There are so many great things about Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino’s inaugural story of a bloody and ill-fated jewelry heist in early 1990s Los Angeles. The plot is straightforward enough, and Tarantino clearly pays loving homage to the his many inspirations throughout the movie, but what sets this apart is a sense of enthusiasm for a very particular mix of cultural literacy, meandering dialogue, bravado, violence and vulgarity that has since spawned many imitators.
Early into the movie, we see a gang of robbers (code-named Mr. White, Mr. Orange, Mr. Pink, Mr. Blonde, Mr. Blue and Mr. Brown) and their bosses (Joe Cabot and his son “Nice Guy” Eddie) gradually rendezvous at an empty warehouse after a job. And by job, we mean armed robbery. And by armed robbery, we mean a complete and total bloodbath that involves lots of dead bystanders, multiple shootouts with the police, and a manhunt for the perpetrators. The whole mess happens off-stage, so we don’t know what really happened, but it’s pretty clear that things only went as badly as they did because somebody in the group is working with the cops. What follows is a tense standoff as accusations fly, mistrust festers, drastic steps are taken to ferret out the truth, and one by one, we get to know who these robbers are, and why they chose to take this job.
The crooks in this story are part of a world in which messy crime is not tolerated. Sure, there are all kinds of lowlife thieves and killers, but there is also a class of criminal that adheres to a code of conduct. It might not be honor among thieves—for this movie ultimately proves that there is none—but it is most definitely a sense of criminal professionalism. That means not taking things personally. Not indulging weird gratifications when you’re supposed to be working. Not doing anything stupid that jeopardizes the group. And generally pretending that even though your work involves taking things that don’t belong to you and maiming or killing whoever gets in your way, otherwise acting like a halfway decent human being.
We see this best in the opening scene, when the entire crew of robbers is finishing up their breakfast before they embark on the robbery. By the way they dress in their identical suits and refer to each other by code, we know they’re not ordinary people. But we can relate to the nonsense they debate and discuss—such as the local radio station’s marathon of ‘70s pop music, or the real meaning of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” At one point, Mr. Pink argues with the whole table over his philosophical opposition to tipping waitresses. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about. On its face, it’s just a funny-as-hell bit in a movie that’s about to get a whole lot darker and squirmy. But there is more to this scene. It is a moment of truth.
Pink’s dubious defense of his cheapskate ways, and the argument it starts, establishes the robbers’ humanity outside of their life of crime. These are guys who are willing to knock over a crowded jewelry store in broad daylight, but are affronted by anybody who can’t cough up a buck for the woman who served them coffee. Some might say it’s because they’re all sociopaths, but I think it’s really to show that these guys all chose to put on those dark suits. Once we cut to the heist’s aftermath, and everything is about gunshot wounds and shouts of betrayal, we can never quite shake the memory of these guys kidding around in a coffee shop. Tarantino establishes these them as people first and as crooks second, and no matter how much you like to wax rhapsodic about the tyranny of presumed tipping of waitstaff, if you gun down some poor bastard on the sidewalk because he’s slowing you down, then you really do deserve what’s coming to you. In this world, nobody gets away clean, and everybody pays what they owe.