It was an audacious film debut and possibly the most violent calling card in cinema history. Maverick director Quentin Tarantino’s first film Reservoir Dogs was released 20 years ago on October 23, 1992, to great critical fanfare, and it launched the career of a non-conformist who has played by his own rules and who has been consistently successful and inventive ever since.

Tarantino’s script gives each and every member of his perfect ensemble a chance to shine

Tarantino’s background is no secret: an avid film lover since youth, he learned his trade while working in a video store on Manhattan beach, California, while he was studying to be an actor. Cribbing – by his own admission – from many of his favourite movies, he began to write scripts with the specific intent of directing them himself.

Reservoir Dogs takes place in the aftermath of a diamond heist that goes horribly awry when the cops turn up. The survivors of the gang – Mr White (Harvey Keitel), Mr Orange (Tim Roth), Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen) and Mr Pink (Steve Buscemi) turn up at the appointed rendezvous, an abandoned warehouse, waiting for further instructions from their boss Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and his son, Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn).

They are sure one of them ratted them out; and as nerves fray, tensions simmer and the occasional bullet flies, the narrative moves forward to its bloody conclusion as in flashback, we learn how the raid was planned, how the gang got together and who the traitor may be. Yet we never see the heist – as with most of Tarantino’s oeuvres, what counts is not what happens, but how it affects his characters.

From the opening dialogue – a dissertation on the meaning of Madonna’s lyrics for her hit song Like a Virgin, with some fascinating insight into the meaning behind True Blue – to the Mexican standoff ending, Reservoir Dogs grabs you by the scruff of the neck and never lets go. That the film takes place in real time adds to the tension; and with a cast this excellent, you can never take your eyes off the screen – bloody scenes of torture notwithstanding.

Tarantino’s script gives each and every member of his perfect ensemble a chance to shine. Thanks to the flashback device – a device the writer/director is extremely fond of and which he uses exceptionally well to drive his typically non-linear stories forward – we get to know these men and their motivations in depth and they become real.

The core four actors – Keitel, Roth, Buscemi and Madsen – by then already established character actors in their own right – will always forever be associated with their roles here, especially Madsen whose psychopathic cool during the infamous torture-of-the-young-cop scene never fails to induce goosebumps and morbid fascination of the worst possible kind.

The unadulterated brutality in the film has led to criticism of the director for celebrating violence; criticism that has dogged Tarantino throughout his career, but he has always been unapologetic about it.

In an interview that appears at the beginning of the published screenplay of Reservoir Dogs, the director confesses that he gets a kick out of violence in movies, but concedes that it is not to everyone’s taste, although this was never an issue to his millions of faithful followers – critics and fans alike – throughout his 20-year career.

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