Jackie Brown (1997)
Dir. Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino (from the novel Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard)
Starring: Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster
Watching Jackie Brown so shortly after watching and thinking deeply about Inglourious Basterds will likely lead me to shortchange the former film. Among the Tarantino movies that I have in my collection, and in his filmography, generally, Jackie Brown has always felt like an outlier. It’s the only Tarantino movie to be directly adapted from another source, its visual style is more coherent and it’s far removed from the pastiche style that Tarantino typically employs, and its narrative feels somewhat more conventional than the cartoonish, over-the-top filmic universes that Tarantino often explores. It’s a true crime thriller like Pulp Fiction, but it feels grittier, lacking much of the humor and miraculous coincidence that that film traffics in. Jackie Brown is a movie that I’ve owned since I started seriously getting into movies, and during high school it was a movie that I watched frequently, maybe even more so than Pulp Fiction, but like many of my favorites from that time, it’s a movie that has fallen by the wayside for me. Watching Jackie Brown again, for the first time in at least a decade, it doesn’t quite hold up to my lofty memories of it but I still came away from my viewing greatly enjoying the movie.
The titular Jackie Brown (Grier) is a middle-aged flight attendant who supplements her income by smuggling money and drugs for Ordell (Jackson), an LA gun runner and smuggler. Jackie is caught arriving in the United States with $50,000 and some cocaine, and is arrested by ATF agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton), who is building a case against Ordell, and who tries to compel Jackie to testify against him. When Jackie refuses, she’s sent to jail, and Ordell subsequently bails her out, introducing her to bail bondsman Max Cherry (Forster), who is immediately struck by Jackie’s beauty and her personality. With Jackie out of jail, Ordell considers killing her to protect himself and prevent her from cooperating with the ATF, but she convinces him to go along with a scheme that will allow him to smuggle enough money out of the country to retire. Jackie pretends to work with Nicolette in a sting to catch Ordell, while telling Ordell that she’ll use the cover of the sting to smuggle a much larger amount of money right under Nicolette’s nose, however unbeknownst to everyone else, Jackie and Max have devised a plan to double cross them all.
Tarantino, a filmmaker who even at this fairly early point in his career was defined by his auteur status and his desire to work exclusively with and from his own scripts, found a perfect match in choosing to adapt Elmore Leonard. Leonard’s work is characterized by its fascination with crime, street-level characters, and punchy dialogue, and all of these are regular themes in Tarantino’s screenplays. Tarantino makes some meaningful changes to Rum Punch, most significantly changing Jackie’s race, but Leonard stated that he felt Jackie Brown was the best adaptation of any of his work, and it’s hard to see a director more suited to filming this story than Quentin Tarantino. He crafts a Gordian knot of a caper, with so many double crosses and characters whose allegiances seem to be constantly shifting that it’s an easy movie to lose track of on an initial viewing. Repeat viewers, however, will find a great deal to enjoy in this lesser-regarded Tarantino film, as the early rush of following the film’s complex heist narrative gives way to the simple pleasures of getting to know these characters and watch them interact in a pressure cooker of a situation. While the film’s third act gets as action-packed and murderous as a typical Tarantino film, its earlier sections are much more discursive and find Tarantino writing some of his strongest dialogue. He has always been a master at capturing modern conversational parlance, but Tarantino’s keen ear combined with Leonard’s knack for words makes for some really well-written characters and fun verbal sparring, throughout.
This cause is helped by the assemblage of talent on display in Jackie Brown. Even for a Tarantino movie, this cast is ridiculously stacked. Combining A-listers like Samuel L. Jackson and Robert DeNiro, who plays Ordell’s friend and fellow criminal, Louis, with genre stars ripe for a career resurgence in Pam Grier and Robert Forster is a recipe for success. DeNiro plays rather against type as an incompetent lay about, but his performance is far from phoned in. Keaton is typically wry and sardonic, nailing the condescension and attitude of a career-minded cop. Even actors who have bit parts in the movie, such as Chris Tucker, who plays one of Ordell’s smugglers, Beaumont, nail their scenes. Tucker only has one scene in the movie before he is murdered by Ordell, but his character sets into motion the events of the rest of the film, and Tucker brings his usual manic energy to that scene and makes it incredibly memorable. Tarantino is a director who consistently proves that there are no small roles, and the types of star turns and comeback performances seen in his films help reliably dictate that he is rarely at a loss to cast his movies with huge stars.
While the entire cast of Jackie Brown is worthy of mention, the movie really belongs to its three principles who each turn in inspired and unique performances. Forster’s lonely bail bondsman is an all-time great performance and he was recognized with an Academy Award nomination for it. Early in the film, his entire being exudes regret and heaviness, but after Cherry meets Jackie, Forster starts to light up. He maintains a gruff exterior but his performance becomes airier, and perhaps more assured. Ordell is one of my favorite Samuel L. Jackson characters, alongside Jules Pitt in Pulp Fiction, and he informs the character with the same sort of fury. Ordell is a memorable villain, ruthless and charming, and Jackson’s own additions to the character only make him more memorable. He’s equally capable of spitting convincing profanity and vitriol, soothing assurances, and genuinely funny asides, and he often peppers single conversations with all three. Samuel L. Jackson often gets oversimplified as an actor, but even in a performance that is very clearly on brand for him, and which helped to craft the stereotypical Jackson performance, he displays the true dynamism that makes him a great actor. Of course, though, it’s Pam Grier who really steals the show. The movie was practically written for her, and she turns back time to the 1970s with a vintage performance. She’s poised, cunning, smart, tough, and sexy, and she gives the character a world-weariness that she needs. Jackie finds herself caught up in bad situations, but she never loses control, consistently maintaining the upper hand, and Grier’s performance speaks to that level of even-keeled mastery of self. Grier’s Jackie Brown is iconic, and it introduced her as an actress to an entirely new generation.
I don’t know that enough people think about Jackie Brown anymore. It’s over 20 years old, and I think that it has gotten vastly overshadowed by Tarantino’s other films. I would say that it is likely the film of his that I, personally, think about the least other than Death Proof, and that’s really a shame. Jackie Brown was a box office success, and a major critical success that only continued Tarantino’s stellar run in the 1990s, and despite this it doesn’t seem to carry the same sort of cache or prestige as the rest of his body of work. I imagine that that probably has something to do with the fact that the movie is an adaptation, but mostly to do with the fact that it followed up a movie as radical and popular as Pulp Fiction. Jackie Brown is a great thriller packed with excellent performances, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the kind of narrative reinvention that its predecessor represented. That isn’t to say, though, that Jackie Brown isn’t a stellar thriller that masterfully blends elements of blacksploitation and noir, and that it isn’t absolutely worth seeking out. I think that Tarantino is a filmmaker who almost always makes extremely fun movies, and the experience of sinking into the world of Jackie Brown is an unquestionably fun cinematic undertaking. I’m really glad that I was able to revisit it for this project, because there was so much about it that I had elided in my memory, and because it was just a really, really fun movie to watch. If I’m being honest, it’s probably the first Tarantino that I’ll return to once this project is finished, as well.