There’s a scene midway through Reservoir Dogs wherein the impossibly cool Mr. Blonde, played with gangster-Elvis panache by Michael Madsen, is brutally torturing a police officer.
The premise of the film is that a jewelry store robbery has gone awry, and because the police response was so damn quick, the gang of black-suited thieves is convinced there’s a rat. Up until this point, we’ve seen Mr. Pink kill a cop in a downtown L.A. shootout; Mr. White admit to putting down “a couple of cops” during his getaway; and Mr. Blonde kidnap a young beat cop, store him in his trunk, spit on him, and watch Mr. Pink and Mr. White treat him to a barrage of punches.
But that’s nothing compared to what’s in store.
When Mr. Blonde is left alone with the cop, he coos, “Alone at last,” before removing his jacket and approaching the boy in blue, who’s bound to a chair.
“Look, kid, I’m not gonna bullshit you. I don’t really give a fuck what you do or you don’t know, but I’m gonna torture you anyway, regardless. Not to get information. It’s amusing to me to torture a cop. You can say anything you want, because I’ve heard it all before. All you can do is pray for a quick death—which you ain’t gonna get.”He points his gun at the cop’s face, and maniacally laughs as the bloodied man turns his head from side-to-side to avoid the potential death shot. Then he removes a straight razor from his boot, and puts a song on the radio—“Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel. Mr. Blonde, blade in hand, proceeds to dance around his victim, before slashing him in the face and sawing his right ear off. When he’s done, he holds the ear in his hand like a trophy and, with a big shit-eating grin on his face, says, “Was that as good for you as it was for me?”
Perhaps it was only a matter of time before the police went after its director, Quentin Tarantino.
On Oct. 24, the filmmaker was perhaps the most famous face at the Rise Up October rally in New York City—a protest calling for “a major national manifestation against police terror.” And, taking the stage in front of tens of thousands of concerned citizens, the Oscar-winner gave an impassioned speech against what many feel is an epidemic of police brutality in America.
“I’m a human being with a conscience,” Tarantino declared. “And when I see murder I cannot stand by. And I have to call the murdered the murdered and I have to call the murderers the murderers.”
Police unions across the country, including those in New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, took issue with Tarantino’s words. The National Association of Police Organizations, representing over 1,000 police units and some 241,000 police officers, issued a fiery statement (PDF) calling the director’s remarks “utterly irresponsible” and branding them “anti-police rhetoric.”
“The National Association of Police Organizations staunchly supports the call of the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and the Los Angeles Police Protective League to boycott Tarantino’s films,” it read. “Furthermore, we ask officers to stop working special assignments or off-duty jobs, such as providing security, traffic control or technical advice for any of Tarantino’s projects. We need to send a loud and clear message that such hateful rhetoric against police officers is unacceptable.”
Tarantino responded to the boycott threats by telling the Los Angeles Times, “All cops are not murderers. I never said that. I never even implied that.”During a follow-up interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, Tarantino reiterated that he was not a “cop hater,” and said his mission was for the innocent civilians being killed by the police to “stop being statistics and start being [treated as] people.”In response, the police unions are threatening to boycott The Hateful Eight, a Civil War-era Western set to be released Christmas Day. It’s the latest in a series of Westerns for Tarantino, including Kill Bill: Vol. 2, the Spaghetti Western Inglorious Basterds, and Django Unchained.
If the police were avid watchers of Tarantino’s films, you’d think they’d have taken issue with them a heck of a lot sooner than this.
In the early ’90s, Tarantino made a career out of seducing us to root for the bad guy. Following in the footsteps of luminaries like Howard Hawks and Martin Scorsese, the hotshot filmmaker was embroiled in gangster culture—where the fella in the dark suit was king and the fella in the blue uniform was merely a piece of debris in his path. The criminals wore skinny ties and delivered the coolest lines, while the cops were doughnut-munching stiffs.
Tarantino’s aforementioned 1992 debut feature Reservoir Dogs represented this juxtaposition to a T. While the “protagonist” of the film was Tim Roth’s undercover cop, we were all rooting for the bad guys to get away with it, including the sinister Mr. Blonde—so much so that “Stuck in the Middle With You” received increased radio play, and the scene was parodied on the animated sitcoms The Simpsons and Bob’s Burgers.
True Romance, released in 1993, was directed by the late Tony Scott but scripted by Tarantino, who’s called it his most autobiographical film to date. It’s a funky homage to Malick’s Badlands where a geeky, Sonny Chiba-obsessed comic book store clerk falls in love with a delightful hooker, only to have the entire criminal underworld go after him when he accidentally makes off with a suitcase full of cocaine. The duo here—Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette—are glamorous and sexy, standing in stark contrast to the policemen depicted in the film, played by Tom Sizemore and Chris Penn as sweaty, bloated assholes.
This wouldn’t be Sizemore’s first turn as a cop in a Tarantino flick. He’d later play Det. Scagnetti in 1994’s Natural Born Killers, a film adapted from a screenplay by Tarantino about a married couple that goes on an ultraviolent killing spree. And once again, the romantic couple of Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) are the heroes, while the cop on their trail, Scagnetti, is the lowest scum of the earth. He’s not only strangled a prostitute to death, but has also become obsessed with Mallory. Following a drug store shootout, he captures Mallory and says that if Mickey doesn’t give up his weapon, he’ll slice her breasts off.
Later on, after the two are captured, Scagnetti strikes a deal with the corrupt prison warden to be the driver for the Knoxes’ transfer, where he’ll murder them. A prison riot derails this plan, so Scagnetti instead attempts to rape Mallory in her prison cell—a scenario which leads to the feisty femme fatale executing the dirty cop with his own gun.
That same year, Tarantino would release perhaps his greatest film to date—and arguably the best film of the ’90s—Pulp Fiction. Packed with quotable lines, cinematic allusions, and cooler-than-hell performances, the sprawling black comedy crime saga centered on a pair of smooth hit men (John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson) who profoundly disagree over the intimacy of foot massages. And the only police officer present in the film is a racist redneck played by Peter Greene, who gets his jollies raping men. While he’s violently raping his black victim, Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames)—yelling Yee-haw! as he does—Wallace is rescued by his onetime rival Butch (Bruce Willis). Wallace then proceeds to shoot the cop in the dick with a shotgun, then says, “Imma call a couple of hard, pipe-hittin’ niggas to go to work on the homes here with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch.”
What’s become abundantly clear is that the police unions don’t really care about the content of Tarantino’s films. If they did, they’d have voiced their displeasure a long time ago.
They’ve chosen to target Tarantino because he’s a prominent figure who’s lent his voice to the issue of police brutality in America in the hopes that placing the onus on a Hollywood celebrity will derail the conversation from the issue at hand.
“What they’re doing is pretty obvious,” Tarantino said of his cop critics. “Instead of dealing with the incidents of police brutality that those people were bringing up, instead of examining the problem of police brutality in this country, better they single me out. And their message is very clear. It’s to shut me down. It’s to discredit me. It is to intimidate me. It is to shut my mouth, and even more important than that, it is to send a message out to any other prominent person that might feel the need to join that side of the argument.”