to stick around.
Reservoir Dogs’ reach extended farther than cinema itself, deeply into popular culture. As peace took hold in Northern Ireland, formerly murderous Protestant loyalist paramilitaries appropriated the gleefully vicious cachet of the film to gussy up their image with coffee mugs bearing the iconic image of the gang, wearing dark suits and Wayfarer sunglasses, and stamped “Reservoir Prods.” Over 20 years later, Crystal Moselle in her prize-winning documentary The Wolfpack (2015) chronicled the lives of several boys shut in for years by their father in a Lower East Side apartment who kept sane by watching movies—and emerged from their long hibernation dressed in those patented suits and shades, ready for the world.
The sublimely resonant title itself suggests stray, amoral animals that nonetheless behave according to instinctive rules. In that sense, it has obvious forbears, including classics like John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), Peter Yates’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), and Michael Mann’s Thief (1981), as well as unsung gems like John Flynn’s The Outfit (1973). What Reservoir Dogs added to the crime flick was overt, morbid humor alongside unflinching violence. And the fact that many find it as funny as it is gruesome remains as intriguing as it is disturbing. Implicitly, moviegoers ask of any drama, as Mr. Blonde asks of Mr. White (Keitel), “Are you gonna bark all day, little doggy – or are you gonna bite?” This remarkable movie bites. Hard. Jonathan Stevenson (New 35mm print opens May 19 at Film Forum)