Pulp, Passion, Petty Hoods

Quentin Tarantino's debut film, Reservoir Dogs, has been creating a stir at film festivals around the world; long before its commercial opening, Tarantino's Hollywood future was secured. Watching this flashy, startling crime movie, it's easy to see why: this may be a first film, but as both a writer and director, Tarantino oozes confidence. He knows his way around genre movies, knows exactly what effects he's after and bags them in one set piece after another. Like the Coen brothers' first feature, "Blood Simple," or Stanley Kubrick's early racetrack robbery movie, "The Killing"-which is the model for this bloody tale of a botched jewel heist-" Reservoir Dogs" leaves no doubt that you are in the presence of major-league talent.

Tarantino takes down-and-dirty pulp conventions to jokey, Jacobean extremes. He's not interested in the robbery itself-- which he never shows--but the prelude and the chaotic aftermath, when the freaked-out survivors repair to a warehouse and start to fight among themselves, trying to figure out which one is the rat who tipped off the cops. It's more an interaction movie than an action movie. As the bloodied men bicker, the movie flashes back to the starting point, when Joe (Lawrence Tierney), the mastermind, and his son, Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn), put together their team of professionals. Each man gets a code name: Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) and Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen).

The cast is superb, an impeccable toughguy ensemble. They're a study in the varieties of macho, flushed with pride at their criminal codes of honor, full of talk of professionalism. But when the chips are down, they become screaming schoolboys, pointing fingers of blame. As it turns out, the most impeccably loyal one, the unflappable Mr. Blonde, who's just served hard time without betraying Joe, is a total psychopath. Having shot several cops during the robbery, he brings one captive cop back to the warehouse and proceeds to torture him with relish, slicing off an ear with a razor blade while prancing about to '70s rock and roll.

There are buckets of blood in " Reservoir Dogs." Some of the violence is played straight, some for black comedy. In this queasy-making torture scene, however, you may feel the director is enjoying himself a tad too much. "Reservoir Dogs" is a bad boy's movie, show-offy and more than a little decadent. Its saving grace, and its limitation, is in its cool cartoonishness. It never invites any real emotional identification with these crooks. We giggle and gasp at the bravura of Tarantino's effects, but our involvement stays at the same level from start to finish. "Reservoir Dogs" is brilliant without being resonant. Its real subject, finally, is little more than its own virtuosity.

Movie buffs looking for cinematic razzledazzle won't get their temperature raised by _B_Zebrahead,_b_ Anthony Drazan's first feature (which won the Filmmakers award at the Sundance Film Festival), but it's easy to forgive Drazan's deliberately prosaic style when you get hooked into characters you care about. "Zebrahead" (zebra is slang for an interracial couple) unfolds within the tradition of the high-school movie. The setting is Detroit, and the plot one more "Romeo and Juliet" variation, this time with a white Romeo and a black Juliet. But Drazan finds fresh and honest observations about interracial romance. He's not intimidated by the subject-he lets his young characters set the tone, neither getting all gooey and self-righteous about his lovers nor, as Spike Lee did in "Jungle Fever," condemning them on ideological grounds.

Zack (Michael Rapaport) is an inner-city character we haven't seen on screen before. He's a big, intense, redheaded Jewish kid who's grown up with black friends and totally identifies with black culture. He's just broken up with his white girlfriend when he meets the beautiful Nikki (N'Bushe Wright), newly transferred to his high school from Brooklyn. She happens to be the cousin of his best friend Dee (DeShonn Castle).

We know this affair can't go smoothly, but the obstacles aren't all where you'd expect them. Zack's widowed father (Ray Sharkey) doesn't care who his son dates, just as long as he's getting regular action. A slimy, womanizing hipster who owns a second-hand record store with Zack's grandfather, dad is as "cool" about Zack's love life as he's obtuse about his son's emotional needs. As the couple get serious, it's their classmates who become polarized, but not along neat racial lines. Nikki's interest in a white boy particularly rankles Nut (Ron Johnson), a tough kid who's taken a shine to her, and it bugs Al (Abdul Hassan Sharif), a well-to-do Muslim who is the most vocal separatist in the school. The big, lively cast (a mixture of pros and amateurs) is a delight. Johnson, who's never acted before, is particularly haunting as the violent Nut. Rapaport, who has, is a real find: with his looming, almost goofy physical presence and his ardent intensity, he's sensitive in a refreshingly unconventional way. Sometimes "Zebrahead" spells things out too neatly, and the talk at the end gets a little didactic. But Drazan's clear-eyed affection for his characters is contagious. His heartfelt, plain-spoken movie achieves real, unforced power.

Just when you thought you couldn't stand another expletive-filled New York movie about scuzzy, petty hoods playing with macho fire, along comes _B_Laws of Gravity,_b_ a gritty, cinema-verite-style first film by Nick Gomez that makes this lowlife terrain seem new. Shot in Brooklyn in 12 days on a $38,000 budget, this flawlessly acted movie about two dead-end thieves--one a peacemaker (Peter Greene), the other a hothead (Adam Trese)--owes an obvious debt to "Mean Streets," yet it finds an urgent, hyperreal style all its own. And Gomez isn't good only with the guys: his women characters are extraordinary. They're the reality factor these screw-ups haven't the means to face.