Artisan // 1992 // 100 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Norman Short (Retired) // February 14th, 2000
Let's go to work.
With those words, several criminals only known to each other by color-based pseudonyms set off to pull a big diamond heist. The job goes horribly wrong, and they question each other in search of revealing a hidden police spy. Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, From Dusk Till Dawn, Four Rooms) co-produces, directs, and acts in this, his debut film. At least in film circles, this movie has garnered nearly as much controversy as the script he'd written just before, Natural Born Killers. Some critics dismissed the film quickly; others rave about it as genius. Certainly it is not a film for the squeamish or those with delicate ears. There are some impressive performances, great dialogue, and palpable tension within the film. I still wouldn't qualify it as one of the great films however. I'd instead say it was an impressive debut for Tarantino, who would later prove he wasn't a flash in the pan with one idea. But still the story needed polish, and a bigger direction than the short novella feel of this film.
This review wasn't on my docket, and is something of a freebie. I rented it recently, and noticed we hadn't reviewed it yet, though it was one of the earliest discs produced. In retrospect I can understand why no one ponied up to buy it earlier for review.
The film opens to a slowly circling camera around a table with the criminals talking about Madonna and tipping waitresses. It's actually pretty funny. Then a slow motion shot of our "heroes" walking out and you feel like you're in for some real action. But you only hear what is happening over the credits, and it's already after the job. The police showed up way too soon, and only some of them made it out, with Mr. Orange badly wounded. While I'm on this, lets get the introductions out of the way.
Harvey Keitel (Pulp Fiction, From Dusk Till Dawn, Copland) plays Mr. White, Steve Buscemi (Desperado, The Big Lebowski, Armageddon) is Mr. Pink, Tim Roth (Hoodlum, Pulp Fiction, Rob Roy) is Mr. Orange, and Chris Penn (Rush Hour, Pale Rider, One Tough Cop) plays Nice Guy Eddie, the son of the leader. All of these put in strong performances. Lawrence Tierney (Dillinger, The Greatest Show on Earth, Murphy's Law) plays Joe, the leader of this outfit, in a performance as authentic as they come, and who has teamed these various people together. Michael Madsen (Donnie Brasco, Wyatt Earp, Species) puts in perhaps his greatest performance as the deviant Mr. Blond, who is also responsible for the film's most shocking scene. Quentin Tarantino plays Mr. Brown, but gets killed off early and is not really missed.
You never actually see the robbery itself, the film moves back and forth in time from the immediate aftermath of it, where the individuals make their escapes, to a warehouse that they had agreed to meet up with after the job. This is problematic because they are convinced that the police were tipped off ahead of time and the warehouse may not be safe. Mr. Orange was gut-shot during the escape, and desperately needs medical attention. Mr. White develops a kinship with him as he helps him get away and attempts to comfort him as he lies in great pain in the warehouse. Mr. Pink arrives next, who maintains there was an informer in their midst. Immediately the thieves mistrust each other, and have no love for Mr. Blond who began a killing spree at the crime scene instead of trying to make a quick getaway. But get away he does, and brings a surprise: a tied up cop in his trunk. In flashback we find that he, Joe, and Nice Guy Eddie are long time friends and he couldn't be the rat since he just finished four years of prison he could have evaded just by implicating Joe. The scenes with Mr. Blond and the cop are chilling, and show off Madsen's ability to play a psychotic heavy with the best of them.
But the gist of the film is the meeting of the criminals and their interaction to identify the snitch. It works as a tense, dialogue heavy film with momentary bursts of action, but I came away feeling like there should have been more. It seemed as if it should have been a part of a bigger movie rather than the whole film itself. I think each individual performance was top-notch, and the dialogue witty, though as crude use of language as any film I've ever heard. I just felt like the film should have moved along into something else, which it never did. The ending is something that people have widely differing opinions about, to each extreme of great or terrible. Personally I sided on unsatisfactory. I can't really say more without giving it away.
The extras on this early Live Entertainment/Artisan release are scant but decent. The production notes were the most informative, but I found at least one piece of information clearly wrong. They made a point about a poster being changed from being the Silver Surfer to some character Tarantino created himself. Yet you clearly see the poster is of the Silver Surfer. Perhaps they got their cuts mixed up. The theatrical trailer and cast and crew bios and filmographies round out the extra content.
The film depends much more on style rather than substance, and that is the biggest thing wrong. With a cast as talented as this, and the performances they gave, it could have been so much more with an actual story. It's still not bad, but you get the feeling this was a dress rehearsal for Pulp Fiction, a better picture.
Now for the rest of the reason why I now understand why this has not been reviewed yet. I wouldn't buy it in this state. The disc comes with a non-anamorphic 2.35:1 letterboxed transfer on one side, pan-and-scan on the other. The image quality, even on a 4:3 television, ranges from decent to poor. There are often scenes where the image is murky and the print the transfer came from could have been better.
The sound is about the same lackluster quality of the video. While it does have a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, only the musical score comes off noticeably detailed. The dialogue is muffled and it took mighty steps to try to understand it, and I eventually used the subtitles so I didn't have to go back and listen to a line over again. I haven't seen the VHS version of this film but I'd have a hard time saying the DVD is better than it would be.
This film has legions of fans who probably already own the disc. For those who haven't seen it and want to, I'd strongly suggest rental rather than purchase. I'd still be happy to have it in my collection if a new collectors edition with a new transfer all around were made, but I'd be more inclined to pick a different film when I needed my Tarantino fix.
Quentin Tarantino gets off with a light fine since he has gone on to improve his craft, and this film, taken as a debut film, shows his great potential. The disc gets failing marks though, and Artisan is compelled to do a new transfer of both video and audio for a special edition before it can be recommended for purchase by this court. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 1992
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Production Notes
* Theatrical Trailer
* Cast and Crew Bios