Reservoir Dogs Revisited – worth the cult status?

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus Pulp Fiction, the pulp neo-noir crime film crammed with enough pop culture dialogue and references to keep any cinephile guessing and gushing over. With plenty of websites, magazines and blogs digging up whatever can be salvaged from the most-talked about film of the 90s, we at Critics Associated decided to look at his feature length directorial debut that took the world by storm and to see if it still holds up today.

As with any film that requires a retrospective analysis it’s important to ensure to not view Reservoir Dogs with rose-tinted glasses, as my adolescent-self will now doubt view it in awe and announce “my God, this is totally badass!” so, I must remain partial and view it in a cold light. Now, let’s throw ourselves to the world of independent movie making in the early 90s.

Independent films prior to Reservoir Dogs were deeply lyrical, challenging in both themes and aesthetics and, more importantly, began to directly challenge the overly abundant banality of high-concept 80s cinema. Many independent American films of the 80s were pseudo-intellectual and quasi-philosophical, which made them impenetrable for the general film-going public. What Reservoir Dogs upon arrival was to show that independent films needn’t be self-indulgent or narratively ambiguous, but they could be fun for a larger audience.

And by this term ‘fun’ we didn’t mean dumb-down or resort to audience-insulting gimmicks, but made it interesting and clever with the now-iconic opening scene. This opening scene was simple in its incarnation, with our characters simply talking about the true meaning of Like a Virgin and the ethics of tipping waitresses. This isn’t a throw-away scene to “appear” clever or needlessly experimenting with narrative & dialogue form, but works to set up the relationship between the characters, which is the art of inconsequential conversations – or, in layman’s terms, talking rubbish. The film hinges on concealment of identity so to fill the void they talk about either the job at hand or tales of other people i.e. Nice Guy Eddie’s humorous Elois anecdote. Such are the lengths that Tarantino goes to create distances between the characters that the film doesn’t use music of its contemporary era, but opts for of 70s rock on a local radio station, a station that every character listens to – nobody brings out a personal mixtape nor speaks of a particular genre they prefer.

It’s only in the clunky flashback scenes preceding the jewel heist gone bad that Tarantino offers backstories to the characters. These scenes are the major flaws of the movie for it is too much telling and not enough showing; these are essentially needless for it’s apparent by throughout the characters allegiances.

The usage of homage is pushed away from subtle references to Sergio Leone’s filmmaking style of taking scenes from other films and directly using or subverting it. This has been a controversial and, if not, a thorny issue with many claiming Tarantino simply nicked scenes from other films i.e. a much over-looked Yun—Fat Chow film City on Fire, which is very similar in plot. While many cinephile’s appear to have caught him out, Tarantino himself has stated that he has always been open on this comparison among others i.e. Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing.

In short, Reservoir Dogs, despite some of the much needless racial slurs and repetitive cursing exclaiming frustration, which sounds more like teenage angst than a group of hardened professional criminals facing possible death or jail, the clever usage of inconsequential conversations – a trademark of Tarantino’s work that would follow – in creating distances between characters and use of homages he has influenced a generation of filmmakers. Yes, Pulp Fiction has the iconic ‘Royale with Cheese’ scene, which, quite frankly, dates the film in a pre-internet/globalized age, but this style of dialogue works best in Reservoir Dogs. And the use of homages, while in later films would become too self-indulgent and lack creative flare, were most appropriate here. They not only highlighted Tarantino’s own cinephilia but also gave cinephiles watching it a little something special, something that filmmaker like Edgar Wright may have used as well. Tarantino will in later years rely too heavily on his cinephilia to write a story, but it’s in Reservoir Dogs where we saw both the cinephile and the genius of a self-taught filmmaker.

Read our pick of the Reservoir Dogs Top 5 Moments here.

Matthew Lee is an undergraduate student in the field of Film Studies at King's College London and a freelance film critic with keen interests in World Cinema, Cult Cinema and Silent Cinema.