Rates: * * * * *
Why Did I Watch It? This was playing the day the drive ins re-opened in Australia, post Covid 19.
Five strangers are assembled in LA for a diamond robbery. They know each other only by colour code names – Mr White, Mr Blonde, Mr Pink – and otherwise know nothing of each other’s histories. One of them is an undercover cop. When the heist goes violently amiss, the survivors retreat to a suburban warehouse to figure out who double crossed who.
Quentin Tarantino’s audacious debut still carries a lot of charge, even after nearly thirty years and countless rewatches. It’s a movie whose modest resources actually work in its favour; the tiny $1.5 million dollar budget (that it was at this level was only due to Keitel’s participation) forces the director and his team to work as efficiently and economically as possible. There is not a wasted moment in the film, and the story is delivered with precision.
The bulk of the film takes place in the one, warehouse location; a basic series of rooms that provides a stark setting for these colourful characters. The white washed walls are the perfect backdrop for the black clad gangsters, visually they really pop in such a plain interior, and the simplicity of it turns your attention fully on Tarantino’s dialogue, the director’s trump card.
The lines fire back and forth, rat-a-tat, as these alpha males bicker, banter, thrust and parry. It is funny, and alarming, and this group are equally adept at both threatening each others lives, and arguing over the lead actress in an obscure old TV show (the film is rife with pop culture references, another QT trademark). The film’s most elaborate section, the ‘commode story’, chops some of the dialogue up and scatters it through a bunch of intersecting scenes that happen at different times; a bold and unusual structure that works perfectly.
In the lead, there is a choice role for Keitel, one of his best, as a veteran thief with a hidden softer side, and two stellar turns in supporting parts; Steve Buscemi as Mr Pink, with his endless demands that everyone act like a ‘professional’, and Michael Madsen as Mr Blonde, whose ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’ moment became the film’s most famous. Special mention also to Chris Penn, with his amazing neon jogging outfit, and his incredulous reactions and bulging eyes.
The movie has a nifty framing device, with distinctively voiced comedian Steven Wright as a DJ on a fictional oldies radio show, intoning what become almost like little chapter intros, and then playing a bunch of great 70s pop songs. The soundtrack for this was massive, a trick the director has pulled off many times since.
The whole thing was massive really.
I remember when this came out in 1992; I was living in WA and the film critic for the one local daily newspaper, The West Australian, had it as his top film of the year, raving about the unusual structure and dazzling screenplay. It was one of those first movie’s that people get REALLY excited about, with eager anticipation for the director’s next film.
And that one, ‘Pulp Fiction’, would take all of the elements of this and supersize them. And while I love that movie and think it is great, part of me also thinks that Tarantino was never better than he is here, when a small budget and some creative limitations forced him to reign in his penchant for excess, and get really inventive.