Like it or not (and many people will have their doubts), writer-director Quentin Tarantino has arrived, in your face and on the screen. His brash debut film, "Reservoir Dogs," a showy but insubstantial comic opera of violence, is as much a calling card as a movie, an audacious high-wire act announcing that he is here and to be reckoned with.
Strong violence is Tarantino's passion, and he embraces it with gleeful, almost religious, fervor. An energetic macho stunt, "Reservoir Dogs" (selected theaters) glories in its excesses of blood and profanity, delighting, in classic Grand Guignol fashion, in going as far over the top as the man's imagination will take it.
Tarantino does have the filmmaking flair to go along with his zeal. Though "Reservoir Dogs' " story line of what happens when a well-planned robbery goes wrong is a staple of both B pictures and pulp fiction, Tarantino's palpable enthusiasm, his unapologetic passion for what he's created, reinvigorates this venerable plot and, mayhem aside, makes it involving for longer than you might suspect.
Tarantino's background is as an actor and he has a gift for writing great bursts of caustic, quirky dialogue, verbal arias that show off not only his facility with scabrous, tough guy language but also the abilities of his performers. And it was that script that attracted excellent actors like Harvey Keitel (who also signed on as co-producer), Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Steve Buscemi to the film.
Tarantino's writing style is clear from "Dogs' " opening set piece, focused around a table in a Los Angeles coffee shop where a group of seven nondescript men are just finishing up what looks to be a hearty breakfast. Tarantino (who cast himself as Mr. Brown) starts things off with an exaggeratedly profane exegesis on what Madonna's "Like a Virgin" is really all about, followed by a cranky riff by Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) on why he doesn't believe in tipping.
Almost immediately after this meal, there is a sudden cut to the bloody interior of a late-model car, where Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), shot so badly he seems almost to be drowning in his own blood, holds tight to the hand of a frantic Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) as he heads the car toward a prearranged rendezvous spot.
For five of those original seven breakfasters, each named (for security reasons) after a color and all identically dressed in black suits, white shirts, thin black ties and sunglasses, turn out to be participants in a robbery of a diamond wholesaler planned by the other two, Joe (Lawrence Tierney) and his son, Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn).
None of this is immediately obvious, coming into focus in bits and pieces, for Tarantino has broken his story up and told it non-chronologically. Energetic scenes of the shootout alternate with quiet flashbacks to the planning as well as the emotionally unstable situation at the rendezvous spot, as the surviving gang members scream bloody murder at each other, trying to figure out how an easy job turns into a fiasco while Mr. Orange swoons in his own blood on the floor.
This is definitely not the Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, but rather a group of genuine hard guys, criminal professionals and proud of it, who know everything from how long the police take to respond to alarms, to which parts of the body are the most painful to be shot in. The type of crowd that follows the question of "Did you kill anybody?" with a perfectly natural "Any real people or just cops?"
Part of the appeal of "Reservoir Dogs' " (R-rated for strong violence and language) is the way it makes all this feel terribly authentic, a veracity that is a tribute to the skill of its actors. Though it seems a shame to pick favorites in one of the year's most cohesive ensembles, three performers do stand out.
Steve Buscemi, also featured in the upcoming "In the Soup," is deadpan funny as the cranky Mr. Pink; veteran Lawrence Tierney, with a voice like a tow-truck winch, is gruff as they get as the gang's rapacious boss; and Michael Madsen, a veteran of "Thelma & Louise," plays the unforgettable Mr. Blonde, the mellow sadist who loves 1970s music and provides "Reservoir Dogs" with its most talked-about moments of gory violence.
Though it's impossible not to appreciate the undeniable skill and elan Tarantino brings to all this, it is also difficult not to wish "Reservoir Dogs" weren't so determinedly one-dimensional, so in love with operatic violence at the expense of everything else. The old gangster movies its creator idolizes were better at balancing things, at adding creditable emotional connection and regret to their dead-end proceedings. As Tarantino makes more films (and his dance card is already quite crowded), perhaps he will see his way clear to going that one step beyond what he's accomplished here. You could even, in the spirit of things, call it something to shoot for.
Harvey Keitel: Mr. White
Tim Roth: Mr. Orange
Michael Madsen: Mr. Blonde
Chris Penn: Nice Guy Eddie
Steve Buscemi: Mr. Pink
Lawrence Tierney: Joe Cabot
Quentin Tarantino: Mr. Brown
Released by Mirimax Pictures. Director Quentin Tarantino. Producer Lawrence Bender. Executive producers Richard N. Gladstein, Ronna B. Wallace, Monte Hellman. Screenwriter Tarantino. Cinematographer Andrzej Sekula. Editor Sally Menke. Costumes Betsy Heimann. Music Karyn Rachtman. Production design David Wasco. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (strong violence and language).