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‘Reservoir Dogs’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 23, 1992

In "Reservoir Dogs," a character gets shot in the stomach and spends the rest of the movie bleeding. During this excruciating ebb and flow, you'll also witness the most appalling act of violence since the decapitation in "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer." But you'll see nervy brilliance too. If director Quentin Tarantino signs his name in blood across the screen, he does it with a sure, original flourish.

With the exception of the opening scene -- whose purpose is chiefly comic -- the movie is one, extended climax. Even with flashbacks and other time jumps, it never lets up. You have to go back to Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1952 "The Wages of Fear" (recently shown at the Biograph) to recall suspense this relentless. For those sanguine enough to handle it, "Dogs" is the most riveting experience of the year.

Part of the movie's narrative strategy (and effectiveness) is gradual revelation, so the less said about the story the better. Essentially a heist flick, it's about a group of professionals hired by underworld honcho Lawrence Tierney to rob a diamond shipment in Los Angeles.

For reasons of security, the men, including Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Steve Buscemi, are ordered not to reveal their identities to each other. Instead, they're assigned colors. Thus, Keitel is "Mr. White," Roth is "Mr. Orange," Madsen's "Mr. Blonde" and so on.

In a nihilistic drama like this, things -- of course -- go awry. As the panicked robbers try to figure what went down, so do we. Each scene, titled and arranged like a chapter in a book, provides a clearer view of the picture. It takes the whole movie to piece things together, but the nerve-damaging wait is more than rewarding.

A nod to such noir crime classics as Stanley Kubrick's "The Killing," the movie's more than savvy sensationalism. Suspense, horror and humor are expertly interwoven. There is also a distinct code of honor among these cursing thieves -- pride in their work, loyalty and occasional grace under pressure. They're individuals who happen to operate on the wrong side of the law.

Every performer, from Keitel on down, imbues edgy life to his role. Madsen is memorably chilling as Mr. Blonde, whose quiet demeanor belies psychotic impulses. As Tierney's tough-as-nails son, Chris Penn delivers an extraordinary performance.

Buscemi is his usual, bulgy-eyed, offbeat self. When the characters are assigned their colors, Buscemi childishly objects to being called "Mr. Pink." Later, in the midst of an intense exchange of accusations, Keitel says to Buscemi: "Relax, have a cigarette."

"I quit," replies Buscemi. Then, an instant later, he adds, "Why, you got one?"

In the abandoned warehouse where most of the action takes place, a radio in the background features the disembodied voice of deadpanish Steven Wright. As K-Billy DJ, who's playing a weekend's worth of '70s pop hits, he introduces familiar songs that create an unforgettable counterpoint to the action at hand. In fact, when the aforementioned gruesome incident takes place, with Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle With You" blaring away, you'll never listen to that song quite the same way again.

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