iNumber Number, Reservoir Dogs and “Plagiarism”

iNumber Number (later retitled to the much more generic and already taken by another 2013 action movie ‘Avenged’), as far as South African crime films are concerned, is pretty robust. There are legitimate criticisms to level at it, but instead several reviews do it the disservice of suggesting that writer/director Donovan Marsh cribs significantly from Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 debut heist film Reservoir Dogs. Since iNumber Number received only modest international attention beyond its appearance at TIFF (and some coverage of a planned American remake), most of these comments come from a userbase of non-professional public film review aggregates. One refers to the film as a “remake” or “re-imagining”. Then another mention of it being a remake. One suggests Tarantino sue the “rip-off” and its offending creators. Beyond several of these comments being more than a little spiteful, their dedication to the creative sovereignty of Tarantino is laughable. Though their comparisons are not alone:

They extend to a few professional reviews as well, though these critics seem a little more charitable, labelling iNumber Number as simply “reminiscent” of Reservoir Dogs, and suggesting that it “lives up” to these comparisons, or doubling back on referring to it as the “South African Reservoir Dogs”.

Let’s interrogate whether or not the similarities bare suspicion. I assume you’re familiar with Reservoir Dogs, and if not; I wonder why you’re bothering to read this? iNumber Number’s premise goes as follows: “When Chili Ngcobo, an honest but ambitious undercover cop, is cheated out of a major reward by his corrupt superiors, he infiltrates a cash-in-transit heist gang, and instead of busting them, he decides to participate in a one-off score. He must face off against his partner, who refuses to let him do it, and one of the gang members, who recognizes him as a cop.”

We see a good amount of shared DNA; undercover rats, heists gone wrong, kidnapped cops, stand-offs of the Mexican variety. Case closed? I suppose, if these similarities are enough to make the two films largely interchangeable to you. To these users, Tarantino went where no man had gone before, and iNumber Number ought not have the gal to remix and borrow from his work. I wonder, then, if these users (or indeed these critics) have ever seen City on Fire. The 1987 Hong Kong crime-thriller, starring the legendary Chow-Yung -fat, which bears a striking resemblance to Reservoir Dogs (or, more accurately, Dogs resembles it). The premise: “A maverick undercover cop infiltrates a gang of Hong Kong jewel thieves but is wounded when the robbery turns into a massacre. Trapped in their hideout, the gang seek to unmask the traitor in their midst.” Beyond the narrative, several moments seem to have been plucked right out of City on Fire (the undercover cop getting a shot to the gut during the heist, a dual-wielding pistol massacre of cops through a blood-spattered windshield, a Mexican standoff, a revelation of the betrayal of a conflicted criminal confidant). The scenes have been paired together gracefully in this video.

Tarantino is not a fraud (and neither, for that matter, is Donovan Marsh). Despite what he’s fruitlessly maintained over the years, the inspiration of City on Fire is clear and has been since day one, but that does not mean that Tarantino’s film can’t stand on its own. Upon release, Reservoir Dogs was not remarked on for its intricate and original plot; it was a pretty standard crime drama made thrilling with a fresh perspective, mingling chronology and enlivening dialogue. Reservoir Dogs owes much more to City on Fire than iNumber Number owes to either of them, but stopping the buck at whichever film you like the best and acting as if that’s where these ideas originated (and assuming that that is the reason it’s great work in the first place) is ridiculous and betrays a lack of familiarity with film as a rule. Maybe the users above would have done well to remember the inimitable quote of their beloved director: “I steal from every single movie ever made.” And isn’t he good at it too? The enormous wellspring of film knowledge his fans admire but largely neglect to participate in affords him more to draw on artistically than most. This appropriation is arguably Tarantino’s most recognizable directorial trait.

Crime films have some of the most homogenous plots in film. You’re perfectly welcome to have a problem with the sort of borrowing Tarantino and Marsh are accused of, if you respect the total authority of a writer’s ownership of intellectual property. But that also means you can’t just decide which film you like best, or saw first, or have even heard of, and disregard its “thievery”, whilst wagging your finger at a newer incarnation. Someone has always done it first. I prefer when someone does it better.