Sundance Film Review: Reservoir Dogs (dir by Quentin Tarantino)


The Sundance Film Festival is currently taking place in Utah so, for this week, I’m reviewing films that either premiered, won awards at, or otherwise made a splash at Sundance!  Today, I take a look at 1992’s Reservoir Dogs, which premiered at that year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Technically, I guess I’m obligated to start this review with a spoiler alert.  Though, seriously, is there anyone out there who hasn’t seen Reservoir Dogs?  I guess that there may be.  But surely, even if you haven’t seen it, you know everything that happens in the movie.  You know about the Like A Virgin conversation at the start of the movie.  You know about the ear scene.  You’ve seen countless parodies of that scene where the cast walks down the street in slow motion.  I find it hard to believe that there are people who don’t know everything about this film but still, I guess it’s always a possibility.

Reservoir Dogs is a challenging film to review, though not because it’s overly complicated or difficult to follow.  Instead, the problem is that it’s hard to know what’s left to say about Reservoir Dogs.  Just about every crime film that has come out in my lifetime has owed an obvious debt to Reservoir Dogs.  It’s the film that launched the directorial career of Quentin Tarantino.  It’s also features one of the greatest acting ensembles in the history of American film: Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi, Chris Penn, Kirk Baltz, and Lawrence Tierney.  Tierney’s presence was especially important.  By appearing in the film, the veteran tough guy actor passed on the torch of hard-boiled crime to a new generation.

At its most basic, Reservoir Dogs is a heist film.  It employs the type of jumbled timeline that has become a Tarantino trademark.  The film starts with a group of 8 criminals eating breakfast and preparing to rob a jewelry store.  Then it jumps forward to immediately after the crime, with Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) shot in the gut and Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) desperately trying to get them both to the safety of a warehouse.  That’s where they are joined by Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi).  Mr. Pink is convinced that they were set up.  He rants about being a professional.  He asks if Mr. White had to shoot anyone during his escape.

“A few cops,” Mr. White says.

“No real people?” Mr. Pink replies.

Eventually, Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) shows up.  We already know, from the film’s first scene, that Mr. Blonde strongly feels that everyone should tip their waitress.  After he arrives at the warehouse, we discover that he also likes good music and torturing hostages.  Meanwhile, the robbery’s mastermind, Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and his son, Eddie (Chris Penn), are also on their way to the warehouse.  Neither one is happy about how things are going.

And while all this goes on, Mr. Orange continues to bleed in the background…

Reservoir Dogs is known for being a violent film and, even though the movie is 26 years old, some of the violence can still catch you off-guard and make you flinch.  The scene where Mr. Blonde chops off the cop’s ear is still not easy to watch.  However, the scene that always freaks me out is when Mr. White starts shooting at a police car and the windshield is suddenly smeared with blood.  Mr. White is one of the film’s more sympathetic characters but he doesn’t hesitate to kill.

Of course, I think it could also be argued that Reservoir Dogs is actually as close as Tarantino has come to making a film that condemns violence.  Not counting the flashbacks, the story largely plays out in real time, which means that we basically spend the entire movie watching and listening as Mr. Orange slowly bleeds to death in front of us.

I rewatched Reservoir Dogs for this review and I have to say that I was really surprised to see how well the film holds up.  I was honestly expecting to be a little bit bored with it, just because I’d already seen it multiple times and I knew who the cop would turn out to be.  I already had all of the film’s great lines memorized.  But, as soon as the film started with everyone arguing about Like A Virgin and whether or not to tip their waitress, I was sucked back into Tarantino’s world.  Once again, I found myself laughing at Steve Buscemi’s brilliant delivery of the line: “Why am I Mr. Pink?”  I was enthralled all over again by Tim Roth’s nervous intensity and Harvey Keitel’s weary integrity.  Even Michael Madsen’s psycho routine felt fresh, despite the fact that he’s played numerous cool-as-ice psychos over the course of his career.  Even the way Chris Penn told the story about Lady E still made me laugh.

(To be honest, the line that makes me laugh the most in Reservoir Dogs — and don’t ask me why because I’m not sure of the exact reason — is when the unseen cop who is heard to say, “Yeah, give me the bearclaw,” while following Eddie’s car.)

It’s just a cool movie.  How can you resist this?

What happen at the end of the film?  Well, we all know the basics.  (And here’s where that probably unnecessary spoiler alert comes into play.)  Mr. White kills Joe and Eddie, all to protect Mr. Orange.  Mr. Pink runs from the warehouse.  The seriously wounded Mr. White cradles the dying Orange in his arms.  Orange confesses to being a cop.  Mr. White lets out a wail of both physical and emotional pain.  The police enter the warehouse and order Mr. White to drop his gun.  Mr. White shoots Orange in the head and is then gunned down by the police.

But what happened to Mr. Pink?

That’s a serious question because Mr. Pink is my favorite member of this band of robbers.  (He gets all the best lines, probably because Tarantino was planning on playing the role himself before Steve Buscemi auditioned.)  A lot of people will tell you that they can hear Mr. Pink being arrested outside of the warehouse, shortly before the cops come in and kill Mr. White.  And yes, I realize that, in at least one draft of the script, that’s exactly what happened.

Well, I don’t care.  We don’t actually see Mr. Pink getting arrested.  We don’t hear him getting shot.  As far as I’m concerned, Mr. Pink made it out of there alive and managed to escape with the diamonds.  The police may have yelled at him to stop but, in the end, they were too busy killing Mr. White to keep an eye on him.  Mr. Pink escaped and is currently living on the beach somewhere.  As a result of selling the diamonds, he’s now financially comfortable but he still doesn’t tip his waitress.  That’s just the way Mr. Pink is.

Finally, one little bit of trivia: Reservoir Dogs may have premiered at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival but it didn’t win any awards at the end of it.  Instead, the big winner that year was a comedy called In The Soup.  The star of that film?  Steve Buscemi.

Previous Sundance Film Reviews:

  1. Blood Simple
  2. I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore
  3. Circle of Power
  4. Old Enough
  5. Blue Caprice
  6. The Big Sick
  7. Alpha Dog
  8. Stranger Than Paradise
  9. sex, lies, and videotape

A Movie A Day #103: Mobsters (1991, directed by Michael Karbelnikoff)


The place is New York City.  The time is the prohibition era.  The rackets are controlled by powerful but out of touch gangsters like Arnold Rothstein (F. Murray Abraham), Joe Masseria (Anthony Quinn), and Salvatore Faranzano (Michael Gambon).  However, four young gangsters — Lucky Luciano (Christian Slater), Meyer Lansky (Patrick Dempsey), Frank Costello (Costas Mandylor), and Bugsy Siegel (Richard Greico) — have an ambitious plan.  They want to form a commission that will bring together all of the Mafia families as a national force.  To do it, they will have to push aside and eliminate the old-fashioned mob bosses and take over the rackets themselves.  When Masseria and Faranzano go to war over who will be the new Boss of all Bosses, Luciano and Lansky seen their opportunity to strike.

I love a good gangster movie, which is one reason that I have never cared much for Mobsters. Mobsters was made in the wake of the success of Young Guns and, like that film, it attempted to breathe new life into an old genre by casting teen heartthrobs in the lead roles.  There was nothing inherently wrong with that because Luciano, Lansky, and Seigel were all still young men, in their 20s and early 30s, when they took over the Mafia.  (Costello was 39 but Mobsters presents him as being the same age as they other three.)  The problem was that none of the four main actors were in the least bit convincing as 1920s mobsters.  Christian Slater was the least convincing Sicilian since Alex Cord in The Brotherhood.  As for the supporting cast, actors like Chris Penn and F. Murray Abraham did the best that they could with the material but Anthony Quinn’s performance in Mobsters was the worst of his long and distinguished career.

Fans of Twin Peaks will note that Lara Flynn Boyle had a small role in Mobsters.  She played Luciano’s girlfriend.  Unfortunately, other than looking pretty and dying tragically, she was not given much to do in this disappointing gangster film.

A Movie A Day #84: Made In U.S.A. (1987, directed by Ken Friedman)


Dar (Adrian Pasdar) and Tuck (Chris Penn) are two losers.  Dar is angry.  Tuck is a moron.  They live in a dying Pennsylvania industrial town, where they have no future.  Dar is worried that the air has been poisoned by the nearby coal mine.  He and Tuck decide to go to California so that they can look for a woman whose picture they’ve seen in a magazine.  Since Dar and Tucker have no money and no one is willing to pick up two hitchhikers who like they are on sabbatical from the Manson Family, they end up having to steal cars and hold up convenience stores.  They also pick up a mentally unstable woman named Annie (Lori Singer).  Annie may be dying because of all the pollution in the world.  Dar and Tuck take the time to transport a Native American runaway back to her reservation, where they both get scalped.  Mostly, Dar and Tuck just drive through some of the ugliest parts of America and talk about how, because of pollution, everything is all messed up.

In the 1990s, Made In U.S.A. used to show up frequently on HBO.  It’s a lousy movie, featuring one of the worst performances of Chris Penn’s career.  (Adrian Pasdar is also pretty bad but more is expected from Chris Penn than from Adrian Pasdar.)  Made in U.S.A. does provide a contrast to the relentlessly pro-American films that dominated the box office in the 1980s but it’s really only noteworthy for the soundtrack, which features songs by Sonic Youth and Timbuk3.

Whatever you do, do not mistake this Made In U.S.A. for Jean-Luc Godard’s.

Back to School #31: All The Right Moves (dir by Michael Chapman)


For the past week, we’ve been taking a look at 80 of the best, worst, most memorable, and most forgettable films ever made about being a teenager and going to high school.  We’ve been posting the reviews in chronological order and now, 30 reviews since we started this series with a film from 1946, we have reached the 1980s, a decade this is often considered to be the golden age of teen films.  For our 31st Back To School review, we take a look at 1983’s All The Right Moves.

How did you spend your Labor Day weekend?  Me, I spent it visiting with my family down at my uncle’s place.  Sunday afternoon, I was laying out by the pool and listening to my cousins Peter Paul and Paul Peter have a conversation.  (And yes, I do call both of them “Paulie.”)  They were talking about the Dallas Cowboys and I have to admit that I could not understand a word that they were saying.  It was like attending a Latin Mass, in that all I could do was hope that I was nodding at the right moment.  I can’t help it.  Football goes right over my head.  I know that the players are trying to score touchdowns and I know that whenever fall and winter come around, everyone I know is going to be complaining about the Cowboys.  But that’s it. (I also know that, what we in America call soccer, the rest of the world calls football.  But, to be honest, I really don’t care.)   Football talk might as well be a secret language.

However, I’m clearly in the minority as far as that’s concerned.  America loves football and so does Texas.  (Yes, I do consider my home state to be its own independent nation.  Take that, Vermont.)  And the American film industry has a long tradition of making movies — like All The Right Moves — about football.

In All The Right Moves, Tom Cruise plays Stefan Djordjevic.  Stefan lives in a poor town in Pennsylvania and happens to be one of the stars of the Ampipe High School football team.  And that’s a pretty good thing because this town is obsessed with football.  The proud Coach Nickerson (Craig T. Nelson) is under constant pressure to win and Nickerson responds by pushing all of his players.  However, it finally looks like his approach is going to pay for both him and Stefan.  Nickerson is being considered for a college coaching  job.  Meanwhile, Stefan has a chance to get a scholarship to play football in college.  Interestingly, Stefan’s ambition is not to play professional football.  Instead, he wants to go to a good college so he can get an engineering degree.  Stefan’s main fear is to end up like everyone else in the town, working in a steel mill and not having any way to escape from a life of poverty.

still-of-tom-cruise-and-craig-t.-nelson-in-all-the-right-moves-(1983)

All The Right Moves starts out as a standard sports film but, halfway through, it takes an unexpected turn.  Ampipe High plays a game against their main rival, Walnut Heights High School.  This is the big game.  This is the game that most sports movies end with.  This is the game that you watch knowing that Nickerson and Stefan will overcome their differences (Nickerson is stubborn, Stefan is cocky) and that they will manage to narrowly win.

Except, of course, Ampipe doesn’t win.  As the result of a last minute mistake, Ampipe loses their lead and they lose the big game.  Nickerson yells at the team in the locker room.  Stefan yells back and Nickerson kicks him off the team.  Suddenly, Stefan finds himself with no future.  And Nickerson finds himself and his family being targeted by the angry, football-crazed citizens of the town…

For a football movie, All The Right Moves is actually pretty good.  Of course, it’s not really about football.  It’s about the desperation of people who have found themselves trapped in a cycle of poverty and how something as seemingly inconsequential as the high school football team can become an entire town’s life.  It’s about how two stubborn men — Stefan and Nickerson — allow their own fear of being trapped to keep them from thinking and acting rationally.

The film is also distinguished by good performances from Tom Cruise (who, in the same year, would play a much different high school senior in Risky Business), Craig T. Nelson, and Chris Penn (who plays Stefan’s best friend on the team).  However, the film’s best performance comes from Lea Thompson, who is so good in the role of Lisa, Stefan’s girlfriend, that you can’t help but wish that the film had been more about her than him.  In probably the film’s best scene, she calls out Stefan for being selfish and points out that, regardless of what happens in Stefan’s future, she’s going to be stuck in the town that he’s so desperate to escape from.  The scene where she and Stefan make love is sensitively handled and it also features a split-second or so of Tom Cruise full front nudity.

So, there’s always that.

It’s no Risky Business or Fast Times At Ridgemont High but, as far as high school football films are concerned, All The Right Moves is not a bad one.

all_the_right_moves_ausdaybill