Reservoir Dogs: Special Edition on DVD

Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Chris Penn, Steve Buscemi, Lawrence Tierney, Kirk Baltz, Quentin Tarantino, Edwin Bunker. Directed by Quentin Tarantino. Aspect ratios: 2.35:1 (anamorphic), 4:3 (full-screen). DTS, Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0. Two discs. 100 minutes. 1992. Artisan 12879. R. $24.95.

With this, his first feature film, and 1994's Pulp Fiction and 1997's Jackie Brown, actor-director Quentin Tarantino was largely responsible for the evolution of the on-screen gangster in the 1990s. Tarantino's antiheroes are almost always fast-talking urban sophisticates who deliver pop-culture commentary and witticisms as deftly as they deal out lethal force. They're sophisticated but by no means highbrow; their crude humor is littered with racial epithets, sexual stereotypes, and macho putdowns. It's easily and understandably offensive in many ways, but it's also authentic. Bad guys are, after all, bad guys—in the case of Reservoir Dogs, they're white males who are insensitive to the struggles of people unlike themselves. In short, Reservoir Dogs is not for everyone. Its characters are racist, sexist, and savage. Some folks will find them riveting despite those repellent traits; some might find them fascinating because of those qualities.

The movie begins with eight guys sitting around a table at a diner, bantering about waitresses and pop music—especially Madonna's "Like a Virgin"—as they exchange putdowns. The viewer begins to carve out separate identities as the charecters size each other up and stake out their turf.

Six of the men, none of whom knows the others, are there to carry out a diamond heist. The other two—a father, Joe (Lawrence Tierney), and son, Eddie (Chris Penn)—have put the caper together. Tierney rumbles and scrapes out his lines like a load of scrap iron being dumped in a junkyard. In a scene where the six are being assigned their color-coordinated aliases by Joe, Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) whines that he doesn't like his name. "Why can't we pick our own colors?" the tightly wound Pink mewls. "No way," growls Joe. "I pick. Be thankful you're not Mr. Yellow . . . now what's it gonna be, Mr. Pink?" "Forget about it," Pink stammers in reply, "It's beneath me . . . let's move on." "I'll move on when I feel like it," grumbles the crevice-faced Tierney, whose lifetime of experience as a tough guy, on- and off-screen, is palpable.

The acting is almost uniformly solid. Harvey Keitel, who seems to have appeared in half of all gangster movies made since 1970, oozes his trademarked molten anger, but his character also shows compassion for one of his comrades, shot as the robbery goes haywire.

Reservoir Dogs served as a breakout film for Michael Madsen. He radiates an evil cool as his character tortures a captured cop while the never-again-forgettable pop hit from the 1970s, Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle with You," perks along in the background.

Buscemi is as believably twitchy as ever, as his Mr. Pink tries to ferret out the rat in the group, and Penn does some of his best, most furious work. The notable exception to the high standard set by the other actors is Tim Roth. Like Jon Lovitz's actor-character way back when on Saturday Night Live, Roth never lets you forget that he's acting. Ironically enough, Roth's undercover cop employs some of Lee Strasberg's method-acting exercises in order to learn how to blend in with the crew of crooks. (This British actor has a penchant for going over the top. For a cheap laugh, see his performance as the very bad monkey in Tim Burton's remake of Planet of the Apes.)

Tarantino became, arguably, the most talked-about director of the '90s not only because he has a keen eye for talent, but also because his scripts exude a hip humor of the streets. He once listed The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as his choice for the best movie ever made, which tells you quite a bit about a man who loves to try to make violence amusing. (Some of the violence in Dogs isn't particularly graphic; the brutality in the torture scene is implied rather than explicit.)

The low budget Tarantino had to work with—just over a million dollars—is evident in the washed-out colors and somewhat flat images. Then again, the director has often waxed poetic about the virtues of the "blaxploitation" films of the '70s, so perhaps these visual attributes were intentional, or at least not objectionable. The sound is also somewhat flat and unexceptional—sometimes there's just no substitute for money and the recording engineers it can buy.

Money seems not to have been a problem for the makers of this Special Edition. The two-disc set contains widescreen and full-screen versions of the movie, though why anyone would want a 4:3 version of a movie shot in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio is baffling. It's also loaded with tributes to the late Tierney and Eddie Bunker (who had a supporting role as Mr. Blue), commentaries by film critics, discussions of film noir with directors who influenced Tarantino, deleted scenes, a retrospective look at the indie films of 1992 and that year's Sundance Film Festival, a KBILLY interactive radio feature, and, whew, even more. Tarantino has a commentary track with Roth, Penn, Madsen, Kirk Baltz (who plays the cop), and the producer, executive producer, director of photography, and editor. The producers' comments tend to be pretty dull—no one is likely to care how many times they visited the set—while what the cinematographer has to say is occasionally illuminating. Tarantino and the actors often offer interesting insights into their co-workers and characters.

All in all, it's quite a package, and, if you're a fan, well worth the 25 bucks. The original DVD release was pretty bare-bones; this one is, if anything, overloaded.