Reservoir Dogs (1992) *****
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Pulp Fiction (1994) *****
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Modern filmmaking is divided into two eras—pre-Pulp Fiction and post-Pulp Fiction. Tarantino’s work of pure genius sits in the pantheon alongside films that have similarly transformed cinema as we know it. Others would include A Trip to the Moon, The Birth of a Nation, The Jazz Singer, Citizen Kane, On the Waterfront, Bonnie and
Yet, I enjoyed Tarantino’s earlier classic, Reservoir Dogs, better than Pulp Fiction. Yes, I think the later is a much better film, but I had much more fun with the earlier. Even though Reservoir Dogs was a box office dud, it clearly was interesting enough for Tarantino to acquire the green light to make another film right after its release. Therefore, there would probably be no Pulp Fiction if it wasn’t for Reservoir Dogs. As such, when seen together, they are both important films. By the way, they’re both unbelievably awesome to watch too!
There are so many things going for Reservoir Dogs. First of all, it’s clearly a film that had a modest budget. Almost every scene takes place inside of a warehouse. The only exceptions, other than the opening car ride to the warehouse, involve flashbacks describing how each character became a part of this heist gone very wrong. There’s a charm and likeability that stems from Tarantino’s humble scope.
Seven lowlife thugs who do not all know each other come together to pull off a simple jewelry heist. They each don false names including Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr. Blue (Eddie Bunker), Mr. Brown (Tarantino) and Nice Guy Eddie Cabot (Chris Penn). After a conversation at a diner about how filthy Madonna’s song “Like a Virgin” really is, the film cuts to a speeding car containing Mr. White and a bleeding Mr. Orange who has been shot. Instead of going to the hospital, they decide to first travel to the warehouse which is the designated meeting spot.
As the film unfolds, we learn more details about the disastrous heist which eventually led to the killing of a cop as well as two of the perpetrators. It’s also revealed that there’s a possible mole within the group, though his identity remains a mystery to the surviving thugs. It’s Mr. Orange, an undercover cop, who is put in an unimaginably difficult predicament when unstable Mr. Blonde tortures a cop he has kidnapped. This leads to the film’s iconic scene involving the removal of the cop’s ear while the song “Stuck in the Middle with You” plays in the background.
Of course, knowing that an ear was going to be cut off, I was nervous up until it happened. Tarantino certainly revels in graphic violence and gore, but from his three films I’ve seen so far, it’s clear that he doesn’t want to gross us out as much as he wants to exhilarate. The camera pans away at the very last second so that we don’t see the act itself. The aftermath is certainly disgusting and disturbing, but there’s still a refreshing sense of mercy exhibited when we don’t see the worst of the torture. Nonetheless, this sequences really gets the adrenaline pumping, that’s for sure! Interestingly enough, I’m not sure I would have minded all that much had the camera stayed on the mutilation. I’ve seen an ear cut off in a film before—Bertolucci’s deranged film 1900—and that film showed it all. Perhaps Tarantino’s goal was to entertain above all else, and perhaps he judged that audiences might not enjoy such merciless filmmaking.
Pulp Fiction follows two hitmen, Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), as they kill and converse in between. There’s quite a bit that goes on in this film’s plot including a couple that attempts to rob a diner, a disastrous date between Vincent and Mia (Uma Thurman) who is the young wife of mob boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), an amateur boxer named Butch (Bruce Willis) and his sweet girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros) who are being hunted by Marsellus’ men, a hit on some college students which offers Jules a spiritual awakening, an encounter in the back of a store involving some graphic sexual sadism and an accidental killing which results in a huge mess inside of the car that Jules and Jim drive. The entire narrative jumps around in time, providing a layered organizational structure which adds to the film’s richness.
It’s hard to get a sense of either film by reading their plots. The same is true if someone were to describe them out loud to someone. What makes both films what they are is the style that Tarantino has trademarked. Both films are grainy with washed out colors similar to many of the exploitation films of the 1970’s. Tarantino clearly lives and breathes this genre, which is great considering that he perfected it with these two movies. Both are graphically violent, and no one in the history of film knows how to entertain using bloodshed and gore as successfully as Tarantino.
Of course, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction introduced Tarantino’s masterful stylized dialogue. Tarantino revels in the absurdity of surface conversations about meaningless topics, and he uses them to contrast the ultra-extreme situations and images that his films showcase. Plus, he’s a pop culture junkie, and as such, he has his characters make countless references to music, television and especially movies with such complete and utter joy that can only come from a true geek. Finally, no one uses music in such a wonderfully ironic way.
The only little qualm I have with Pulp Fiction is that it’s just a little bit too long with a running time around two and a half hours. Reservoir Dogs is less than ninety minutes, which is precisely the reason I enjoyed it more. Pulp Fiction is a work of true art that demands one’s attention for quite a long time. It certainly earns my time because it’s infinitely fascinating and compulsively rewatchable. Reservoir Dogs is simply trashy exploitative entertainment, and that’s all it’s trying to be. As such, it succeeds one hundred percent.
While Reservoir Dogs’ style is much more fascinating than its substance, Pulp Fiction’s substance at least matches its style. Again, Pulp Fiction is a film that ought to be watched over and over again in order to fully appreciate it. Upon first viewing, the viewer has the real potential to walk away overloaded from the results of so much pure filmmaking.
And Quentin Tarantino is the truest filmmaker working today. Not once does he come across as if he’s yearning for fame or fortune. More than anything, he’s a disciple of cinema who simply desires to fulfill his calling to impart his vision on the film world.
(Label notes: Pulp Fiction was a Best Picture Oscar Nominee, one of Roger Ebert's Great Films and on EW's List of the 100 Greatest Films of the Last 25 Years)