By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
(Originally published Ocober 23, 1992)
A friend calls from the Sundance Film Festival to say that an unspeakably violent movie has taken the festival by storm. I carry on plucking my eyebrows. “So what else is new?” I answer listlessly. “This is the year of slash and burn. Is it any good?” She grins audibly and tells me that in the post-screening discussion Reservoir Dogs director Quentin Tarantino, a pipsqueak in his 20s from L.A., brazened out questions about a gratuitous torture scene by declaring that he loved violence. I start tweezing furiously and launch into my rant about how sick I am of black-clad film hacks with geometric haircuts who imagine that one splatter pic garnished with a few slow-mo sequences is going to make them the next Sergio Leone and who think that any serious argument about the politics of screen violence is uncool. “That’s my girl,” crows my friend and hangs up, leaving me to stare moodily at two wildly nonaligned eyebrows.
But the fact is that, torture and all, Reservoir Dogs, opening in Los Angeles next week, is one of the most poised, craftily constructed and disturbing movies to come out this year. It’s a fond genre movie that’s forever chortling up its sleeve at the puerile idiocy of the genre: a heist caper without a heist, an action movie that’s hopelessly in love with talk, a poem to the sexiness of storytelling, and a slice of precocious wisdom about life. All this from a first-time filmmaker whose training consists of six years behind the counter of a Manhattan Beach video store, a stint at the Sundance Institute’s Director’s Workshop, and a lot of acting classes. Quentin Tarantino is a self-described movie expert who never set foot in film school and who never wanted to do anything but direct movies. “I’m trying to wipe out every movie I ever wanted to make in the first one,” he says happily.
For Tarantino, derivation is the sincerest form of flattery. His most obvious homage is to the B-movie, specifically to Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 caper, The Killing. In Reservoir Dogs, six smalltime Los Angeles hoods are hired by mastermind Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and his son Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) for a major diamond robbery. They bond, they josh, they swagger, they kill; the one thing they don’t do is confide. They’ve been chosen because they know nothing about each other; Joe assigns them color-coded names — Mr. White, Mr. Blue, Mr. Orange. When the heist, which we never see, is interrupted by a waiting phalanx of police, the thieves retreat to a meeting place in a disused warehouse. There, with one dead, one missing and one seriously wounded, what’s left of the group plunges into a morass of paranoid recrimination when it becomes clear that one of their number has set them up and another (Michael Madsen) has shot several bank employees for pressing the alarm.
It sounds odd to say this about a film that has a 10-minute torture scene shot in real time, but Reservoir Dogs is a romp: a brave, cocky, enormously self-satisfied adventure in film as manipulation. Tarantino loves to toy with the forms of his beloved action genre; with his favorite themes of professionalism, loyalty and betrayal; but most of all with us, flipping us from laughs to sympathy to horror and back again — he’s the maestro of mood swing. Talk about the cinema of excess: from its opening sequence, in which Tarantino, in a small part as Mr. Brown, entertains his fellow thugs in a café with a psycho-literary interpretation of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” (“Dick dick dick dick dick dick dick ... it hurts. ...The pain is reminding a fuck machine what it once was like to be a virgin”), Reservoir Dogs throws down a challenge a minute to the politically correct. Its unheroes are a bunch of career criminals who kill cops without batting an eyelid but show a chivalrous concern for innocent bystanders (so long as they don’t get in the way) and spend as much time debating the ethics of tipping waitresses as they do the semiotics of Madonna. Tarantino’s dialogue drips with go-for-it racism, sexism and enough undeleted expletives to gladden the heart of David Mamet. And though he insists that he’s just letting his characters be who they are, it’s clear he relishes the effect they’re going to have on audiences and critics shackled by a decade of what he calls a “square dance” mentality in filmmaking.
Quentin Tarantino shows up for lunch at Denny’s on Sunset and Gower (his choice) driving the world’s smallest rental car. Rumpled in a white T-shirt that says “Tin-Tin in America,” badly in need of a shave and any kind of haircut, he apologizes for being late and applies himself to a meal rich in bad cholesterol. We resume an amiably fractious argument about screen violence that began weeks earlier over the phone from Paris, where Tarantino was attending his film’s international premiere. (Reservoir Dogs has made its money back three times over in world sales before even opening in the U.S.)
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