Reservoir Dogs: Why Tarantino’s lean, merciless and hellishly funny debut still kills 30 years on

Graeme Tuckett is a contributing writer for Stuff to Watch.

OPINION: When Reservoir Dogs opened in Los Angeles in late 1992, it changed heist movies forever.

Thirty years ago, memorable films were pouring out of Hollywood. You might even call 1992 a vintage year. Unforgiven, Basic Instinct, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Wayne’s World are in the box-office Top 10 of ’92. And all those films left a mark on what came after.

But the most influential film of 1992 only made a few million in profit, on a budget that was loose change compared to the big hitters. Although the critics mostly liked it, it wasn’t nominated for any major awards and by the end of the year Hollywood had moved on. And yet here we are, 30 years later, and it’s Reservoir Dogs that we are celebrating and remembering.

Steve Buscemi's Mr.  Pink and Harvey Keitel's Mr.  White face off in Reservoir Dogs.

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Steve Buscemi’s Mr. Pink and Harvey Keitel’s Mr. White face off in Reservoir Dogs.

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Writer-director Quentin Tarantino tells people who ask whether he went to film school, “no, I went to films”. Tarantino worked for half-a-decade in an LA video store, had a step-father who took him to everything he wanted to see and lied about his age to get a job at a porn theater. His first job in film was as an assistant on a Dolph Lundgren exercise video. Six years later, he directed his first feature. He was 28 years old.

The opening five minutes of Reservoir Dogs are still jaw-dropping, no matter how often the scenes are referenced and pored over.

There’s the inane and desperate-to-shock interpretation of Madonna’s Like a Virgin by Tarantino himself – thankfully, he has himself killed almost immediately – Steve Buscemi telling us all why he doesn’t tip and there’s the much-parodied slow walk towards the camera as the credits roll.

Dead-pan brutality and dialogue weren't new in Hollywood – but they hadn't been seen in the mainstream for a few decades, until along came Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs in 1992.

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Dead-pan brutality and dialogue weren’t new in Hollywood – but they hadn’t been seen in the mainstream for a few decades, until along came Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs in 1992.

And then, pow, the film starts for real. A man howls and pleads in the back seat of a car, crying with pain from a wound in his belly. It is visceral, confrontational and jolting as all hell. And we are off, on a film that seemed to throw the rule book out the window, even while it was referencing films that video-junkie Tarantino had been watching and loving for years.

Ringo Lam’s City On Fire was famously sampled and remixed. One of the best gags in Reservoir Dogs is that the doomed jewelry store heist that is described, but never seen – is exactly the heist that is seen in City On Fire. Tarantino’s love of Stanley Kubrick’s debut The Killing is clearly in the bones of the story and its players’ predicament, trying to work out what has gone wrong in the aftermath of a robbery.

The opening five minutes of Reservoir Dogs are still jaw-dropping, no matter how often the scenes are referenced and pored over.

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The opening five minutes of Reservoir Dogs are still jaw-dropping, no matter how often the scenes are referenced and pored over.

And yet, although it wears its influences so boldly, Reservoir Dogs is a unique ride. Dead-pan brutality and dialogue weren’t new in Hollywood – but they hadn’t been seen in the mainstream for a few decades. Tarantino took film noir and the new wave and revealed the stylized pretensions that had always underpinned them.

Earlier this week, Tarantino confirmed that his next film – his 10th – will be his last. In the last 30 years, he’s made films I’ve adored and despised, but watched and watched again. And I still think this lean, merciless and hellishly funny debut might be the best thing he ever made.

Reservoir Dogs is now available to stream on Netflix. It will also screen on TVNZ Duke at 9.30pm on Tuesday, November 29.

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