Tarantino’s perennial favourite finally gets a decent DVD issue to sit alongside the two disk editions of Jackie Brown and Pulp Fiction. The previous affair was (frankly) spartan but now, as if to make up for a missed opportunity, we have been blessed with a plethora of extra features including interviews with cast members, a Tarantino retrospective and an audio commentary from QT, Lawrence Bender and assorted crew members.
The documentaries go further than the usual puff pieces; of particular merit are the plethora of interviews with other film-makers, either those connected with noir and crime fiction or those who were involved in the "Class of ’92" – a reference to the year Reservoir Dogs was shown at Sundance (it was a year that had a frightening number of seriously good indie films). There’s even time for some deleted scenes, with adequate evidence that the shock cut away in the ear slicing scene was far more horrible when left to the imagination than showing the graphic prosthetics.
Now that the furore over the film has died down, it has been screened on terrestrial television and there has been a relaxation in certain areas of cinematic violence, the time is ripe for re-evaluation. Was it just a flash in the pan, a product of its time and a victim of its own notoriety? Like all of Tarantino’s work Reservoir Dogs is a hotchpotch of genre films, some familiar, some wilfully obscure, that culminates in a work that is at once familiar and refreshing. Rather than lampooning or duplicating the crime film, Reservoir Dogs mixes its homages freely in one big post-modern melting pot.
The premise is simple – start with the basic "get a disparate gang of criminals together for a big one-off job" from The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 (1974), take the plot from a section of Ringo Lam’s City On Fire (1987) and use the time structure of Kubrick’s heist film The Killing (1956). Indeed the non-linearity of the film, something of a Tarantino calling card, even in his screenplays like True Romance (1993), serves a number of purposes. Firstly it allows us to have some degree of suspense as to the informant’s identity but it also allows us to appreciate each of the characters in a self-contained vignette – this is very much an ensemble piece. Most importantly it means that the heist itself, the very focus of the plot, remains absent from the screen.
On the surface this seems like an audacious MacGuffin but it also serves to keep the budget well and truly reigned in, allowing Tarantino to set the majority of the feature in one simple set. To open out beyond the space of the warehouse and the back of a car, the aftermath of the heist is shown but in a sparsely populated back-street, giving ample opportunity for a bloody shoot-out with the police which further reflects the influence of Hong Kong cinema in its style. Tarantino’s eastern influences may well be more apparent in Kill Bill (2003) but Ringo Lam and John Woo’s combination of violence and introspection is more than evident.
Where Tarantino differs is in the deliberately paced nature of events rather than the frenetic bursts of orchestrated mayhem and quiet reflection. He concentrates on the extended death of one of his central characters in an excruciating sequence – it would do Japanese cinema proud. And this perhaps is the point – at the time (and to some extent, now) audiences were used to disposable ultra-violence where baddies got mown down in swathes, the odd super-villain received some sticky comeuppance followed by a quippy one-liner, but no-one actually suffered.
Tim Roth suffers both physically and metaphysically – he knows he could be saved but can’t be, he knows that if he is found to be the informer they’ll kill him but he’s as good as dead anyway – he may as well be Frank Bigelow in D.O.A. (1950). Because Tarantino’s films are set in some filmic "otherwhere", they have dated very little. Reservoir Dogs has stood the test of time as a character piece about male camaraderie and male betrayal set in a world of crime and disorder.