Reservoir Dogs: 30 years of the film that shook up American cinema

Thirty years ago, the premiere of Reservoir Dogs announced the arrival of Quentin Tarantino and set the tone for American movies for the rest of the decade. Were we right to get so excited?

Updated: 21 January 2022

By Leigh Singer

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Mr Blonde: ‘Are you gonna bark all day, little doggie? Or are you gonna bite?’

If not the most iconic line from a film stuffed with quotable dialogue, this is possibly the one that encapsulates writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s impact with his debut feature Reservoir Dogs, which first screened at Sundance Film Festival 30 years ago. The talkative auteur has the (self-)promotional bark – splicing old-fashioned showman with enthusiastic fanboy – and his subsequent career shows sizeable teeth marks on more than just 1990s independent cinema: for a long time Reservoir Dogs, and its follow-up, the Palme d’Or and Oscar-winning Pulp Fiction (1994), were the tails that wagged the entire film industry and even pop culture at large.

No individual director since Alfred Hitchcock or Steven Spielberg became so instantly recognisable. No style of filmmaking – bloody, talky crime thrillers that riffed on and remixed Jean-Luc Godard and Pam Grier, cheesy pop hits and cheeseburger references – was so influential, and, ironically, considering Tarantino’s blatant homages to his heroes, seen as so original.

So, given the now-iconic nature of Kill Bill’s samurai sword-wielding Bride, Inglourious Basterds’ urbane Nazi Hans Landa or pistol-packing former slave Django, how much of a blueprint to Tarantino’s wildly successful career do his original Dogs crew offer? And how do they measure up to his legacy a quarter-century on?

Quentin Tarantino and crew during production of Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Mr Blonde: ‘I bet you’re a big Lee Marvin fan, aren’t ya?’

Tarantino’s fairytale big break – video-store movie geek turned 29-year-old film phenomenon – no doubt helped fuel his legend from the outset. Fortuitously attaching star Harvey Keitel to Reservoir Dogs early on gave him legitimacy, while a Sundance Lab workshop stint gave him profile. But it was Tarantino’s own dynamic, unpredictable screenplay that had renowned actors fighting to get cast in a low-budget thriller from a young, unknown novice. 

Tarantino is steeped in genre – thrillers, war movies, westerns – and wears his influences proudly, exalting supposedly disreputable B-movies (everything from blaxploitation to Hong Kong action flicks), alongside revered classics from Howard Hawks and the French New Wave, to his own personal pantheon.

One look at Reservoir Dogs and hardcore movie lovers can immediately identify certain forbearers: low-rent thieves turning on each other from Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956); the anonymously colour-coded crooks (Mr White, Mr Orange, Mr Pink, etc) echo those – Blue, Grey, Brown – from The Taking of Pelham 123 (1973); the undercover cop gang infiltrator and climactic multi-gun Mexican standoff nods to Ringo Lam’s City on Fire (1987). To name but a few.

Joe Cabot: ‘So, you guys like to tell jokes, huh? Gigglin’ and laughin’ like a bunch of young broads sittin’ in a schoolyard.’

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

What makes Tarantino stand out, though, and is evident from Reservoir Dogs’ very first scene, is his own linguistic colouring outside genre template lines. Language is the fuel that keeps Tarantino’s films running. Even in a brisk 99-minute running time, his characters are shown, outside of their de facto jobs and narrative roles, conversing: discussing not the intricacies of their plans, or possible getaway routes, but detailed, passionate takes on Madonna lyrics and the vagaries of tipping waitresses.

What seems naturalistic is actually highly stylised – poetic even. These profane, highly politically incorrect digressions – for many, Tarantino’s greatest offence isn’t on-screen bloodletting, it’s his repeated homophobic and racist slurs, notably the ‘n-word’ – are often very, very funny. Take away the slow-burn tension and flashes of brutality and one could see Reservoir Dogs and other Tarantino films as adult-oriented comedies.

Mr Pink: ‘Somebody’s stickin’ a red hot poker up our asses and I wanna know who’s name’s on the handle.’

It’s not simply Tarantino’s verbal flair that seemed so fresh when Reservoir Dogs emerged. His plot twists and structural turns went against the grain of so many generic crime stories. Exhibit A: a heist film in which, unlike The Killing, City on Fire or 99% of all heist movies, the actual heist is never shown.

Even more impressive are the shifting time-frames; not simply flashbacks per se – though those do appear too – so much as discreet, novelistic chapters parallel to the central storyline, which fill in character background. It’s a technique Tarantino has continued to employ, one which constantly puts himself and the audience in a more God-like position than the characters. This ramps up the tension when we suspect, or even know, something is about to go wrong but they don’t. It’s not just that we find out before the rest of the gang that the gut-shot Mr Orange is the traitor; when he tries to convince the others that the now-dead Mr Blonde was the rat, we’ve already seen Blonde’s loyalty to Joe Cabot’s crew – and thus Orange’s story is doomed from the start.

Freddy Newandyke/Mr Orange: ‘I gotta memorise all this? There’s over four fucking pages of this shit!’

The whole section of Mr Orange’s undercover assignment, his learning a cover anecdote to convince the gang he’s trustworthy, is arguably Tarantino’s boldest gambit. We’re never shown the heist but we see extensively– and even enter – the rehearsing and telling of a fake story. Whereas movies playing with timelines, though generally considered more avant-garde (see arthouse classics like Rashomon (1950) or Last Year at Marienbad (1961)), are nothing new, this was something much rarer and more inventive.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Mr White: ‘If I have to tell you again to back off, you an’ me are gonna go round and round.’

There’s a genuine point to this. Language isn’t just Tarantino’s fuel, it’s often, as much as guns, a weapon. In Pulp Fiction, Jules Winnfield’s mantra before a hit job is: “Let’s get into character.”  Beyond its surface flash, Reservoir Dogs is a potent examination of masculine performance. These characters aren’t just given names for their heist, they’re constantly role-playing to each other. One can view them as volatile, insecure man-children, trying to maintain bravado and a veneer of detached professionalism under pressure. When their better (Mr White defending Mr Orange) or baser (Mr Blonde’s torture of the captured cop) instincts kick in, the urge to become top (reservoir) dog spills over and all hell breaks loose.

Mr Blonde: ‘It’s amusing, to me, to torture a cop.’

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Which brings us onto violence. Reservoir Dogs gained instant notoriety for its severed-ear torture scene. Though the camera pans away at the actual slicing, the build-up of terrorising and pleading, not to mention scoring it to Stealers Wheel’s upbeat pop ditty ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ (and Mr Blonde’s happy dance) made it too harrowing for some. Without rehashing the whole violence-in-movies debate, for better or worse, Tarantino clearly views it as just another way of, in his own words, “fucking with the audience”. 

Jarring tonal shifts – from laughter to horror – are his bread and butter. For him, on-screen carnage is the self-same thing as using a dance number in a musical: splashes of colour, sound, movement – pure cinema, divorced from any real-life ramifications. It’s amoral rather than immoral, and so conveniently skirts around notions of morality, preferring to answer the question of whether you get enough bang for your buck with a “Hell, yeah!”

Mr Blonde: ‘You ever listen to ‘K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the 70s Weekend?’

In keeping with its remix aesthetic, Reservoir Dogs had no original music score. Instead its soundtrack is wall-to-wall pop music; often songs thought obscure or trashy. But, by incorporating nostalgic radio show K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the 70s (voiced by wonderfully nasal deadpan comedian Steven Wright) into the on-screen world, Tarantino was able to reclaim several near-forgotten songs – ‘Little Green Bag’, Harry Nilsson’s ‘Coconut’ and of course ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ – and make them his own.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

The CD soundtrack became a big hit, not least due to Tarantino incorporating dialogue excerpts alongside the songs. Again, this wasn’t a first – 1960s classics The Great Escape (1963) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967) did the same trick – but it revamped the movie soundtrack market, and many other films, including his own, jumped on the bandwagon.

Joe Cabot: ‘Let’s go to work.’

Reservoir Dogs premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, US independent cinema’s Mecca, on 21 January 1992 and became an immediate word-of-mouth sensation. Tarantino somewhat smugly referred to subverting what he called “either the Sundance ‘how-do-we-save-the-farm?’, y’know, regional movie, or the Sundance gay film” with his dazzling genre revisionism. In fact, the Coen brothers’ neo-noir Blood Simple had won Sundance’s grand prize in 1985, and Tarantino left the festival empty-handed (raw disability drama The Waterdance won both audience and screenwriting awards that year). Yet it’s undeniable that Reservoir Dogs, despite never becoming a huge commercial hit (it earned more on UK screens than in its entire US theatrical run), was the lightning rod that electrified American cinema.

In its wake, and alongside Pulp Fiction – the film that really reset the bar for indie expectations, grossing more than $200m on an $8.5m budget – a raft of hip crime films sprang up, touting some combination of pop culture-infused dialogue, retro soundtracks, shifting timeframes, blends of comedy and violence, or all of the above. Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead (1995), 2 Days in the Valley (1996), 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag (1997), Go (1999), and, in Britain, The 51st State (2001) and all early Guy Ritchie and Matthew Vaughn output… Some of these have their own style and verve; some most definitely do not. But all owe a huge debt, probably their very existence, to Tarantino’s trailblazing.

Mr Pink: ‘Was that a fucking setup, or what?’

Jackie Brown (1997)

In retrospect, then, it’s fascinating to see just how many of Tarantino’s signature predilections are already present in his first film. Though he’s branched out to include major female leads, and more epic settings and stories, his seemingly endless fascination with visceral, verbose pulp fictions and cinema itself all started here.

Not that all these developments have necessarily been improvements. Reservoir Dogs’ brevity avoids the bloated running times of several later films, which arguably would’ve benefited from more rigorous editing. And the cold, clever shallowness – prioritising the “Gotcha!” need to shock above all else – that, for me, characterises much of Tarantino’s work, is an advantage here. It works brilliantly when dissecting the emotionally stunted macho bluster of Joe Cabot’s crew, but dramatically less so elsewhere, the hateful Hateful Eight (2015) being the worst offender.

Out of Sight (1998)

It’s why I’d still argue that Tarantino’s most mature and heartfelt characters come in his Pam Grier valentine, Jackie Brown (1997), the one (very fine) adaptation of someone else’s story, Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch. And why the greatest of all the post-Tarantino crime thrillers, the one that best blends true heart with real art, is another Leonard adaptation: Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998).

None of which detracts from Tarantino’s undeniable talent as a film stylist, a caster and director of actors, and a distinctive writer. Reservoir Dogs remains not just one of his very best films, but one of the most influential pictures in recent cinema history. Its contained warehouse setting and theatrical dialogue have meant it’s even been regularly adapted for stage by passionate students (including once by future Inglourious Basterds star, a teenage Michael Fassbender).

You can’t manufacture this kind of grassroots enthusiasm, and if Tarantino’s own passion for cinema rubs off on his numerous admirers, in part his work is done. Though, for a filmmaker vocally preoccupied with his legacy, it’s also surely gratifying to know that, 30 years on, his feature debut has lost neither bark nor bite.

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Originally published: 20 January 2017