Mr. Brown: “Let me tell you what “Like A Virgin” is about. It’s all about a girl who digs a guy with a big dick. The entire song, it’s a metaphor for big dicks.”
This is the very first line of dialogue that’s heard in writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s debut film Reservoir Dogs (Tarantino’s actual first film was My Best Friend’s Birthday, but he clearly doesn’t want to acknowledge its existence, so neither will we), and if you weren’t invested or paying attention to the film before, chances are that the opening line is enough to pique your interest and have you paying attention from that moment on. The conversation between eight men seated in a diner while smoking, drinking coffee, and eating breakfast, then goes from discussing the true meaning behind Madonna’s classic song “Like A Virgin,” to which other Madonna songs they like and don’t like, to the local radio station that is playing their favorite songs from the 1970s, to proper etiquette for tipping servers, and whether or not tipping should even be mandatory for anyone eating at a restaurant. The conversation ends, the bill is paid (with tips included, mind you), and all eight men exit the diner in slow motion to the music of “Little Green Bag” by The George Baker Selection.
The next time we see these characters, there will be blood. Lots of it. And they will be the ones causing it to spill all over the streets of Los Angeles.
Reservoir Dogs, which opened in theaters on October 9, 1992, tells the story of six professional thieves (Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi, the late Eddie Bunker, Quentin Tarantino) who are brought together by elderly and gravel-voiced crime boss Joe Cabot (the late Lawrence Tierney), and his son, ‘Nice Guy’ Eddie (the late Chris Penn). The six men are all given codenames (Mr. White, Mr. Orange, Mr. Blonde, Mr. Pink, Mr. Blue, Mr. Brown), as well as instructions to not share any personal details about themselves with one another. Their assignment: to break into a diamond wholesaler during daylight hours while it’s populated with customers, and steal a large amount of diamonds which are expected to arrive that day. The robbery ends up going completely pear-shaped, with cops showing up during the robbery to surround the building, innocent civilians and cops being shot to death, two of the thieves getting killed while attempting to escape, and another one taking a bullet to the stomach, which leaves him bleeding profusely and in desperate need of medical attention. As the surviving thieves meet up and try to figure out exactly what went wrong and why it happened, they come to the realization that one of them might be an undercover cop. Things only get worse from that moment on.
For those of you who have watched everything that Quentin Tarantino has written and/or directed (including the season-five finale of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation where Nick Stokes is kidnapped and buried underground), Reservoir Dogs introduces many of his familiar trademarks (except for lingering shots of women’s bare feet, that is, as there are no female main characters in the film). Shocking and incredibly bloody acts of violence. Black comedy that will make you laugh at things you probably never expected to laugh at. Characters making small talk with one another about various topics (besides Madonna, and tipping etiquette, there is also the differences between dating white women and dating Black women, and how one Black woman acquainted with ‘Nice Guy’ Eddie creatively got her revenge on her abusive spouse). Stories told in a nonlinear manner that plays around with time, and with audience expectations. Pop-culture references (John Holmes, The Fantastic Four and how Joe strongly resembles The Thing, a Silver Surfer poster on the wall in Mr. Orange’s apartment). And the usage of lesser-known pop/R&B/rock songs to enhance the mood of nearly every scene.
Anyone who is familiar with Tarantino’s background knows that his encyclopedic knowledge of all things related to movies is the reason why he was hired to work at a video store in his early twenties. Not only does he have a deep appreciation of the usual classics from directors like Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, and Jean-Luc Godard (whose film Bande à part inspired the name of A Band Apart, Tarantino’s production company), but he especially loves B-movies and exploitation flicks of all kinds. He refuses to apologize for having an immense fondness for those films, which is clearly evident in his own work. The black suits with white dress shirts and thin black ties worn by the thieves? They’re a shout-out to A Better Tomorrow 2, director John Woo’s action-packed and blood-drenched sequel to his previous action-packed and blood-drenched film, A Better Tomorrow.
(It’s also the film that Clarence and Alabama are watching together in True Romance, right before Clarence goes to confront Drexl. And yes, the ‘Alabama’ who Mr. White speaks of when talking to Joe in Reservoir Dogs is the very same ‘Alabama’ from True Romance, or it would be if Clarence had died at the end of the film as originally intended by Tarantino when he wrote the screenplay, and Alabama began a life of crime and thievery afterwards.)
The codenames that each thief uses to identify each other? It’s a reference to The Taking of Pelham 123 (the 1974 version with Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw, not the 2009 version with Denzel Washington and John Travolta). A crime film about a robbery whose storyline jumps back and forth in time to examine the perspectives of several characters? It was used in director Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, which was made long before 2001: A Space Odyssey made Kubrick famous and gave him permission to become an obsessive perfectionist. And the Mexican standoff between the remaining characters that concludes the film? It (and practically the entire plot of Reservoir Dogs) was inspired by director Ringo Lam’s City on Fire, which helped make Chow Yun-Fat famous, along with his starring role in A Better Tomorrow.
Much like rappers and their producers, Tarantino is fond of sampling parts of other films and using them to enhance his own, while also being loud and proud in interviews about what is being sampled, why the films being sampled mean so much to him, and why they deserve just as much respect and attention as the A-list films that get lavished with praise and with Oscars. As for the meaning of the title, and how Reservoir Dogs applies to the film? It literally doesn’t mean anything and was just used to sound cool, as it was a reminder of Tarantino’s days as a video store clerk, when he recommended the film Au Revoir Les Enfants to a customer, who became irate and said that they weren’t interested in watching a movie about “reservoir dogs.”
Despite how friendly, talkative, and interesting these characters are when we first meet them, they each take turns in letting the audience know that they are criminals, that they are not lovable and good-hearted rogues who consider each other family, and that their willingness to do whatever is necessary when committing crimes and trying to escape from the authorities after committing crimes is what earns the film its R rating. Did you like Mr. White upon hearing him defend waitressing, and how it is a reliable occupation for women of any social status who all deserve to be tipped for their hard work? You’re going to like him a lot less after seeing him fire two pistols at once to shoot a pair of police officers to death as he’s running for his life. Charmed by Mr. Blonde’s good looks, and his willingness to get back on his feet after being released from jail? You’ll have the nonexistent pleasure of seeing him use a straight razor to cut someone’s ear off and pouring gasoline all over him so that he can set him on fire. (Is Mr. Blonde doing this to find out what this cop might know about anyone working undercover who caused the robbery to become a massive catastrof-ck? No, he just likes the very idea of torturing and killing a cop, so it’s exactly what he’s doing to pass the time while Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck In The Middle With You” plays in the background.) And ‘Nice Guy’ Eddie? Don’t hurt his friends, and don’t lie to him or anyone else about why you hurt his friends, as he will not hesitate to show you that he is really not that nice. If you don’t like movies where white men repeatedly and unapologetically use racial epithets when talking about Black people and Mexican people (and who still think that Asian people should be referred to as “Oriental”), Reservoir Dogs is most definitely not the movie for you.
Due to the film’s minuscule budget of $1.5 million, there isn’t a lot of action to be seen in a crime film like Reservoir Dogs. Like nearly all of Tarantino’s films, the conversation is the action, and seeing the characters go off on one another as they try to figure out what’s happened, and what their next move will be, is both fascinating and entertaining to watch, thanks to the profoundly memorable dialogue coming from each of their mouths. The actual robbery itself isn’t shown onscreen, and is left to the imagination to be discussed as if it is one big Noodle Incident, leaving only the robbery’s aftermath to be witnessed by the audience. And along with Tarantino’s masterful writing and directing, the performances from the entire cast are what grabs our attention from the opening scene discussing Madonna’s musical output, to the last scene in which a poorly-timed confession and a hail of gunfire brings the film to an immediate close.
Harvey Keitel as Mr. White, who is good at his job and will kill anyone who gets in his way, but whose sense of honor and loyalty to an injured comrade will end up being a blessing and a curse for him; Michael Madsen as Mr. Blonde, whose homicidal tendencies and love of mayhem only succeeds in escalating things from bad to worse; Lawrence Tierney as Joe, who organizes every detail of the robbery, and as much as he likes and respects the men who will be carrying it out, his tolerance for their bullsh-t is absolutely zero. Chris Penn as ‘Nice Guy’ Eddie, who helps his father run his empire and whose brutality sheds some light on why he and Mr. Blonde were such close friends; Steve Buscemi as Mr. Pink, who is paranoid, ruthless, and will do anything to avoid getting caught by the cops, whether its’s shooting at them while stealing someone’s car or getting into heated arguments with his partners over their questionable decisions; and Tim Roth as Mr. Orange, a.k.a. Freddy Newendyke, an undercover cop who infiltrated Joe’s operation and is struggling to keep his cover from being blown, while also trying to keep things from getting worse…all while lying on the floor in a pool of his own blood after taking a bullet to the stomach.
The additional cast members include Eddie Bunker as Mr. Blue; Tarantino himself as Mr. Brown; Kirk Baltz as Officer Marvin Nash, who has the misfortune of being kidnapped by Mr. Blonde and getting his ear cut off as a result; Randy Brooks as Holdaway, who instructs Mr. Orange on everything he needs to know to successfully work undercover; and Steven Wright as the unseen disc jockey for K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the Seventies, whose monotone drawl is heard while providing much of the film with its diegetic background music.
Reservoir Dogs didn’t make too big of an impression at the box-office, as it took in only $2.9 million Seeing as how it was a low-budget independent film being released during a time when many low-budget independent films were struggling to find ways to gain a large audience, this wasn’t all that surprising. It wasn’t until 1994 that Tarantino wrote and directed his next film, which grabbed everyone’s attention by knocking them completely on their asses. Pulp Fiction, which Tarantino wrote and directed (with story assistance by Roger Avary), not only became one of the biggest and most influential independent films ever made, but it also made Miramax Films a force to be reckoned with as a movie studio. This resulted in more independent films being made, and sought out by moviegoers who were craving something completely different, as well as Miramax founders Bob and Harvey Weinstein into two of the most powerful producers in all of Hollywood. (If you’ve paid any attention to current events in the last few years, then you already know why that turned out to be a monumentally bad thing.)
As for Pulp Fiction and its impact: It inspired countless imitators, made Quentin Tarantino a household name, launched John Travolta’s career resurgence, and made bigger stars of Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman. (Unfortunately for Uma, her next collaboration with Tarantino was not an entirely pleasant one). Tarantino then followed the monumental success of Pulp Fiction with his films Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Vol. 1, Kill Bill Vol. 2, Death Proof (which was featured in the film Grindhouse, along with director Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror), Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, The Hateful 8, and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.
Tarantino has said more than once that he intends to retire from filmmaking after the release of his next film, which will be his tenth, as he feels that directors don’t get better as they reach old age, and they lose the skills that made them great directors in the first place. Granted, there are several films that prove him wrong, such as the late Sidney Lumet’s Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (which Lumet made when he was 83 or 84 years old), Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story (which Spielberg made when he was 74), and George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (which Miller made when he was 67). But time will tell as to whether Tarantino’s next film really will be his last, and if he will still feel the need to hang up his guns and walk away from the director’s chair once and for all. Or if he will pull a Jay-Z and ignore everything he said about retirement, so he can go back to doing what he loves most.
P.S. Madonna did not agree at all with Tarantino’s interpretation of “Like A Virgin,” and she made sure to let him know that.
Reservoir Dogs is streaming on Hulu.