Tarantino tends to get singled out first for his stylized dialogue (with good reason), and second for his achronological, novelistic approach to storytelling (also with good reason). But he's always been underrated as a director, and the torture scene wouldn't be nearly as effective in more pedestrian hands. It's hard to believe the Madsen of Reservoir Dogs would balloon into the corpulent softie of the Free Willy movies, but in his black-suit-and-sunglasses getup, Tarantino frames him like the second coming of Robert Mitchum, a lean, charismatic figure with the black heart of Mitchum's preacher in The Night Of The Hunter. Having "K-Billy's super sounds of the '70s" in the background sets up the perfect ironic ambience (and gives Madsen the right beat for his famous shuffle), but what Tarantino does with the camera is key. The scene is considered hideously violent, but the most gruesome moments happen offscreen, whether the camera positions itself to miss the cuts of Mr. Blonde's razor, or pans away altogether as he severs the cop's right ear. (The latter shot is a nod to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, which also has the camera dolly out in the film's most painful moment, when Robert De Niro gets turned down while talking on a payphone.) There's plenty of blood in Reservoir Dogs, but little gratuitousness, and perhaps less violence than the average action thriller; it's a trick of a great director, one who knows how to play with viewers' imaginations, and realizes that less violence can have more impact. On Charlie Rose in 1994, Tarantino quoted Brian De Palma, who once talked about filmmakers getting "penalized" for doing violence well, and he goes on later to explain:

"Violence was like another character in the room [inReservoir Dogs]. It hung over the proceedings. You kept waiting for every conversation to break out into it. So even if it was funny, the audience might have laughed, but when they get out of the theater, they don't remember laughing."


Thematically, Reservoir Dogs sticks to the tried-and-true "honor among thieves" premise common to most heist movies, and its strong masculine bonds put the film firmly in line with the two-fisted entertainments Tarantino has always championed. At the center of it all is this idea of "professionalism": These guys were hired to do a job, and as professionals, they have a code that dictates how it should be carried out. Mr. Blonde may be loyal, but cutting up a room when the robbery starts to fall apart is unprofessional, as is his extracurricular abduction and torture of a cop.

And though the dynamic between Mr. White and Mr. Orange is surprisingly tender, almost like a bear nursing a cub, all professionalism went out the window the moment Mr. White trusted Mr. Orange enough to tell him his first name, and reveal his incriminating love of the Brewers. Ironically, Buscemi's Mr. Pink comes away as the lone professional: In the chaos following the robbery, he could have (and given the circumstances, probably should have) driven away with the diamonds rather than come back to the rendezvous point, but he didn't. He also tries to break up the Mexican standoff between the other men ("We're supposed to be fucking professionals!"), but he fails and winds up the last man standing, fully entitled to the stash. There's no doubt Tarantino feels more affection for Mr. White, who reveals a kind of tragic decency in taking the younger Mr. Orange under his wing, but the job is the job, and his inability to live by a criminal code hastens his demise.


Above all, though, Reservoir Dogs is about the sheer pleasure of a good story told right, and few people can do it as well as Tarantino. There's a great meta-scene halfway into the movie in which Mr. Orange, an undercover cop preparing to infiltrate this criminal operation, goes over a five-page script called "The Commode Story." The script is a piece of fiction about Mr. Orange's run-in with four cops and a German shepherd while he was carrying a bag of hash, intended to ingratiate him with the other crooks. He's told he needs to be a good actor, "like Brando," but it's really about how stories come alive in the details, and how the storyteller's command of the little things spells the difference between a convincing and an unconvincing tale-or, in this case, between life and death. He may be a savant genius, a semi-literate with little but a pop-cultural education, but when he's really cooking-as in the following scene, when Tierney is handing out aliases-there's no one better.

Coming Up:

Dec. 25: Hiatus (Christmas)

Jan. 1: Hiatus 2: The New Batch (New Year's Day)

Jan. 8: Married To The Mob

Jan. 15: The Room