Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture Copyright © 1993 Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture
All rights reserved.
ISSN 1070-8286


Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 1(3) (1993) 20-22


Reservoir Dogs

Director and Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Lawrence Tierney, Chris Penn
Released: Live Home Video (1993) VHS, 100 min.
Rating: R

Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs opens with a scene reminiscent of the movie Diner. A half dozen men in suits spew expletives in a post-breakfast bullshit session. The oldest cast member, Teirney (Joe), who has assembled this group of strangers to rob a diamond importer and accordingly named them colors to insure their anonymity, agrees to pick up the tab, provided the rest of the guys pay the tip. Buscemi (Mr.Pink) launches into a long speech about why he doesn't tip, "as a matter of course." This comical scene gives the viewer no indication of the violence to follow. The opening titles then cross the screen, and we are immediately thrown into a stolen car with Keitel (Mr. White) at the wheel and Roth (Mr.Orange), an undercover cop, in the back seat bleeding profusely from a gun shot to the abdomen. Using a non-linear technique common to documentaries, Tarantino cuts to each character, follows his history up to the present, and so doing provides the audience with a snippet of the botched robbery which is the dynamic that ties all the scenes of the present together.

This is a powerful, brutal movie--as brutal to the viewers as it is to the characters. The scenes of the present are incredibly vicious, including a horrible mutilation by Mr. Blonde of a police officer/hostage in which Tarantino employs a Hitchcockian technique of panning away from the action to create an aura of cruelty and terror. The violence of this scene is particularly disturbing in that it is "insane" or "purposeless" violence. Mr. Blonde explains to the pleading cop that he doesn't care what he knows of the set up, he is going to torture him for fun.[End page 20]

Against this dreadful mess of violence this film is about relationships and allegiance. The title Reservoir Dogs connotes wild animals with no allegiance to anyone or anything. Like stray dogs or alley cats, the thieves of this film 'hunt' (rob) togetther in order to increase the 'kill' (diamonds). In fact, Joe, the ring leader, describes the anticipated booty from this hunt as "tasty, very tasty." So it seems that the Dogs of this film, though not linked personally, are linked by their actions (profession).

Along with this air of professionalism come some inconsistencies. The Dogs talk of 'luck' and 'bad luck' and 'having a hunch' and not 'feeling good' about a situation--feelings consistent with subcultural research on the fatalistic notions of the lower classes. Feelings that, arguably, are not as prevalent in upper classes or lawful professional business settings. To illustrate this nonprofessionalism, Tarantino flashes back to a pre-heist scene in which Joe's son, Penn (Eddie) and Mr. Blonde wrestle, name call, and otherwise act like playground children exhibiting the 'machismo' of a subculture.

The scenes in the present, when not full of violence, are filmed as if they were stage dramas. Set inside a stark, abandoned warehouse, the superb acting and intense dialogue is not masked by million dollar scenes and special effects. We learn that these violent, criminal men are ordinary. The unnerving message is that these are not criminal stereotypes. They are simple guys who interact in common, understandable ways. This point is made humorously clear by references to the "sounds of the 70's" that offer a musical backdrop to all interactions.

But, the lesson runs deeper. Mr. Orange, the undercover Dog, has spent many months training to act and think like a criminal. He gives his fellow boys in blue the robbery tip which results in extensive gunfire. Many civilians are killed or wounded. But without realizing it, Mr. Orange is sucked into the lives of the Dogs to the extent that he seems to forget who he is--and so he plays the role too well, even shooting an innocent woman after commandeering her car in the escape. The[End page 21] disconcerting question is, at what point did he become a criminal and stop being a cop? Or was there no real change? He pays dearly for his "crime" of duplicity by spending the entire movie with a bullet in his stomach.

Students of violence will find this movie irresistible. It manages to blend horrible violence into the drama of dialogue which makes the violence paradoxically far more fascinating yet also revolting. Violence intrudes into everything, even positive, friendship-like relationships. The final scene, perhaps, is the most "touching" when the undercover cop is "lovingly" dispatched as his head is cradled in the dying thug's arms. And for students of criminal justice, there is a lot here about police intervention. The "traitor"--Mr. Orange--seems to have upset the flow of life of these criminals. One suspects that if left alone to their criminal enterprises, the Dogs would use occasional, instrumental violence. But police intervention broke the trust among the Dogs, and it was this as much as anything, that led to the uncontrolled violence that consumed them all.

Thoroughly recommended for classes on violence, policing, and theories of criminality.

Rating: 4 gavels

Graeme Newman and Adam C. Bouloukos
State University of New York at Albany
School of Criminal Justice[End page 22]