This Tuesday is the 20th anniversary of the theatrical release of Reservoir Dogs, the film that not only put Quentin Tarantino on the map as an era-defining filmmaker but also gave the 3rd wave ska scene its own Phenix City Story (or Guns of Navarone or Dr. No or Scarface). Never mind the movie’s immediate legacy, though, because two decades later the story of “five total strangers” who “team up for the perfect crime” has outlasted the oddly inaccurate marketing (i.e. those lines from the posters, which also feature Chris Penn in a suit), the many copycats, the ska album samplings and even the overshadowing success and popularity of Pulp Fiction as the director’s big breakthrough to remain a significant pioneer and classic of American independent cinema.
During its run in U.S. cinemas, which followed a debut at Sundance and appearances at Cannes and Toronto, not to mention earlier openings in parts of Europe, Reservoir Dogs never played on more than 61 screens, yet it earned close to $3 million. I’m certain it never hit my town in the suburbs, but I recall the first time ever hearing about it via a drawing of an ear in Entertainment Weekly illustrating a short note about the famously violent scene (my memory of this could be slightly off). And like so many of the film’s fans, I didn’t see it until the video came out the following Spring, at which time the torture bit became just one of numerous memorable moments. In fact, like our trouble with The Princess Bride a few weeks ago, it’s difficult to highlight scenes we love from Reservoir Dogs because every scene is a scene we love. Of course, it doesn’t help matters that there are only really a handful of scenes in the movie.
Not enough of a challenge, I decided to select eight scenes, one for each of the Dogs. And I think each is a scene that best represents my fondness for its corresponding character. Check out the clips (spoiler warning if you still haven’t seen the movie) after the break.
Mr. Blue: Breakfast
Some might wish to give the opening scene to Mr. Pink because of his anti-tipping spiel. Others might think of Mr. Brown’s presence at the table giving his explanation of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” But it’s also the only scene we can give to Mr. Blue (Eddie Bunker), and he genuinely deserves it with his short yet unforgettable contributions to each of the dialogues. “How many dicks is that?” and “What’s special? Take you in the back and suck your dick?” are two of my favorite lines in the whole movie. As for the scene overall, it’s an incredible way to start off, with its Altman-esque ensemble and overlapping conversations, which are seemingly irrelevant except as as introduction to the group of strangers and how they get along before the shit hits the fan. Here’s just the tip discussion part of the scene:
Mr. Brown: Opening Credits
I’m giving the iconic slow-motion walk to Mr. Brown, because he’s played by Quentin Tarantino, the writer and director of the film. And he came up with the simple stroll — whether or not it was influenced by one in A Clockwork Orange — inspiring about a trillion instances of mimicry. It’s one of the most, if not the most, famous opening credit sequences of all time.
Mr. Orange: Commode Story
First, let me note that Mr. Orange isn’t just my least favorite of the Reservoir Dogs but for the most part I really can’t stand him at all. Part of this is that he never seems to blend in enough that I buy Joe and the rest accepted him, and part of this is that I don’t think Tim Roth is very good at achieving the former point, especially since his American accent is pretty wonky (the actor apparently had a difficult time with his dialect coach, who he ended up getting to pretend kill during his and Mr. White’s carjacking scene). That said, I’ve always loved the flashback in which Orange is telling his bullshit bathroom story. It’s great the way Tarantino has the story acted out, the way he has Roth fantastically reciting some of the story within the acted out sequence, and the way he gives the cops their own story to tell within Orange’s story. One of my other favorite lines to quote from the film: “Buddy, I’m going to shoot you in the face…”
Mr. White: Professionals
White (Harvey Keitel) is a tough man to represent with one scene. There’s the bit in the car with Orange when they’re going over the heist plan. There’s his getaway sequences, again with Orange, particularly his soothing of his bloody pal. And there’s his last scene, once again with Orange, when he finds out the truth. But he also has some memorable exchanges with Mr. Pink, most notably the first deadlock draw of the film, with him standing over and dominating his grounded rival. It’s a striking enough image to have garnered its own posters and to also make the VHS cover.
Mr. Blonde: “Stuck in the Middle with You”
It’s difficult and just kind of wrong to favor the scene of Mr. Blonde torturing police officer Marvin Nash while dancing around to Stealers Wheel. Reportedly it was even hard for Michael Madsen to get through the second part, when he’s about to light his prisoner on fire, because the actor playing Nash (Kirk Baltz), ad libbed the pleading line about having a kid. By today’s standards, the scene seems not tame but at least normal, even with the ear-cutting, but 20 years ago the violence was a big deal (especially in the UK, which wouldn’t release the movie to home video). Nevertheless it is still pretty sick, and tonally more realistic than a lot of the violence we’d come to see from Tarantino with subsequent works. I don’t know if I love it so much as love to be disturbed by its impression — you know you can’t even hear “Stuck in the Middle with You” without picturing it. But to not include it as Blonde’s signature scene would be a big mistake.
Joe: Name Assignments
In what must be the first meeting of all the Dogs working on this heist, big boss man Joe lays out the plans and hands out colorful aliases for each of the participants, leading to some complaints from Pink and Brown due to the connotations of these names. Screen legend Lawrence Tierney seems ancient yet still potentially capable of kicking all these guys’ asses at the same time. It’s Joe’s way or the highway, and for the character it’s this scene or nothing.
Nice Guy Eddie: Mexican Standoff
Chris Penn is mostly memorable for two things in Reservoir Dogs, his bright tracksuit jacket, which really stands out next to the other guys’ trademark black suits, and his shouting of the line, “Stop pointin’ that f**kin’ gun at my dad!” You can find both in the momentous Mexican standoff between Nice Guy Eddie, Joe and Mr. White — plus Mr. Orange, if you count Joe’s initial target, who isn’t quite a part of the three-way draw. The beginning of this scene is great for Joe’s line about Mr. Blue being “dead as Dillinger,” a nice reference to Tierney starring in the 1945 film Dillinger. Also, there was a time, before DVDs came along and made it easier to confirm, when we all would speculate about who shot Eddie, since he was the end of the standoff chain (Joe shoots Orange; White shoots Joe; Eddie shoots White; someone shoots Eddie). Debates about it being Orange or Pink were popular when I was in film school in the mid-’90s. But it turns out White got two shots in, offing both father and son.
Mr. Pink: The End/Escape
Another part of the movie that was fun for fans to speculate about and debate before DVDs, published scripts and the like straightened it out was the ending. As far as we knew back then, Pink got away, either easily or by shooting his way through the cops as he did following the heist. Now you can better hear him surrendering off screen in the final minutes, having tried to escape in a car and getting shot in the process before being cuffed and taken away. In a way, our imagined aftermath unseen scene doesn’t really count, but I’ll always remember the discussions from back then and love that time when it was harder to find out certain answers to film questions like this. Of course, we can still imagine Pink getting away later on or escaping from prison or eventually getting out and returning to a life of crime. Yes, there is still room for Steve Buscemi to return in Reservoir Dogs 2! Anyway, instead of watching the last scene, in which you can’t see the character on screen, let’s watch the flashback to his run from the jewelry store as proof that he’s good at eluding the police.