Censor Me! Violence is golden: Reservoir Dogs
When I rewatched this film for this review I was struck with a sense of sadness. I vividly remember seeing it at the time (and I’ll explain why in a moment), but I hadn’t seen it again for years. God knows why, as I actually have 2 copies of it on DVD (one I bought, and one that came in a box set), but for much of the 1990’s Quentin Tarantino’s debut effort was one of my favourite films. Anyway, as I say, watching it this time actually made me sad, because while I really enjoyed it again, you can see all the early signs that would contribute to Cokey McFrankensteinhead’s latter-day self-indulgence, and other cinematic crimes.
Nevertheless, Reservoir Dogs is this week’s censorship review, as in many ways the history of this film is an almost perfect example of the idiocies of the British Classification system. Once again, all citations come from the BBFC’s excellent case study, available here.
Lengthy personal anecdote and mild spoilers below
I was under the impression that Reservoir Dogs was actually banned in the UK, but it wasn’t. What really happened, and this explains why I have such fond memories of it, is that in the wake of the James Bulger tragedy, Parliament passed an idiotic act that introduced a specific “Harm test” to the 1984 Video Recordings Act, which, frankly, they didn’t need. The delay in receiving its video release however, is absolute proof of the idiocies of the system, which I’ll come to in a minute.
Summer of 1993, and a fourteen year old Jarv is starting to develop the serious addiction to film that would come to plague him for the rest of his life. I avidly watched Barry Norman’s film night, and in the Christmas of 1992 I recall seeing Dogs make his ten best films of the year. Overcome by curiousity, I’m almost compelled to watch this film as soon as it hits VHS. Yet, this doesn’t happen, and I next read that the BBFC have refused to classify the film. Refused to classify it? Crikey, that means that it’s BANNED IN BRITAIN and has now reached “must watch” status.
So, the summer rolls round, and I see that in my local paper that Reservoir Dogs has received a limited 1 day only cinema release! So, knowing full well that I can’t go and buy the ticket myself, being flagrantly not 18 and not looking remotely 18, I go to my father to see if he’ll take me and buy the ticket. Sadly, he’s busy that day, but tells me to go and ask my mother nicely, and much to my amazement she agrees to take me down. All I had to do to get her to take me was to lie about the film, and thus I dressed it up to her as a “crime thriller”, which is technically true, I suppose.
Hiding in the concession stand, I’m chuffed to bits to see that she’s got the tickets successfully so away we go. I sat through the film in absolute raptures, not paying attention to the middle-aged woman turning progressively more and more grey with each passing moment. As soon as the credits roll, she gets up, and with a “Not one word you little shit” makes for the exit like lightning. Hilariously, and completely pointlessly, the Odeon cinema staff try to ID me on the way out, but I clearly wasn’t having that.
I’m still on cloud nine when we get out of the building and I catch up with her. She, on the other hand, has a look on her face that promises severe retribution for me when I get home, but hey-ho it was clearly worth it. She then takes me by surprise by not walking towards the car park, rather she’s crossing the street towards the theatre district (ha ha, Sheffield only has 2 theatres. What a joke). Anyway, I follow her, frantically making up excuses along the lines of “I didn’t know, honest” which had as much chance of being believed as any politician’s line of bullshit in front of an inquiry.
Mother of Jarv, with nary a look back at her offspring, takes a swift left into The Brown Bear. Following her in, wondering what the hell she’s up to, I’m simply amazed to hear her say to the barman “Triple gin and slimline tonic, and a pint of bitter for him”. Not only have I seen a banned movie in the cinema, but I’m also now having a pint of beer in the pub! This is clearly the greatest day of my young life.
Admittedly, I did pay a steep price for this, as this instituted me going to the cinema to see films with her (always her choice) that I otherwise couldn’t get into once a month, which meant that I sat through some heinously boring nonsense such as Interview with the Vampire, but in my mind it was totally worth it. Totally. Enough of that nonsense, on with the review!
Summary of the film:
Reservoir Dogs was, as mentioned, Cokey’s debut feature. Now incredibly famous, it tells the tale of a heist that gone dramatically wrong. Our villains are all suited up professional thieves recruited specifically by Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) and Big Joe (Lawrence Tierney) for this diamond heist. The crew consists of Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr Orange (Tim Roth), Mr Pink (Steve Buscemi), Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen), Mr Blue (Eddie Bunker) and Mr Brown (Tarantino himself). The film principally deals with the aftermath of the heist, and who may possibly have been the police informant in the crew.
Tarantino employs a dizzying amount of narrative pyrotechnics here, flashing backwards and forwards in time to supply the background to the raid, the recruitment of the gangsters, and the heist itself. Slick, hugely entertaining, amusing on many an occasion, jammed full of pop culture nonsense (most famously the opening “Madonna’s Big Dick theory”) and with a soundtrack stuffed with long forgotten gems, in many ways this is the touchstone Tarantino movie. It’s also, unlike later efforts, comparatively short, and feels like a lean, mean whiplash of celluloid. Watching it now almost makes me despair of the self-indulgent streak that he’s developed that’s so grotesque that he turned what should have been a simple exploitation grindhouse movie into a marathon (and deeply boring) two film slugfest with a limp-dicked climax.
I am as surprised as anyone to report that Reservoir Dogs still holds up and is still a borderline great film. As I watched it this time, I was stunned at how much I was enjoying it, and while it didn’t feel fresh any more (as I’m long passed sick of Tarantino’s schtick), I was reminded of how novel it did feel at the time. In my ignorance, Reservoir Dogs felt to me like something new, exciting and wholly original, and Tarantino instantly became a director that I would look for.
The acting here is superb, with Tarantino regulars Roth and Keitel in particular stunning. However, my favourite turn is Buscemi as the weaselly Mr. Pink, which I think is a truly note-perfect effort. Obviously, Madsen’s psychotic Mr. Blonde is the most famous role, but in many ways I think Roth and Buscemi are superior, as his turn, while chilling, is basically a one-note psycho.
The writing is also stunning. Tarantino has genuinely never been better with the pen than he was here, and the exchanges that went on to become his hallmark feel natural with these characters, it doesn’t feel anywhere near as laboured as garbage such as the music conversation in Death Proof, or the monstrously tedious and factually inaccurate Superman crap at the end of Kill Bill 2. It was, and this is hard to explain, also cool, and it is no wonder that posters with quotes from the film ended up plastered across teenage bedrooms all over the UK. I honestly, believe that Reservoir Dogs is an almost perfect marriage of actors to material, and I struggle to think how it could have been improved.
There’s also the fact that the film is,as mentioned, or rather was, cool. The famous walk to Little Green Bag, for example, reeks of style and the well constructed and frequently amusing one-liners sound like the exact sort of thing you invariably think of 2 hours after they would have been right. There’s a very early-90’s zeitgeist feel to Reservoir Dogs, and this sense of cool is something Tarantino hit effortlessly with Dogs that he’s never managed to get back to no matter how hard he tries now.
Nevertheless, it is problematic. The first is that it is quite clearly plagiarised, and not at all subtly. I know that this should not be relevant, because A Fistful of Dollars is obviously based on Yojimbo, which in turn was ripped off Dashiel Hammett’s Red Harvest, but the similarities between Reservoir Dogs and forgotten (and superior) Hong Kong action movie City of Fire are startling. It’s worth running a comparison, because we’re not talking scenes and ideas here, the film lifts even down to the composition of certain shots. Cokey, even in the infancy of his career, clearly has the black heart of a plagiarist.
Still, watching it almost 20 years after I initially saw it, I had a great time again, and was reminded of a happy story from my childhood. Reservoir Dogs is, to my mind, Tarantino’s best film and along with Jackie Brown the only one I feel like ever watching again.
Why did it have problems:
Funnily enough, it didn’t. Well, not in the same way that Emmanuelle, or those films coming in this series did. Let me explain:
The BBFC were well aware of the film before it landed on their doorstep. Reservoir Dogs had gathered quite a reputation before it arrived in these shores, and the combination of “cool” with “violence”, not to mention the profanity and adult themes, always meant that the film was destined for an 18 Certificate. The only question was whether to cut it.
Incredibly common sense won out, and Reservoir Dogs passed completely uncut with an 18 Certificate.
Ordinarily, this would be the end of the story, yet when it was resubmitted for its video classification the UK was in a froth of moral outrage. The problem was that the tabloids had whipped up middle England into a frenzy over cinema violence in the wake of the James Bulger Killing (erroneously pinned on Child’s Play 3). As a result, Middle England had whipped up the hard-of-thinking Tory vermin that were currently running the country. As a result, they were busy passing their piece of fascist legislation, and Reservoir Dogs simply fell into the gap.
James Ferman (Director of the BBFC at the time) was heavily involved in the writing of the bill, and he dreamed up a ludicrous “harm test”:
‘(The BBFC were to pay) special regard (among the other relevant factors) to any harm that may be caused to potential viewers or, through their behaviour, to society by the manner in which the work deals with [such issues as] criminal behaviour [and] violent behaviour and incidents’.
Idiocy. Yet, this now meant that Reservoir Dogs had problems.
On initial certification, the BBFC expressed concerns about a number of instances in the film, the most notorious of which is the famous ear cutting scene to Steeler’s Wheel. They worried that Mr. Blonde’s comments (“It amuses me to torture a cop”), and his general demeanour dancing around wielding the razor blade excessively glamourised the sadism inherent in the scene. Given the weight that the BBFC put on films that dwelt on excessive violence in 1992, it still surprises me that they passed it based on 3 highly sensible criteria: the scene is a key plot point revealing the informant; it’s integral to the themes of loyalty and betrayal in the film; and nobody is meant to like, sympathise with or want to emulate Mr. Blonde.
With Ferman’s harm test in place, they now had to look again at the scene and, frankly, shat it. In lieu of actually making a decision, they instead decided to just stall the film as long as possible, in the hope that the furore would go away. Eventually, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction arrived to great critical and commercial acclaim, and they finally made the decision to pass it uncut, given that everyone knew what was in it anyway, it hadn’t actually left the cinema screens, and Pulp made it clear what the content of a Tarantino film was likely to be.
Thus Reservoir Dogs finally received a certificate in 1995, a delay (and effective ban) of over 2 years. Incidentally, Tarantino himself was delighted at the delay, because it extended the run of the film far beyond its natural lifespan, and made Reservoir Dogs into a cult hit.
Were they right to delay it:
Leaving aside the moral cowardice of sitting on the film for a minute, this represents some of the worst pandering to public opinion that they’ve ever done. Not only was the delay factually unjustifiable, because they’d already submitted it uncut in the cinema, it is absurd to censor Reservoir Dogs like this when you think about the nature of the violence in the film for a second.
For a start, despite the reputation for violence the film carried at the time, there isn’t actually that much of it. Yes, Mr. Orange does spend most of the film bleeding to death in the corner, but this isn’t a John Woo film in that millions of rounds are fired with no real danger to anything other than a few windows. The depiction of firearms in Reservoir Dogs is that they’re lethal. Any time a gun is drawn, someone is going to get shot, and that shot is going to cause serious damage. There’s no taking a bullet to the celluloid sweet spot (Left shoulder) and then climbing up a building like Spider-Man. If you get shot here, it’s probably going to kill you.
Secondly, the most extreme moment of violence in the film, the ear cutting, which is the scene that most worried them, doesn’t take place on camera. The Censors were delaying a film where you don’t even see the most controversial scene! As I mention, this is bizarre.
Eventually they did grow some balls, and determined that the film could be “robustly defended” (which says it all about the reactive nature of classification in the UK) along the lines that I’ve already laid out, and their own initial decision on it- there was, aside for a completely unmerited terror of the press, no reasonable justification to hold the film for so long. If anything, I find it astounding that it wasn’t released.
Finally, and more importantly, the delay in the film’s video release had two significant knock on effects. The first was that this delay arguably made the success of the film, by making it notorious, and therefore Tarantino’s career, but more importantly, the notoriety of the film had raised it to “must see” status among the very people they were concerned about protecting.
The idiocy here is that had it not been unavailable, then I would, most likely, have simply forgotten about a small, independent crime film starring people I wasn’t really aware of (let’s face it, Keitel’s career was well in decline before Dogs), and yet by so obviously restricting the availability of it to 13 year old me, it became something (along with The Exorcist, A Clockwork Orange and a few others) that I simply had to see.
The BBFC’s dalliance made Reservoir Dogs unmissable, and therefore this is one of the most self-defeating acts of stupidity in their history. By trying so hard to protect the likes of me, they made it likely that I would actively seek it out and watch it. A truly epic failure in nerve, policy and common sense.
It’s a strange history that Reservoir Dogs had in Britain. The BBFC, for the record, still pretend that it was never censored, but by artificially creating a delay of three years, they created the impression that they had actively banned the film.
If they’d simply had the courage of their convictions, and passed it uncut on video when first presented, then there is simply no way the reputation the film carries would exist. It just is nowhere near as gratuitously violent as made out, and when violence does occur there are serious consequences. Surely this is the kind of film-making that a censor should prefer, instead of indestructible cartoon character heroes shrugging off gunshots the way you’d run off a cramp.
It does also help that Reservoir Dogs is also a seriously good film. I’m not for a second pretending that it is perfect, but I do enjoy it almost every time I watch it and a part of me does despair at the swollen domed egotist that Tarantino has now become. Nevertheless, Reservoir Dogs is a borderline great film, and one I’m happy to approve without blinking. There’s no need for a recommendation here, as everyone in the universe has probably seen this one, but nevertheless, Reservoir Dogs is heartily approved.
Next up is the history of Horror, the genre that plagues the censor more than any other, which is odd, considering the point of horror is to scare the audience.