Made for a pittance by an untested young writer-director, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs caused a sensation at film festivals from Sundance to Cannes, was enormously hyped when it played in limited theatrical release, and would prove to be one of the most important titles of the 1990s indie boom. Of course, it would also launch Tarantino as a major filmmaker still popular and influential decades later.
For years afterward, it felt like every wide-eyed film student or novice director attempted to become the next Quentin Tarantino. An entire genre of “Tarantino-esque” knockoffs sprung up throughout the industry. The man’s name became synonymous with a bold, fresh, exciting, and new approach to cinema – all of which was a little ironic considering how much Tarantino himself brazenly stole from older movies. Despite all this, and despite some aspects that are less palatable now than they may have been in 1992, Reservoir Dogs has endured as a damned entertaining crime caper and a hell of a showcase for an emerging talent.
|Year of Release:||1992|
|Watched On:||4K Ultra HD Blu-ray|
|Also Available On:||Blu-ray|
Various VOD rental and purchase platforms
If the info on Wikipedia is correct, after its festival run, Reservoir Dogs opened in 19 domestic theaters at the beginning of October 1992, expanding only to 61 at its widest later that month. I’m fairly certain I saw it at the early end of that. At 18-years-old, I had just moved to Boston a few weeks earlier to attend my first year of film school, and Reservoir Dogs was the first movie I went to see in a theater after settling in.
I’d spent all of middle and high school trapped in central Florida, and movies like this simply didn’t play in any of the mall multiplexes there. While I was a very enthusiastic young film buff, almost all of my exposure to movies were mainstream offerings that played in wide release, or that I’d seen on television or rented on tape from the nearest Blockbuster Video. Smaller movies didn’t open anywhere near my town. I’d never been to a festival. The independent film movement brewing at that time was barely on my radar, aside from blurbs I’d read about it in newspapers or magazines. Once I got to the big city, I pored over the Arts sections of two or three of the major papers reading up about all manner of obscure movies I’d never heard of before. A rave review in one of those convinced me that I needed to check out a little crime picture with a weird title I didn’t understand.
I talked a few of my newly-made friends into going with me. We were all new to the city and didn’t know our way around yet. We got lost trying to find the theater outside campus and arrived late, walking into the auditorium near the end of the opening diner scene. The effect was disorienting. What the hell was this movie? It’s just a bunch of guys sitting at a table shooting the shit. Are they really talking about Madonna songs? I thought this was supposed to be a gangster movie!
I didn’t realize it yet, but that scene would have been equally perplexing even if I’d shown up on time. Once the main plot kicked in, I was riveted. The style, the music, the non-linear storytelling, and most of all that dialogue… It was all so overwhelming on first viewing, but one thing was absolutely certain:
This movie was FUCKING COOL!
My friends all agreed. We were buzzed walking out of that theater. Although we had no way of guessing it going in, at the end we all knew we’d just seen something that was going to be huge. The following weekend, I went back to see it a second time on my own, to make sure I caught it from the beginning. I’d watch it innumerable more times when it came out on video the following spring. Everybody did. Even though it never got a wide theatrical release and didn’t make much at the box office, Reservoir Dogs was one of the most talked-up movies of 1992 and became a big hit on home video.
At the time of that first watch, I hadn’t seen many (or probably even any) of the specific movies Tarantino borrowed ideas from when making Reservoir Dogs. Even so, I was cognizant enough to recognize that he was playing with familiar genre tropes. The characters all wearing matching black suits with crisp white shirts was obviously a film noir nod. I’d heard some grumbling that the entire thing was a “rip-off” of Ringo Lam’s 1987 City on Fire, which I wouldn’t catch until years later. Yes, big chunks of plot from that are recycled in Reservoir Dogs (as well as outright copies of certain shots), but so are a hell of a lot of other influences, including classics like Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part (1964), and Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), among others.
Somehow, knowing all of Tarantino’s inspirations doesn’t take away from his own work. Like most of what he’s subsequently made, Reservoir Dogs is a pastiche of a thousand different parts. The director takes bits and pieces of his favorite movies, tosses them into a blender, and somehow, miraculously, creates something new that is distinctly in his own voice. That’s a talent very damn few of his own imitators have been able to master.
Watching again for the first time in a long while, the film is clearly a formative work from a first-time artist forced to whip it up from basically nothing. If he hadn’t gotten Harvey Keitel on board as a champion for the script, the movie probably would have been shot on camcorder in Tarantino’s living room, and never gotten picked up for distribution by anyone. With Keitel’s assistance, Tarantino managed to secure at least a meager budget and bring in some up-and-coming actors like Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, Michael Madsen, and Chris Penn to bring his characters to very colorful life. Even with that help, the film is still a low-budget affair and decidedly rough around the edges. Shot mostly in one main location with minimal set design, it practically could’ve been staged as a play if not for the way the story’s chronology gets jumbled in the editing.
Reservoir Dogs is very much a young man’s movie – brash, show-offy, button-pushing, and a little obnoxious (maybe a lot obnoxious). The character dialogue is filled with an overabundance of bracingly racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs that I find increasingly difficult to listen to. Yes, I understand the point that the characters are not good people, and we’re meant to acknowledge that they’re bigots. Nevertheless, it’s also clear how delighted Tarantino himself was at the chance to get away with using such language on camera (a lot of it coming out of his own mouth) hoping to provoke a reaction from the audience. The more I mature, the less clever I find that.
At the same time, the film is filled with personality and promise that Tarantino would quickly hone and refine to much greater effect in his next directing effort, 1994’s Pulp Fiction. The groundwork for that is all laid here.
I don’t love all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies. Frankly, I’ve been rather disenchanted with his offerings in recent years. But I still love Reservoir Dogs, warts and all.
The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
The first home video releases of Reservoir Dogs in the early 1990s coincided with my discovery of the niche Laserdisc format, which started me on my home theater journey. Reservoir Dogs was one of the first titles I rented on it. Watching the movie in its original widescreen aspect ratio on a television screen was quite a thrill at the time.
We’ve come a long way since then. Aspect ratio aside, Reservoir Dogs has not had a particularly great track record on videodisc. Previous DVD and Blu-ray editions were noisy and soft, seemingly mastered from source elements several generations from the camera negative and then processed with Digital Noise Reduction and edge enhancement.
Lionsgate released the film on 4K Ultra HD last month, in November 2022. The Blu-ray in the case comes from the same new 4K remaster as the UHD disc. Best Buy offers an exclusive SteelBook edition with really tacky artwork. Even though I’m generally a SteelBook collector, I opted to skip that in favor of the standard release in a keepcase and slipcover.
The new 4K master is a revelation. The 2.35:1 image is extraordinarily sharp and detailed. While grain is minimal, it doesn’t have the usual telltale signs of DNR. Despite being a very low-budget production, Reservoir Dogs was shot mostly in a single controlled location (very few exteriors) on low-speed film stock and a very high-contrast, hard lighting style. Cinematographer Andrzej Sekula lit the hell out of that warehouse, enough that it must have been sweltering in there. The actors probably needed to be mopped-down between takes. I won’t pretend to have a clear memory of the original theatrical release prints, but I can believe that the camera negative was likely not particularly grainy. I can’t say definitively that no digital grain management has been performed here, but if it was, the results look great regardless.
Colors are bold and vivid. The transfer may have a slight red push that results in the odd shot here or there looking oversaturated or faces ruddy, but not enough to be bothersome, at least not on my screen. The application of HDR is very pleasing and lends a lot of depth to the picture.
I’m not quite as enthusiastic about the audio, unfortunately. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track does seem to have had noise reduction applied to filter out analog recording hiss, which leaves it sounding cold and sterile. The volume also needs considerable boosting above my normal playback settings. Surround activity is pretty minimal. The 1970s songs fare the best, but even those sound to have been heavily processed to spread them across the soundstage.
Hilariously, the UHD disc menu has a section for “Special Features” that only offers an option to bookmark scenes. The real supplements are all on the accompanying Blu-ray, but are disappointingly sparse. The 16-minute featurette called Playing It Fast & Loose is so old it features the long-since disgraced Harry Knowles raving about “ResDog” and trying to explain why it’s so cool. Ugh. The dumb character profile piece isn’t much better.
The only worthwhile items on the disc are a small handful of deleted scenes. Additional features (including an audio commentary, interviews, and better critics’ appreciations) created for the Special Edition DVD in 2002 and the 15th Anniversary Edition DVD in 2006 are nowhere to be found here.
The disc menus play weird, faux-1970s funk music that isn’t actually heard in the movie and sounds like it was probably created as the telephone hold music for some random business.
I should also note that the first copy of the UHD I received was defective and froze playback halfway though the movie. I exchanged it with Amazon and the replacement thankfully plays through the same spot without issue.
Note: All screenshots on this page were taken from the standard Blu-ray edition of the film and are used for illustration purposes only.