We often look at the debut films of important filmmakers as some sort of urtext for the career they would have. There's a part of us that wants to look at these films and see all the hallmarks of the films they would make, and in the cases where the debut film wasn't a critical or commercial success, pat ourselves on the back for seeing what audiences and critics of the past couldn't. The truth is, almost none of these directors arrive fully formed. Spielberg, Scorsese, Fincher, Scott, even Kubrick, all took time to find their feet. Debuts like 'Lady Bird' or 'The Witch' are rare. A debut that not only assures the filmmaker's career and shifts the social and artistic consciousness is even rarer. Quentin Tarantino's barnstorming 1992 debut 'Reservoir Dogs' is just such a film.
I'm not going to add to the noise of people who have waxed lyrical about the film's aesthetic and technical attributes, both because they've been spoken about to death and because, for me, these are the least interesting aspects of this remarkable film. With Tarantino's career as a filmmaker drawing to a close with his upcoming tenth film, what fasciated me more revisiting this film now was what it says about the kind of storyteller Tarantino has become. Rather than the story drowning in the film's aesthetics (as would be the case with his weakest films), the magic of 'Reservoir Dogs' is how carefully its groundbreaking aesthetic choices support the storytelling, foreshadowing Tarantino at his best.
With the skill of a great novel, the film constructs an enthralling series of character studies strung together by a central conflict, the suspicion that one of this team of jewel thieves isn't who they say they are. Part of the genius of Tarantino's screenplay is that, as the story unfolds, we realise that we often don't know much more about these characters than the characters know about each other. What is still so startling about this as a debut film is how supremely confident the film is with its storytelling, knowing exactly when to deliver us the necessary information without releasing any of the pressure it has so carefully built. We're so used to praising Tarantino for his skill with dialogue, but often (as would be the case with his next film 'Pulp Fiction'), you can't help feeling that the film is just enjoying the sound of its own voice. Not a syllable is wasted in 'Reservoir Dogs'. Everything is in service of character and narrative, the film revelling in the restrictions of its closed time-and-space framing device.
There's a real sorcery to the way the film tricks us into falling in love with these men, even the psychotic Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen) right until the moment he slices the cop's ear off. Many of these men adhere to one of the strongest archetypes in Tarantino's filmography: characters caught in unfortunate circumstances yet underpinned by a strong sense of integrity. Mr White (Harvey Keitel) is the moral centre of the film, facing an unending series of conundrums but refusing to lose his humanity in the process. This is the key to the film's success, that woven into the suits and the needle drops and the bursts of extreme violence is a powerful emotional core. It's even in how that violence is utilised in the film. The infamous torture scene might be impressive in its use of contrast (screaming and blood against 70s pop hits), but its power is in the way it escalates the stakes for the characters. Mr Blonde takes them further from their humanity, and the consequences won't just impact their freedom but their very souls. The film buff in you might be dazzled by the audacity, but the audience member in you can't help but be horrified.
If there are any surprises in what 'Reservoir Dogs' tells us about the filmmaker Tarantino would become, it's that his understanding of cinematic language really did arrive fully formed. It's often easy to get caught up in debating his aesthetics and his tropes, so idiosyncratic that they've become a language of their own, but revisiting 'Reservoir Dogs' reminded me what it is that I love about Tarantino as a filmmaker. His best films underpin their bravura and bombast with a beating heart. When he commits to honouring that beating heart (as is the case with this film, with 'Jackie Brown', with 'Kill Bill', 'Inglorious Basterds' and 'Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood'), he becomes infinitely more precise and infinitely more daring. He is at the height of his powers when his film knowledge and proficiency serves a story he wants to tell, a question he wants to ask, rather than the whole affair being dictated by whatever pastiche he is playing with. Of his nine films to date, 'Reservoir Dogs' is still one of his most powerful. It feels immediate and vital, a young filmmaker knowing exactly the story they want to tell with the knowledge of exactly how to tell it. There's no indulgence, no swagger, no arrogance; just supreme confidence and startling specificity, a symphony of moral ambiguity and splintering integrity. In that sense, 'Reservoir Dogs' is the urtext for understanding Quentin Tarantino, but more so for understanding, once the noise of pontificating films bros fades away, exactly what it is about his films that continues to enthral us.
There's no indulgence, no swagger, no arrogance; just supreme confidence and startling specificity, a symphony of moral ambiguity and splintering integrity.
PICTURE & SOUND
For the film's 30th anniversary, Lionsgate scanned the original negative at 4K resolution. This release from Via Vision repurposes the 2022 Lionsgate release of that scan and restoration right down to the disc menu. The 2160p 2.35:1 transfer offered on the 4K disc (with Dolby Vision and HDR10) is gorgeous, easily the best I've ever seen the film. The colours are rich and fine detail across the board is dazzling, the transfer really showing off what a visually rich film it is. What really popped for me was the way it showcases cinematographer Andrzej Sekula's astonishing use of light, and how even with the roaming camera, its consistency is maintained. The 1080p 2.35:1 transfer on the accompanying Blu-ray disc is also sourced from the same 4K restoration, and while it obviously isn't as strong as the 2160p transfer, still has many of the same positive attributes as the 4K disc.
In terms of audio, the 4K disc offers a dynamic Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track that beautifully balances the film's careful sound design, the iconic needle drops and Tarantino's precise dialogue. In particular, the way the track handles the shifting environments (such as the shot of Mr Blonde getting the oil can from his car) was particularly impressive considering the film's independent roots. The same audio track is also used on the Blu-ray disc.
Unfortunately the limited selection of special features, all featured on the Blu-ray disc, prevent this set from being definitive, though this is likely due to what material was made available by Lionsgate for Via Vision to include on the set. The highlight is the selection of unrestored deleted scenes (12:43), resplendent with film grain and scratches. None of the scenes are vital, but its still fascinating to see what they reveal about Tarantino's process, especially without any making-of documentaries. 'Playing Fast and Loose' (15:43) is a retrospective look at the film featuring film critics and filmmakers (you'll get a horrid jump scare when Harry Knowles appears on screen). There's also a featurette called 'Profiling the Reservoir Dogs' (7:06), which does exactly what it says in the title, presenting a series of character profiles of the key characters. To be honest, both these featurettes are a bit interminable, the retrospective in particular regurgitating the same tired praise for the film's soundtrack, cool look and groundbreaking aesthetics. This limited edition release comes in a handsome hard case box with a lenticular cover and film still on the back, similar to Via Vision's release of 'Wolf Creek'. As is the case with that release, there's also an envelope of printed film stills included.
There have been numerous home video releases of the film as it was passed around between distributors over the years, generating a healthy library of extra material on the film. It's a pity neither Lionsgate nor Via Vision was given access to this, particularly after the latter's excellent releases of 'Dirty Dancing' and 'Wolf Creek'. That said, this partnership with Lionsgate has added some impressive releases to Via Vision's catalogue, and with Lionsgate having recently acquired the rights to 'Jackie Brown' and both volumes of 'Kill Bill', we might hopefully see these important films arrive on 4K UHD in Australia through Via Vision.