Has it really been 20 years since Michael Madsen sliced off a man's ear while grooving to the light-rock rhythm of Stealers Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle With You"? That ghastly, funny scene in 1992's "Reservoir Dogs" announced the arrival of first-time writer-director Quentin Tarantino, a former video-store worker whose name would become synonymous with amoral violence and hip humor. The one-two punch of "Reservoir Dogs" and its wildly successful follow-up, "Pulp Fiction," also established Tarantino as one of the most influential directors of the late 20th century and beyond.
Both movies will screen beginning Tuesday at area theaters, an event dubbed "Tarantino XX," which commemorates the 20-year anniversary of his big-screen debut. It's a reminder that although Tarantino didn't invent the violent crime flick, he almost single-handedly made it cool again.
Stylish suits and dark shades
When "Reservoir Dogs" hit theaters, audiences had forgotten how fun it was to swagger along with tough guys decked out in stylish suits and dark shades. Played by Steve Buscemi, Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth, among others, these guys were profane and politically incorrect, dropping slurs and obscenities with abandon. They were also hip to pop culture, deconstructing Madonna's "Like a Virgin" over breakfast.
Fresh as it seemed, "Reservoir Dogs" was a blast from several pasts. Tarantino acknowledged the influence of Stanley Kubrick's 1956 heist film, "The Killing," while his characters' color-coded names -- like Mr. Blue and Mr. Brown -- clearly came from 1974's "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three." Even Tarantino's production company, A Band Apart, was a reference to Jean-Luc Godard's 1964 crime film, "Bande à part."
Stars are born -- and reborn
Tarantino's mix of old B-movies and new-school hipsterism would jell most effectively with 1994's "Pulp Fiction." It repeated some previous tricks, including a nonlinear story line and rowdy rock soundtrack; the characters analyzed not Madonna but McDonald's. Though famous for its gratuitous violence, "Pulp Fiction" also helped birth and rebirth several stars: Uma Thurman and Samuel L. Jackson in the former category, John Travolta and Bruce Willis in the latter.
These two films -- plus Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers" (1994), co-written by Tarantino -- ushered in a new era of pulp cinema. Followers include obvious knock-offs like 1997's "Suicide Kings," Martin McDonagh's recent effort "Seven Psychopaths" and nearly everything directed by Guy Ritchie. The era is still with us, thanks in no small part to Tarantino. His latest, "Django Unchained," a Western starring Jamie Foxx as a slave turned bounty hunter, hits theaters Christmas Day.
INFO "Reservoir Dogs" screens Tuesday and "Pulp Fiction" screens Thursday at Farmingdale Multiplex Cinemas; Island 16 Cinema De Lux, Holtsville; AMC Stony Brook 17; AMC Raceway 10, Westbury; and Westbury Stadium 12. Showtimes and ticket prices may vary. Go to fathomevents.com.