I don’t like crime films. Seriously, I can’t even make it past the first 30 minutes of The Godfather. Scarface, Goodfellas, The Departed? Fuhgeddaboudit. Any film which features tough gangstery guys doing tough gangstery things and saying tough gangstery stuff, I’m just not interested.
Reservoir Dogs is, of course, a crime film.
So, as the only representative of that particular genre on this list (considering it separate to the detective side of it which, as we all know, I love deeply), let’s ask: Why? I think it’s list-within-a-list-time.
A) It’s how you tell ’em
After all, looking at it Reservoir Dogs has a pretty grim plotline (spoilers follow, obviously). A gang of (tough, gangstery) guys are brought together for a heist. It goes violently wrong, leading to the deaths of a number of them, a much higher number of policemen and a whole lot of innocent bystanders. The remainder of the film plays out as one of them coughs out, in bloody chunks, his last few hours. The survivors argue over who ratted them out to the police, point guns at one another, torture (famously) a policeman, and eventually all get shot by each other.
Even with the playful Tarantino dialogue, it would have been the easiest thing in the world to play it grim ‘n’ gritty. There’s a lot of shooting, blood, and hacked-off ears. But Reservoir Dogs is a film that understands that sustaining threat and keeping an emotional centre doesn’t mean staying stony-faced for two hours. It’s a genre piece, a knockabout caper not afraid to crack a smile; what Graham Greene would class as an ‘Entertainment’. A long section of the film is given over to telling a long, jokey anecdote; another (again, famously) to a discussion of Madonna’s Like A Virgin and the etiquette of tipping, rather than lingering on the ever-growing despair and pile of corpses.
B) It’s not really about crime
Mostly, Reservoir Dogs is a story about relationships: Mr White and Mr Orange, Mr Blonde and the Cabot family. We’re introduced to all the major players in the diner scene, leading into the title sequence. From there, the film immediately jumps to a painfully intimate scene between Orange and White. Orange is bleeding out in the back of a car, whimpering and inevitably going to die, and White is trying to comfort him. It closes on an even more painful mirror of the scene, with Orange now in White’s lap, both covered in their own blood.
The whole central action of the film is driven by the push-and-pull between the two cliques. Yes, cliques. You could strip out all the genre tropes of Reservoir Dogs and play it is as something not far removed from Mean Girls. And Mr White is Lindsay Lohan, torn between two social groups – an old friendship with Joe Cabot, the crime boss planning the heist, and a paternal/ever-so-slightly-homoerotic relationship with the young Mr Orange. It’s this divide that brings the film to its bloody conclusion: just like any teen drama, then.
C) It’s not a conventional crime film
Much has been made, over the years, of how similar Reservoir Dogs is to a play. It has a small ensemble of well-developed characters, mostly takes place in one location, and is mostly made up of dialogue with no big action scenes. That’s just another way of approaching the point that – for all Tarantino’s knowledge and love of big crime films – it isn’t like them, somehow. They’d suggest Mamet, I’d argue Fey; the point is, it’s different.
D) It’s just so beautifully dressed
Reservoir Dogs has something in its favour which even the stately elegance of Coppola’s Godfather lacks: style. The first film both written and directed by Tarantino, it is stamped with his trademark cool, in everything from the dialogue – “You kill anybody?”/”A few cops”/”No real people?”/”Just cops” – to the cinematography – which manages to be both fluid in motion and pause-any-frame iconic – and the soundtrack – everyone remembers the Stuck in the Middle with You ear-cutting, but all the music, accompanied by Steven Wright’s low radio DJ drawl, works perfectly. Given you can dig on Tarantino’s particular groove, it’s beautiful stuff.
E) It’s well-structured
Because the film is non-linear, scenes are able to rub against one another in interesting ways, cutting from friendly banter to extreme violence. It lends an extra edge to both types of scene, something that has increasingly become the core of Tarantino’s work. And the central ‘who’s the rat’ conceit, which is played lightly enough that the mystery can be shattered early on, is a good hook to work the relationships around. It ties together the detective narrative of the kind of crime films I do like with the claustrophobic mistrust of something like The Thing. Perfect.
F) All of the above