Exile On Main Street

A member of a gang called the Reservoir Dogs -- known only by his alias, "Mr. Blonde" -- has just driven from a botched jewelry store heist with a patrolman stuffed in the trunk of his car. Although Mr. Blonde (Micheal Madsen), like his cohorts, suspects that one of their gang is an undercover lawman who tipped off the police, he warns the cop -- and by extension, the audience -- that he's not really torturing him because he wants information. He's doing it because he loves torturing cops. Period.

He tunes the radio to an oldies station, whips out a straight razor and, gyrating lewdly to "Stuck in the Middle with You," uses the cop's face as a strop -- and that's just for starters. The scene, like most of Reservoir Dogs, exists solely to pump your adrenaline and test your capacity for shock -- to make you feel giddy, then guilty, then giddy again.

Unlike Ice-T, first-time director Quentin Tarantino doesn't use the posturings of low art to make a sociological point. He uses them to get a hard-on by playing cops and robbers (he casts himself in a small role as one of the Dogs), and to pay tribute to his formative influences: Sixties revisionist westerns, crime pictures, TV cop shows, mediocre rock and roll and, of course, comic books (one character compares the Dogs' hulking, bald boss to The Thing from Marvel Comics' Fantastic Four).

His much-heralded "style" is really clever imitation -- he takes chunks of Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, William Friedkin, Sergio Leone, and Samuel Fuller and blends them into fresh pulp. If this film were less cocky and self-aware, it wouldn't be so controversial; the reason so many people are so upset about it is because it's an art flick aimed at upscale audiences, rife with hilariously phony existential posing -- a film for fans of both Sartre and Schwarzenegger.

The plot unfolds non-chronologically. Tarantino shows the Dogs meeting in a diner before the heist, then rolls his opening credits over the gang's mythologizing, slo-mo walk to their vehicles. Then he dives straight into the heist's messy aftermath, intercutting flashbacks to the heist itself and all the work that went into planning it.

An L.A. crime boss (growly-voiced veteran Lawrence Tierney) and his spoiled son, Eddie (Chris Penn) hire seven hoods, assign them color-coded pseudonyms (Mr. Blonde, Mr. White, Mr. Orange, and so forth), and warn them not to reveal personal information to one another. They issue them identical black suits, dark shades, and skinny ties -- partly to make it harder for witnesses to ID them, and partly to echo the costumes from Fifties pulp thrillers.

Most of the picture occurs in a warehouse, where assorted Dogs hide from the cops, mutter colorful variations on the f-word, heft pistols around, mutter brazenly non-PC wisecracks about "bitches" and "niggers," and accuse one another of being rats. In other words, Reservoir Dogs isn't a story, but a tribute to the classics of macho American cinema -- a chance for a bunch of well-off actors to dude up in cool Fifties suits and play Badass White Guys.

Unlike the work of Phil Joanou (State of Grace, Final Analysis), another young director who makes a living pasting together pieces of his favorite films, Tarantino's direction is never pompous; it's shot with a giddy, thuggish sense of humor that invites you to give in and cheer the Dogs' bad-boy mayhem. Tarantino's jokey detachment reminds us that as repugnant as things get, it's only a movie.

But there's something cheap and easy about this approach; a level of commitment is missing. Since everything about Reservoir Dogs is consciously heightened and artificial, the picture feels weightless -- a perverse, postmodern collage of other, better movies. As Mr. White, the Dogs' moral conscience and most experienced killer, and Mr. Orange, a green member of the gang, Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth give real, three-dimensional performances, and come off as the only cast members who aren't in on the joke. Their characters' concern for loyalty, honesty, and compassion is weirdly touching; it hints at how much more complex the film could have been.

If Tarantino had anchored his tale a bit more firmly in reality, his shocking sense of humor might have made us not just squirm, but think -- about movie violence, real violence, and how we perceive both of them. Instead, all the howling and cursing and shooting reminds us that we're watching a comic book directed by a gifted, nihilistic showoff. Like his wide-screen photography, his Scorsesean, bubblegum-jukebox soundtrack, and his fondness for slow-motion, Tarantino's cavalier attitude toward brutality is a look-at-me gimmick -- the cinematic equivalent of a kid pulling the legs off spiders. As art, Reservoir Dogs is an empty-headed sham. But as slick, derivative trash, it's stunning -- the most brilliant waste of talent I've seen all year.

RESERVOIR DOGS
directed by Quentin Tarantino; with Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Lawrence Tierney, Steve Buscemi, Tim Roth, Chris Penn.

Rated

 
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