New from Lionsgate is the first UHD release for 1992’s Reservoir Dogs, the first film both written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. As will be known to everyone by now, Tarantino went on, over the course of ten films (across nine distinct projects) to fashion a distinctive voice within Hollywood, with each project being highly anticipated. Whilst the work has, arguably, become baggier and more self-indulgent, the standard has remained high, with every project he works on being unmistakable as his work.
With this in mind, it is always interesting to return to his first effort to see where the now-nearly-60-year-old was as a man in his late-20s. The answer is that he arrived pretty much fully formed, with his trademark dialogue, and his distinctive (and more sparing than ever credited with) use of screen violence already bearing the hallmarks of a far more confident and seasoned filmmaker than might be expected from one then so young.
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Reservoir Dogs was one of the last films to suffer from the over-bearing regulatory framework from the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) up to the mid-90s (the last, arguably, being Natural Born Killers, which had a long-delayed cinema release on grounds of taste). Arriving in 1992, this did not get a home release for three years, with regular re-releases in cinemas filling the gaps. When assessing the final product, this was always, clearly, a farcical decision for a film which, whilst violent, had its most infamous such act actually occur off-screen. What the film ends up being is not some ultraviolent disgrace, rather a treatise on trust, the transitory relationships that have to take place in order to accomplish tasks in life, and how disparate characters respond to the events going wrong and a situation spiralling out of control.
At a lean-99 minutes (brevity a facet now lost to Tarantino’s work), the film tells the story of a diamond heist, or rather the aftermath of such a heist gone wrong, where members of the crew have been killed, a mole is suspected in the camp, and survivors arrive a few at time at a disused warehouse to try to understand what has just happened, to work on how to recover the situation whilst retaining their freedom, and to interrogate each other to try to find the source of the leak.
This takes place over the course of roughly an hour, whilst the rest of the running time is flashbacks to the planning and recruitment phases on the operation, along with the placement of police officer, Freddie (Tim Roth, sporting not the greatest American accent), into the crew as the mole, to be known as Mr Orange. With the rest of the crew given colour-coded names and dressed in black suits to minimise distinguishing features, we meet Mr White (Harvey Keitel); the seasoned thief well-known to the boss, Joe (Lawrence Tierney), and Joe’s son, Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn); Mr Pink (Steve Buscemi); the psychopathic but impeccably loyal Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen) – the in-universe brother of Pulp Fiction‘s Vincent Vega; Mr Blue (Edward Bunker); and Mr Brown (QT himself).
For the few on the planet yet to see Reservoir Dogs, we will spoil the plot and its surprises no more. It remains a powerful and confident debut that would still be in the argument for the director’s best work even after the three subsequent decades of exceptional and varied filmmaking. This release shows off a film that has never looked better. The higher definition means we can see the pores on the actors’ skin and the sweat running down the faces of characters as they navigate an extraordinarily stressful situation. Although still not entirely grain free (which is no bad thing) this was always previously – as it to be expected – the most dated transfer available on home release from Tarantino’s canon. This is no longer the case. For the picture alone, this has to be recommended to anyone who wants a copy of this film and does not already own one. Sounds comes via a more-than-decent 5.1 mix, or a stereo Spanish option, with subtitles to match.
If already in possession of a prior release, and happy with the transfer, however, this is probably not worth purchasing. Previous offerings have given us detailed interviews with the young Tarantino, as well as stories from the late Chris Penn about working on the film. Whilst never to the standard of the bonus features available for his next two films, these were usually decent releases for QT fans. Here what we have is extraordinarily lazy for such a landmark film, and more on the level we might expect for an aged-indie release that has been largely forgotten.
We kick-off with just over twelve minutes of deleted scenes. This comprises, first, Freddy preparing for the job by reading up on the backgrounds of the crew – and just is not necessary, as the film works better when we don’t know who knows what; and while we know Freddy is undercover, we are able to view the situation from the perspective of the other characters, who know nothing of him. In addition, in the final film, it becomes a big deal when Mr White tells him that his first name is Larry, something completely undermined by Freddy reading it off a file ahead of time. Second, is set on a rooftop with Freddy complaining to his handler that he has no protection on the job when the game-plan is given to him. Again, we do not need to know this. In the finished product we see a group of confident men, which cuts forward to an injured Orange being driven to the rendezvous point, as they try to work out what has gone wrong. This is tighter and more effective, but it is an interesting alternate layout for the story. The final two scenes are alternate versions of the ear-cutting scenes, which we have seen outtakes of on previous releases.
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‘Playing it Fast and Loose’ is a just-under-16 minute featurette intercutting footage of the movie with interviews with Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool (a serious black mark on this release at the very outset, given that man’s reputation); Sharon Waxman, author of ‘Rebels on the Backlot’; Peter Markham, a senior lecturer on directing from the AFI Conservatory; and Mark Evan Schwartz from Leyola Marymount University, and a lecturer on writing. It is a little over a quarter of an hour on how great the film is, how great Tarantino is, and how there followed an era full of imitators that completely missed the point of the work. Although, having lived through the era, that point does resonate, this is nothing that fans of this film will not already know. The set is completed by ‘Profiling the Reservoir Dogs’ a cheesy case-file style breakdown of the characters of White, Pink, Brown and Blonde. Quite apart from this being (certainly with Brown) a curiously chosen subset of our characters, it is full of supposition on the backgrounds of the men, without any clue given as to whether these assertions come from Quentin’s notes, or that they are entirely guesswork. It is a lazy and forgettable seven minutes.
To be clear, Reservoir Dogs retains its position as one of the finest, more accomplished debuts ever committed to film, and it has been released here with an unprecedented clarity of picture. As a release, however, and when compared to other offerings of classic 90’s cinema, it falls even under the very low bar of the recent 12 Monkeys discs. With the filmmaker and many of the cast still alive and working, this is simply not good enough when being released on a premium, niche – and relatively expensive – format.
Reservoir Dogs is out on Limited Edition 4K UHD + Blu-ray SteelBook on 21st November.