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‘Reservoir Dogs’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 24, 1992

If Quentin Tarantino's gritty, bone-chilling, powerfully violent new film, "Reservoir Dogs," doesn't pin your ears back, nothing ever will. The movie, which zeros in on the anatomy of a diamond heist, and, beyond that, the flimsy notion of honor among a temporarily assembled gang of Los Angeles thieves, is as caustic as battery acid. It's brutal, it's funny and you won't forget it. Guaranteed.

The temporary nature of the team is important. Joe (Lawrence Tierney), the sting's boss, has made a special point to hire each member of this urban wild bunch for a one-shot deal. One job, and they scatter to the winds, knowing each other only by their gang code names. This way, Joe figures, nobody can rat out nobody else.

His plan is supposed to encourage trust, but in fact it has the opposite effect. Nobody knows anybody, so nobody trusts anybody. That way, when the job goes sour -- as it does when the cops, as if on schedule, show up and Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), who's fresh out of the slammer, starts blasting away -- any one of them could have turned Judas.

With the exception of a masterfully rambling opening gabfest, in which Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) expounds for the benefit of Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) and the others on his theory of why not to tip a waitress, the movie takes place in the panic that sets in after the heist goes belly up.

Mr. Orange, who's drenched in blood from a shot to the gut, and Mr. Pink set the paranoid mood of the film when they slink back to their meeting place and start speculating on what went wrong. Soon, Mr. White arrives and offers his ideas, while, as they jaw and recomb their hair, Mr. Orange lies bleeding to death on the floor.

This is part of the film's dark, deadpan sense of humor. Mr. Orange never does make it up off that cold cement floor, but the debate over who's the rat and what the hell they're going to do next never flags. Clearly, they can't take Orange to a hospital; he might be traced back to the job and to them. And, hey, what's the rush? Nobody ever dies of a belly wound anyway.

Tarantino, who's a product of the Sundance Institute's Director's Workshop, does a righteous job for a first-time director of sketching in the atmospherics of this small-time desperado universe. Like David Mamet, whose comic-book street-talk Tarantino's most resembles, he's got a keen sense of the rhythms of the lingo, the BS, role-playing and poker-faced bravado. One of the writer-director's main comparisons is the difference between a crime movie and real crime, and how the movie reality begins to take over. They're each actors, with stage names and everything, playing out their fantasy of what their favorite movie hero -- Dirty Harry, Jimmy Cagney, Lee Marvin -- might do under similar circumstances.

Naturally, what this guarantees is that a bunch of people die. And they don't die nice, either. Because everybody's so tough, nobody can afford to back down. (Would Cagney ever back down?) The one exception is Mr. Pink, who, as he demonstrated with his waitress spiel, is the ultimate realist, and who isn't the least bit muddled about whether he is or is not in a movie. Mr. Pink knows that if he dies, he dies for real, and he's doing his best to make sure that doesn't happen.

The others aren't so sure. Suddenly, everything is way out of control, words are exchanged, tempers flare, guns are pulled, and, as often happens with guns, they go off. It's nothing new, but because of the purity of Tarantino's stripped-down style and the director's desire to deglamorize his characters, we're able to see the genre from a fresher, harsher angle. (Peckinpah inspected this terrain in "The Killer Elite" -- and, for that matter, pretty much every film he ever made -- but Bloody Sam was a poet and a romantic and Tarantino isn't.)

Another aspect that distinguishes "Reservoir Dogs" is its cast, which is like some kind of Cooperstown for character actors. As Mr. Pink, Buscemi (as with all these guys, you'll know the face, if not the name) is like an anxiety-seeking missile; the man is wired so tight that his flesh has been burned away, leaving only a set of bones and a pair of pinned eyeballs. As the psychotic Mr. Blonde, Madsen has some of Elvis Presley's lazy insouciance; when he smiles that foxy smile, you're not sure if you want to kiss him or duck for cover.

Maybe Harvey Keitel's presence -- he's the best-known actor in the cast -- is a tip of the hat to directors Martin Scorsese and James Toback who, along with Peckinpah, are Tarantino's spiritual godfathers. Whatever the case, Keitel downs the role in a single gulp. And so do Roth and Penn and Tarantino himself (who plays Mr. Brown).

Beyond everything, though, "Reservoir Dogs" is a testosterone meltdown; in its energy and aggressiveness, it's 100 percent male. (There's not a single female speaking part.) Still, I have to admit that I loved it. I do have one question, though: Is this what the men's movement was all about?

"Reservoir Dogs" is rated R for violence and strong language.

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