In 'Reservoir Dogs,' a brutal pack turns on itself after the crime

The boys are back in town -- and how.

"Reservoir Dogs," Quentin Tarantino's astonishing debut feature, which opens today at the Charles Theatre, appears to be set in a theme park called Testosteroneland, where nature isn't only red in tooth and claw, it's black as the heart of man and dank as any rag and bone shop of the human spirit.


Yet its first astonishment is that in contrast to the relentless violence of the material, the movie itself is flashy, slick, giddy, audacious. It's a movie made by a man who has seen too many movies and can regurgitate technical credits from forgotten '50s B gangster melodramas with the best film nerds in America. The overarching sensibility is the showoff's: Everything is studiously placed for maximum sensation. It's the "Citizen Kane" of the gag reflex.

Of course it's hopelessly immature. Tarantino is 29 but seems much younger: The film is one of those pulpy endorsements of nihilism that ends up with just about everybody in the movie and several poor souls in the first rows of the theater on slabs. It has to be made by a man who has never seen anybody die except in movies. Yet at the same time it's inconveniently dazzling -- driven, beautifully made and completely wacko at once. It's pure outlaw art.


Tarantino's subject -- that is, besides B movies and his own damned precociousness -- is the honor among thieves and the lack of it among policemen. It basically takes place in a single setting, with flashbacks, as the surviving members of a robbery gang gather in a warehouse and try to hash out what happened in a bungled job in a wholesale diamond exchange that left half of them and dozens of square johns and cops dead in downtown Los Angeles.

The movie is radically structured, after the fashion of Kubrick's first film, "The Killing," another famous heist movie but one in which the heist was actually shown. Tarantino's glitziest stroke is never to show the main event: He backtracks in time and point of view half a dozen times, showing what led up to it and what happened after it, but the actual raid itself goes undramatized.

The robbers are a hyper-masculine crew of tattooed tough guys who dress like Blues Brothers and carry -- what else? -- .45s. Each is given a color code name by "Joe," the leathery old mastermind (Lawrence Tierney, who looks as if he could chew his way out of Alcatraz). Yet as hypercharged and kinetic as "Reservoir Dogs" is, it keeps stopping for riffs and it's only halfway through when one realizes that, under the torture scenes, the gunfights, the screams of a wounded, bloody man who slowly dies on screen for about 97 minutes, the movie is really a comedy.

Tarantino writes pointed, vivid comic solos that literally halt the movie in its tracks and take on a life of their own, like performance pieces. The weaselly Steve Buscemi, as Mr. Pink, is the author of many of these (Buscemi is a performance artist, so possibly he's incorporating some of his material). At one point, he breaks up a tense planning meeting with a five-minute kvetch on the agonies of being code-named "Mr. Pink"; in another, he contributes a cracked, inane disquisition on the absurdity of tipping.

But the competing centers of authority in the film are Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), who is a "responsible thief," and Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen), who is a psycho killer. The two seem to struggle for control of the aftermath, as they attempt to figure out whether one of their own is an undercover cop. Meanwhile, Mr. Orange (the British actor Tim Roth, who, amazingly, played a Cockney contract killer in Stephen Frears' "The Hit," yet here seems as American as tacos) lies bleeding to death on the floor.

It is Madsen who shuffles through the film's most controversial moment, cutting the ear off a captured policeman while doing a hipster's jig to the tune of a piece of '70s fluff called "Stuck in the Middle with You." The scene is horrible to watch, contrasting psychotic power with utter helplessness in a dance of pure sadism, but in fact it's so outrageous, like an Ice-T song, that what it elicits is hilarity, not outrage. It's a brazen young man's most evil attempt to shock the squares in the audience.

As effortlessly as a stage director, Tarantino shuffles players on and off stage, manipulating them so that conspirators can be alone or enemies can scuffle uninterrupted. The very staginess of all these creaky old devices is somehow part of the charm of the piece, too, as it builds toward a final blast of ironic nihilism as a way of ending with a bang, bang, bang, and not a whimper.

"Reservoir Dogs" is hideously ugly in its materials, but in the sure way it's made and the vividness of the performances, it's a thing of beauty.


'Reservoir Dogs'

Starring Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth.

Directed by Quentin Tarantino.

Released by Miramax.


*** 1/2