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Reservoir Dogs Revisited

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It's almost Django time! But before then, join LWLies as we cast our mind back to where it all began for Quentin Tarantino.

In Quentin Tarantino’s barnstorming 1992 debut Reservoir Dogs iconic nutcase Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen) quips, "Are you gonna bark all day little doggie, or are you gonna bite?" And, ever since, QT's films have reliably delivered both chatter and bloodshed aplenty. Reservoir Dogs combines a Seinfeldian sense of conversing-about-minutiae with the laidback cool of early Altman and the explosive machismo of Scorsese.

As Tarantino himself says, "It's not about some sensitive girl who meets a nice fella." It certainly isn't. Actually he's not talking about Reservoir Dogs, instead his alter ego Mr Brown is putting forth his 'big dick' theory about Madonna's 'Like A Virgin'. Throw in a debate on the etiquette of tipping and you have Tarantino-speak to rival Pulp Fiction's 'Royale with Cheese' gambit.

Told out of sequence, the plot of Reservoir Dogs couldn't be simpler – it's a crime thriller dealing with the before and after of a heist. The boss man Joe Cabot (Laurence Tierney) describes the job brusquely: "Busting in and busting out of a diamond wholesalers... Two minutes tops, but it's a tough two minutes. Daylight during business hours, dealing with the crowd."

Accompanied by his son, 'Nice Guy' Eddie (Chris Penn), Joe assembles his crew and, as a precautionary measure, he assigns each of them a pseudonym: "Mr Brown (Tarantino), Mr White (Harvey Keitel), Mr Blonde (Madsen), Mr Blue (real-life crook, screenwriter and crime novelist Eddie Bunker), Mr Orange (Tim Roth), and Mr Pink (Steve Buscemi)". Unfortunately among them are a couple of combustible elements: an uncover cop (Orange), and a psychopath (Blonde).

One of the things Reservoir Dogs does so memorably is capture the rebellious, swaggering allure of criminality (epitomised by the sharp suits, hip soundtrack and opening credits strut), while simultaneously – and in-no-uncertain-terms – disabusing us of this glamorous notion, as the film deals primarily with the bloody fall-out from the unseen heist.

The infamous ear-slicing sequence is a thing of monstrous and even mirth-inducing cinematic majesty. Having kidnapped a police officer, Marvin Nash (Kirk Baltz – who had Madsen drive him round in the trunk of his car by way of research), the seemingly ice-cool but secretly sadistic Mr Blonde is eventually left alone with him, and it's not long before the mask slips: "I don't really give a good fuck what you know or don't know but I'm gonna torture you anyway" he tells him.

Ingeniously set to Stealers Wheel's 'Stuck In The Middle With You' (just one of the tracks from fabulous fictional radio station 'K-Billy's Super Sounds Of The Seventies') the sequence is expertly executed and Tarantino has several times described it as the best thing he's done. During the agonising act itself the camera moves away to reveal graffiti over a doorway reading "Watch your head". There's humour too in Blonde's dance and when he talks into the severed ear, and the resulting guilt adds to the audiences' conflicted complicity.

This one notorious moment of violence aside, what Reservoir Dogs does just as controversially (and actually quite responsibly considering the criticism that was levelled at it) is show in detail the punishing, prolonged effects of violent crime. Orange spends much of the film's duration in a pool of his own blood, howling in agony (Roth was so drenched in prop blood by the end that he actually became stuck to the floor). Tarantino has also described what makes it such an uncomfortable film for many as, "every second the threat of violence is there".

The warehouse which houses the bulk of the action was lit like a theatre and the actors had the freedom to move, improvise and build a credible rapport. Tarantino has spoken about the importance of putting together the right ensemble and he undoubtedly nails it. This is the film that revitalised Harvey Keitel's career – he became a producer, part-financier and was the first 'Dog' on board. Keitel was, in Tarantino's words, the "lynchpin on which to build the cast around".

It's also the film that made cult stars of Buscemi (Tarantino had written Mr Pink for himself and he told Buscemi, intimidatingly, ahead of his audition, "You gotta take it from me") and Roth (who was cast after he and Tarantino went on a mammoth bender) and of course Madsen, who – like Samuel L Jackson and Uma Thurman – always ups his game when working with QT.

After the release of Reservoir Dogs in 1992, "Who shot Nice Guy Eddie?" became the question on everyone's lips as the film's Mexican standoff reveals no apparent culprit. Tarantino and Penn have since explained that Mr White was supposed to turn and shoot Eddie after shooting Joe. However Penn's squib went off early and he went down before Keitel had time to squeeze the trigger. With no time for another take Tarantino astutely said, "Don't worry about it, they'll be asking about it forever".

Arguably Tarantino was the filmmaker of the nineties. The more successful Pulp Fiction was an adrenaline shot to the heart of American cinema. Yet in the noughties it was minor hit (Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and 2) and relative miss (Death Proof, which failed as a stand-alone film after its fatal severance from Grindhouse, and the inconsistent Inglourious Basterds) for QT.

Django Unchained might therefore represent a cheering return to form, but Tarantino's first films remain his best and the still barking, still biting Reservoir Dogs has the additional honour of being considered one of the all-time great debuts.

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