Reservoir Dogs

The New Old: 20 Years of Tarantino

Although he’s technically been working as an actor and filmmaker for more than 20 years, 2012 marks a key anniversary in the career or writer and director Quentin Tarantino. With 1992’s watershed ultraviolent epic Reservoir Dogs, the world was introduced to a talent that would almost instantly become America’s most visually noticeable filmmaker since Steven Spielberg, and on this momentous occasion, Alliance Films, the Weinsteins, Lionsgate, Miramax, Warner Brothers, and a slew of others have put together a definitive box set of all the filmmaker’s works in one place instead of merely trotting out a new anniversary edition of the film that helped to shape Tarantino into the icon he is today.

While the discs in the TARANTINO XX collection are the exact same discs for the films as their stand-alone counterparts (albeit with new disc art and a new set of menus on Reservoir Dogs), there’s still a lot to talk about when looking back on the filmmaker’s work and the discs themselves are still well worth picking up and cataloguing here for those who don’t already have them.

It’s not very unusual that Tarantino would start his career with a film like Reservoir Dogs, since it’s a perfectly solid debut from a first time filmmaker still feeling his way around a movie set. Although it was written after the screenplays for True Romance, Natural Born Killers, and From Dusk Till Dawn, those films would require the inputs of other talents before making their way to the screen. Tarantino deserves a lot of credit for knowing his capabilities as a filmmaker long before everyone else ultimately did.

It’s his shortest film; a tense 110 minute heist film gone wrong that leaves the audience largely in the dark as to what they’re actually witnessing. The main gang of thugs in the film (including producer Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, and Tarantino himself) get caught up in a deal gone sour that the audience never witnesses. Much in the same way that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is unjustly called out for being sicker than it really is, Reservoir Dogs punctuates its violence (including the notorious ear severing sequence delivered by a chilling, dancing Michael Madsen) by sparing the audience any details outside of the film’s narrowed perspective.

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In many ways Dogs seems more like a stage play than an action film. From the opening scene of tough guys talking about Madonna and tipping, Tarantino establishes almost the entirety of his career to come. Within ten minutes of his debut film, Tarantino makes it known just how little he conforms to standard methods of storytelling, preferring the non-linear and tangential to give somewhat basic B-movie trappings an extra dose of adrenaline.

Much like the films Tarantino grew up idolizing, almost all of his works can be summed up in single sentences that would never do them proper justice. Reservoir Dogs is an action film where most of the action comes from dialogue and sadistic wit rather than in a string of endless shootouts. It’s a character piece not far removed from the works of David Mamet and countless yakuza epics from the 70s and 80s that Tarantino clearly overdosed on in his lifetime. It was the perfect start to a long career.

 

It’s a bit strange to see True Romance in this collection as the lone film written by Tarantino, but that he didn’t direct. While it’s a great film, and a bit of an interesting anomaly, it would have been nice to include the Robert Rodriguez directed From Dusk Till Dawn or the anthology film Four Rooms, which included a segment from Tarantino. Still there’s plenty to love and admire about his only collaboration with the Tony Scott on the best film the late action director would ever make in his career.

Tarantino was approached at one point to direct both True Romance and Natural Born Killers, but he declined on the grounds that they both felt too much like first films and both would be a step back for him. He very graciously handed the reigns of Romance off to Scott and would be extremely kind to it over the years despite the director changing the writer’s original ending to the film. Tarantino never really got over what director Oliver Stone did to the re-worked version of his Killers script that he now only takes a begrudging story credit on. That film’s exclusion makes far more sense in the grand scheme of things given the almost historic bad blood Tarantino once had towards the production.

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Made at a strange point in film history, True Romance feels like a bit of time capsule to revisit now. It’s just as much an early Tarantino film as it is a Tony Scott film, and both of them are almost drowned out thanks to production company Morgan Creek’s almost always dated aesthetic choices. (Warner Brothers’ transfers of the film to home formats have also always been somewhat lacklustre at best, with little changing here.) Still, much in the same way that the first 20 minutes of Dogs establishes the career that’s yet to come, the opening 20 minutes of True Romance are unlike anything Tarantino has written before or since.

In a uniquely sweet and deeply personal script, comic book store clerk Clarence (Christian Slater) and a call girl with only four days of experience under her belt named Alabama (Patricia Arquette) fall in love instantly in an almost adorable and heart tugging way before things get out of control. The two star crossed lovers spell out their feelings and fears in front of a giant billboard high above the city that admonishes the audience to literally not wait for the smoke to clear when it comes to matters of the heart. It’s easily one of the most striking and memorable cinematic moments of the 90s.

Not that the rest of the film is any slouch. Scott brings a healthy dose of intensity and flash to Tarantino’s pulpy material that wouldn’t be seen again, and it’s almost enough to make one wish he would start giving other directors a chance with his works once again. It’s also arguably the most stacked cast that would ever really appear in a Tarantino film, including a dreadlocked and insane Gary Oldman as the pimp Clarence offs and unknowingly steals from to set the plot in motion, a truly tender and nuanced turn from Dennis Hopper as Clarence’s loving and put upon alcoholic security guard father, Val Kilmer as an Elvis-like mentor that only Clarence can see, Brad Pitt as a permastoned roommate of a friend, and Christopher Walken as a ruthless mafia enforcer.

 

The next film in the set would be the one that would catapult Tarantino to near the top of the A-list and almost single-handedly turn the then Weinstein brother owned Miramax into the most unstoppable powerhouse in independent cinema. Influenced almost equally by Mario Bava and Black Mask omnibuses, Pulp Fiction (co-written by former collaborative partner Roger Avery) would become a watershed release that would create and revive careers for everyone involved with it. A freewheeling, non-linear, and only somewhat connected triptych, it would show up on countless “best of the 90s lists” near the top of most rankings.

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A film that revels in minutiae and dialogue to an even greater degree than Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction tells stories that move at the speed of life, but are never dull thanks to the best character work of Tarantino’s career. Viewers don’t particularly care that Vincent (a then rejuvenated John Travolta) and Jules (a star making moment for Samuel L. Jackson) aren’t talking about the job they are about to do on the way to perform a hit. They are talking about vacations and what their plans for the weekend are, but their conversations lend a real sense of gravity to everything they are about to go through in their two stories. In the middle portion of the film (which is sequentially speaking the last to actually happen) the dialogue between the characters that will change their fates gets moved to the end of the story as former enemies (Bruce Willis as a disgraced boxer, and Ving Rhames as a pissed off mob boss) are forced to escape from a bad situation together.

Pulp Fiction would garner Tarantino not only an Oscar for his work, but also the coveted Palme D’or at Cannes. It would also go on to become the highest grossing independent release in the history of cinema, besting Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles of all things, which was also edited by Tarantino’s longest collaborator the late Sally Menke. In many ways, the rampant success and widespread acclaim of Pulp Fiction would make a follow-up have somewhat unrealistic expectations. It would also usher in a decade of imitators and rip-offs that are better left forgotten about for the most part.

 

After taking some time away from directing to star in From Dusk Till Dawn and working on his segment of Four Rooms, Tarantino somewhat confounded critics and audiences with the under-appreciated Elmore Leonard adaptation Jackie Brown. If Dogs and Fiction moved at a pace that the young and somewhat high strung could understand, this star vehicle for 70s icons Pam Grier and Robert Forester was cut from a different cloth altogether. It was a lot slower in pace to match the ages of the primary players, but it still retained the filmmaker’s distinct voice and hard boiled tone.

The pairing of Leonard and Tarantino proved to be quite inspired since the latter would site the author as a major influence in the making of True Romance and the former would say the result was the best big screen adaptation of his work. If anything is disappoint about the film, it would be just how faithful it manages to stay to Leonard without seeming like a word for word porting of the novel Rum Punch. In many ways it’s more a kindred spirit to the aging crime thrillers of the 90s that Al Pacino was often starring in, like Brian DePalma’s Carlito’s Way or Donnie Brasco.

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The leisurely pace and tone gets set right from the outset as Tarantino’s first leading heroine – a 44-year old African American flight attendant who will soon be busted for smuggling funds for an arms dealer (a returning Sam Jackson) – stands on an airport people mover while the Bobby Womack crooned title track to the Yaphet Kotto starring film Across 110th Street plays. In addition to being a wholly appropriate film savvy parallel about a pair of amateurs trying to stick it to the mob, it sets up a sense of knowing weariness and alerts the audience that they are about to witness a long con rather than anything coming close to the instant gratification of his previous films. But once the action does kick into high gear, the actual pitting of FBI agents (including an excellent Michael Keaton who would reprise his role briefly in the Steven Soderbergh adaptation of Leonard’s Out of Sight) against gun runners feels secondary to the last great love story Tarantino would tell. The interplay between Grier’s fed up, thankless drone and Forester’s equally disillusioned bail bondsman wisely gets the focus here in a film that even supposed Tarantino completists should take another look at to reevaluate properly.

Following Jackie Brown, it would be six more years before Tarantino would return with the one-two punch of Kill Bill. Divided across two films, one action oriented and the other largely introspective, a former assassin (Uma Thurman, long cited as Tarantino’s greatest female muse following Pulp Fiction) ticks names off a list of people that screwed her over, tried to kill her on her wedding day, and took her unborn child away from her.

It’s a heck of a hook for a film, and on a technical and referential level, it’s Tarantino’s most fun work to date. It incorporates heavy overtones of samurai films, Shaw Brothers epics, anime, spaghetti westerns, John Sayles, Robert Altman, and Italian crime sagas of the 70s into an assuredly layered pastiche. It also contains arguably the best soundtrack from the only director to have a knowledge of modern pop iconography that could match the notorious tune mongering of Martin Scorsese. Sadly, the two film structure ends up shooting Tarantino in the foot somewhat once it gets to the vastly more static and less engaging second film. Dividing up the fun film from the introspective one probably seemed like a great idea at the time, but it lacks the satisfaction one gets from watching a truly great epic. It feels overthought in a lot of ways, and particularly in Volume 2 it’s like he was trying too hard to recreate something more akin to Pulp Fiction after the largely experimental Jackie Brown.

Kill Bill really isn’t a bad pair of movies, especially when compared to Death Proof, a film that was given its own full length theatrical exhibition after being the second half of the double bill styled nostalgia-fest Grindhouse. The one true dud in Tarantino’s career, it brought the underperforming three hour epic to a grinding halt with its talky and mostly boring indulgence. It was kind of a bait and switch to follow Robert Rodriguez’s balls to the wall zombie epic Planet Terror with a film closer in tone to what most grindhouse fare actually was like, but that doesn’t make it more cinematic or less annoying.

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Kurt Russell delivers a damned great performance as a movie stunt driver with a “death proof” car that he uses to lure unsuspecting women to a bloody, high speed demise, but the film never once matches Russell’s intensity or oily charm. All this film does is talk. At great length. About nothing interesting at all. There’s not one but two unconscionably long sequences of people talking over drinks and food, and one gives in fully to Tarantino’s noted foot fetish with a group of soon to be targeted women talking about all things best told to podiatrists and Penthouse for an unconscionable 12 minutes. It feels even longer in the director’s cut that’s included here. Yes, I get that the point that the only reason the film exists is to mimic a 70s thriller that only exists for a single car chase that a trailer could be made from, but that doesn’t make it noble, artful, or good. It makes it a curiosity that’s more of an indulgent wank than an actual movie. I’ve tried to like it in that this was the sixth time I watched it, and I doubt I will watch it a seventh.

Tarantino would rebound in a huge way, however, with his next proper feature Inglourious Basterds, which could be largely equated to his own personal David Lean moment. Working on his biggest canvas to date, Tarantino’s tale of a band of American Nazi hunters looking to topple the Third Reich with the help of a disillusioned theatre owner ultimately shows the love of cinema triumphing over all evil in the world. Tarantino in some ways goes back to his roots while showing us all some new tricks in the process. It’s a fairly linear story told in long, drawn out sequences, but rather than have the dialogues seemingly be about trivial matters, they’re all played out as elaborate mental chess matches where the audience waits for one party to make a mistake. Sometimes, even the heroes make costly mistakes and miscalculations that can be as darkly humorous as they are tragic and sad. It’s a blending of emotion and kineticism that was absent from Tarantino’s work largely since Pulp Fiction.

Like I said before, the Blu-ray set offers nothing really new on the original discs, but the two discs of special features offer roughly 50% new material. The first disc contains a five hour panel of film critics moderated by Elvis Mitchell as they give their personal thoughts and analyses of Tarantino’s work. Largely available in snippets on the other Blu-rays, and not including any mention of True Romance despite it being a part of the set, some of this material is a bit redundant and a bit much unless you’re an academic or a completist. Even still, it’s a lot to sit through in one go and I can’t fully imagine even the film obsessed Tarantino getting though all of this critical banter in one sitting.

The second disc fares a lot better with a brand new two hour documentary about Tarantino’s career as told by some of the talents who know him best. The filmmaker himself is largely absent outside of archival footage, but there’s still some great insights into his working process and some genuinely funny anecdotes from friends and colleagues. There’s also a 35 minute Elvis Mitchell moderate Q&A from the release of Jackie Brown that was left off that disc when it was originally produced, but is now incorporated here. It’s also a great way to get sufficiently hyped up for the release of Django Unchained on Christmas Day, which despite not being released still has a trailer gallery here.

Overall, unless you want the bonus discs, you’re missing a great number of Tarantino’s works in your library, or you’re still in the process of upgrading, there’s not much here you don’t already have, but for those looking for a one stop reference guide to one of cinemas most referential and reverential filmmakers, it’s nice to know that such a set exists.



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