Jackie Brown

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Dir. Quentin Tarantino

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz


Despite him being my favorite filmmaker when I was in high school, and despite the fact that engaging with Tarantino’s cinema was one of the most important and influential developments in my early introduction to the movies, I really fell off of Quentin Tarantino almost immediately after high school. The Kill Bill movies were released at the beginning and the end of my senior year of high school, and I remember spending much of the ensuing summer under the thrall of their pastiche of cinematic influences, continuing my love affair with Hong Kong action cinema and getting more seriously interested in Sergio Leone. When I came to Pittsburgh for college, however, I found myself with access to a wealth of movies to explore, and I was eager to explore the texts that had informed the post-modern cinema of my favorite director. Somewhere along the way, revisiting Tarantino’s actual films seemed less and less important. Death Proof, released the summer before my senior year of college, didn’t move the needle for me, and I don’t think I saw Inglourious Basterds until as much as a year after its initial release. Missing it on the big screen is a big regret of mine, since I’ve seen every other Tarantino since Kill Bill: Vol 1 in the theater, and because after nearly a decade of returning to Inglourious Basterds, I’ve found it to be my favorite 21st century Tarantino movie. It might be the quintessential Tarantino film, perhaps more so than even Pulp Fiction, and the more I watch it, the closer, and more comfortable, I get to declaring it my favorite Tarantino movie ever.

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Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino’s revisionist history of World War II, framed through the lens of Italian B- action movies, American Westerns, both classic and revisionist, and the European New Wave cinemas of the 1960s. It finds Tarantino at his most appropriative, and at his most original, weaving a tapestry of these disparate styles to create a pattern that’s distinctively unique, while fabricating from whole cloth a compelling narrative worthy of a 1940s dime store pulp serial. Set in and around occupied Paris, Inglourious Basterds introduces the audience to a cast of misfits – American soldiers, defected former-Nazis, English spies, and one vengeful French Jewish cinema owner – who are brought together by their fervor for killing Nazis. The titular Basterds are a renegade squad made up primarily of American Jews and led by Lieutenant Aldo Raines (Pitt), feared throughout Europe for their penchant for ambushing and murdering entire Nazi units. Shoshanna Dreyfus (Laurent), is a French Jew hiding out in Paris and posing as a cinema owner, whose whole family was killed by an infamous Nazi interrogator, Hans Landa, nicknamed The Jew Hunter (Waltz), who also happens to be on the trail of the Basterds. Through a chance meeting with an over-eager Nazi war hero, Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), Shoshanna’s cinema is chosen to host the propaganda film that Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) has made about Zoller’s military exploits. This screening is to be attended by much of the high brass of the Third Reich, including Hitler (Martin Wuttke) himself, which prompts Shoshanna to launch a plan to burn down the theater with the Nazis inside. All of the involved parties are put on a collision course culminating in the film’s literally explosive climax during the film’s premiere.

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I’ll be writing about two of the movies that Tarantino directed in between Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds within the next couple of months, so I won’t delve into either Jackie Brown or Kill Bill, but after watching Inglourious Basterds for the sixth or seventh time, I feel more assured than I ever have that this is Tarantino’s best work post-Pulp Fiction. It’s tough for me to take any of the credit away from the latter film, as it has rightly gained a classic status for its role in shaping post-modernism in cinema, its announcement of Tarantino as a major influencer and voice in independent film, and its radical reinvention of visual and narrative cinematic language. That being said, I am really starting to think that Inglourious Basterds does everything that Tarantino’s earlier film does while also improving upon some of Pulp Fiction’s rougher edges. Simply put, Inglourious Basterds is the work of a more mature filmmaker. By 2009, Tarantino had already fully established his signature style of cinematic collage, wearing his wide set of influences on his sleeve, and often straddling the line between homage and plagiarism, but Inglourious Basterds is the movie that sees him mastering his style and seamlessly meshing his own visual aesthetic with the visual and storytelling styles of his influences in service of a tight narrative, creating a sharp film in which form and content are perfectly complementary. It’s a blend of the artistic modernism embodied by the French New Wave and the exciting, slapdash postmodernism of the New Wave of American independent film that established itself in the 1990s.

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Inglourious Basterds also features the single best performance in a Tarantino film in Waltz’s truly terrifying turn as The Jew Hunter. The film’s masterfully suspenseful opening scene is the perfect introduction to Waltz’s truly villainous SS Col. Hans Landa. He plays the Nazi interrogator with equal parts sophisticated charm, savage brutality, and ruthless cunning, creating a layered villain who is as fearsome for his silver tongue as he is for his abject viciousness. In the scene, Landa is interrogating a French farmer, M. LaPadite (Denis Ménochet), who is suspected of hiding a Jewish family in his home. The Jew Hunter begins his investigation by complementing and cajoling with the farmer, but of course this is a pretense, as both parties are well aware of the deadly consequences that will befall LaPadite and his family should his wards be discovered, or if he resists the line of questioning in any way. The two actors circle around one another verbally as Tarantino allows the scene to play out languorously, tension building by the second. There’s no doubt as to the outcome of the scene, but this doesn’t make the moment when Landa calls in his goons to machine gun the poor family hiding beneath the floor boards any less shocking or viscerally horrible. The violence isn’t what makes the scene so particularly horrifying, but rather the fact that Landa has been building to this particular climax with a smile pasted to his face, relishing the discomfort he is causing in LaPadite. The character’s erudition and charm are insufficient to mask his inner monstrosity, and Waltz is perfectly cast as an actor who at once can embody the exterior of societal niceties, as well as the flinty interior of a cold-hearted, remorseless killer.

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Inglourious Basterds also finds Tarantino drawing from a broader set of influences than in many of his earlier films. While Jackie Brown drew its inspiration solely from the world of Blacksploitation films and Kill Bill operates in a Western milieu, with dashes of Hong Kong action and Wuxia thrown in for good measure, Inglorious Basterds is a beautiful pastiche, borrowing liberally from the works of John Ford, Sergio Leone, Leni Riefenstahl, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Howard Hawks, as well as featuring homages to famous films such as The Wizard of Oz, The Dirty Dozen, and Unforgiven, among others. The film is a love letter to classic cinema, and it’s the Tarantino film which most explicitly highlights his cinephilia, placing films and their exhibition at the core of its narrative. I’ve heard a criticism of Tarantino and of post-modernist filmmaking in general that it offers up great style with little substance, essentially functioning as a checklist of “in” references to be discovered by fellow movie nerds, but I’ve always felt that that criticism is hollow and really doesn’t stand up to the actual experience of watching a Tarantino film. The director might bear his influences proudly and obviously, but his frequent liberal borrowing from film texts always serves as a complement to original and engaging narratives, and this is truer than ever in Inglourious Basterds. Certainly Tarantino has lifted some settings and motifs from earlier films, but they serve as the window dressing for a revisionist history fable that is thoroughly modern and original and that, at the same time, couldn’t exist without being informed and influenced by its predecessors. In this way Inglourious Basterds forms a feedback loop, or an Ouroboros, a B-movie that achieves actual prestige, propped up by a host of earlier texts while also informing those texts and imbuing them with new meaning and life. It’s the perfect Quentin Tarantino movie.

I reserve the right to reevaluate this judgment when I soon write about Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction, but I don’t expect that I will. While those are both movies that I love and that I relish the opportunity to engage with in a more critical manner, I think that I am familiar enough with them all that at this point my mind is made up. Inglourious Basterds achieves levels of meaning and critical engagement with its influences that those movies fail to, and it’s a better movie for that reason. It lacks the shock factor that must have accompanied Pulp Fiction’s initial release in 1994, but only because it takes a similar, and already accepted, template and perfects it. Tarantino followed up Inglourious Basterds with two films that I enjoyed, but that I felt were more style than substance and which I haven’t had a lot of interest in going back to in the way that I have with all of his other films. As a fan for life, I’ll turn up with interest for any new Tarantino project, but it will difficult to top the high water mark that Inglourious Basterds holds in my mind.


Desperado (1995)

Dir. Robert Rodriguez

Written by: Robert Rodriguez

Starring: Antonio Banderas, Selma Hayek


Desperado was one of my favorite action movies when I was a teen, and it, along with other early Robert Rodriguez films, became highly influential on my early ambitions of becoming a filmmaker. I was a certified Tarantino freak in high school, and his filmography and circle of influence became a major jumping off point for me in discovering other favorite films. It was a short jump from Tarantino to his friend and frequent collaborator Robert Rodriguez, and Desperado was my entry into the latter’s low budget, sun baked brand of cinema. I immediately recognized the meta-cool of Tarantino’s postmodern style, but while Desperado indulged some of the same impulses of Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown, its influences were decidedly grittier. While Tarantino’s films sought to recontextualize and elevate their B-movie influences to the status of “high art,” Rodriguez’s reveled in the “low art” status of their cult and midnight movie predecessors. Rodriguez has proudly walked to the beat of his own drum throughout his career, learning the trade of filmmaking on the job, and constantly evolving as an artist. At this point, he has become a brand, the progenitor of a grindhouse resurgence that has only gained steam as new media has made it easier for aspiring filmmakers to create movies on a shoestring budget and get them released to wide audiences through alternative distribution channels like streaming or VOD, but Rodriguez’s early films represent a different type of guerilla filmmaking. In the 1990s, with films like Desperado, Rodriguez was one of a handful of filmmakers raising the flag for interesting, high production value, low budget, DIY filmmaking.

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Desperado begins with a road weary, possibly deranged traveler (Steve Buscemi) stumbling into a bar in Mexico and relating the tale of a tall, shadowy figure that he saw murder a bar full of gangsters a few towns over. His story piques the interest of the bartender (Cheech Marin) and his associate (Carlos Gomez), as they obviously know the principals in the traveler’s story. It turns out that that shadowy figure is known as “El Mariachi” (Banderas), and he’s strapped with a guitar case full of guns, on a quest for vengeance against Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida), the drug lord who murdered his wife. Desperado is a straight forward revenge tale, with El Mariachi stalking Mexican towns, hunting down members of Bucho’s gang as he tries to get closer to the man himself. Along the way, he meets and falls in love with Carolina (Hayek), a book store owner who happens to be Bucho’s lover. When Bucho finds out about El Mariachi and Carolina’s affair, he sends his men to hunt down the pair, but they fight off their pursuers and eventually confront Bucho himself at his compound. After dispatching of Bucho, El Mariachi is free to ride off into the sunset with Carolina, although he hangs onto his guitar case full of guns, “just in case.”


What the film might lack in narrative complexity, it more than makes up for in fast-paced, explosive action. Rodriguez is obviously channeling the influence of the Hong Kong action films of John Woo in Desperado, but the film doesn’t feel derivative. Instead, it becomes a celebratory homage to those action landmarks, and a testament to Rodriguez’s ability to create polished, kinetic action sequences on a shoestring budget. His book, Rebel Without A Crew, details the process that Rodriguez went through to make his debut film, El Mariachi (which Desperado is a sequel to). It can serve as a primer for young filmmakers looking to chase their own movie dreams, and it was a huge influence on me in my late teens. Though the budget for Desperado was significantly larger, it was still scant by Hollywood standards, and Rodriguez still holds true to the rules of economic action filmmaking detailed in his book. His later films would see him working with bigger budgets, full FX teams, and cutting edge CGI technology, but the essence of Rodriguez’s style is perfectly on display here.


The stunt work in Desperado is impeccable, with Banderas doing all of his own stunts and performing some excellent fight choreography. He combines slapstick elements with traditional fight choreography and firearms work to create an ultraviolent, combustible ballet. Bullets rain down throughout the movie and countless scores of anonymous bad guys are dispatched of. This is action at its most impersonal and most impressive: mindless, excessive, and explosive. Rodriguez, a self-proclaimed guerrilla filmmaker, squeezes every bit of value out of his film’s $7 million budget. His mastery of practical effects and ingenuity as a filmmaker allow him to turn in a film that looks every bit as polished and has just as many high action set pieces as a big budget studio film. Although the industry and movie making technology have changed significantly in the 20+ years since Desperado was released, aspiring filmmakers who want a crash course in delivering high quality films on a budget should still look to Rodriguez’s early films and his book for tips. He’s by no means the only filmmaker capable of producing films of this quality on tight deadlines and budgets, but action films are so often the result of bloated FX budgets, lengthy shooting schedules, and complicated stunt work, and they still rarely leave the lasting impact that Desperado has, which is a testament to Rodriguez’s unique skillset.

As I mentioned, for all of its visual sheen, Desperado still finds Rodriguez struggling to flesh out his narratives. The script for Desperado is bare bones, interested only in the most direct motivations for its characters, and certainly not interested in significant psychological examination or character development. I don’t know that Rodriguez has ever really learned to write a “good” script, but I also don’t think that he often makes the type of films that are so significantly character driven that this is a bad thing. He plays to his strengths in Desperado and doesn’t let extraneous character background or plot devices get in the way of the fight scenes and explosions. There are attempts in the film to provide some depth for El Mariachi’s character, such as his relationship with a young boy who is growing up watching the cartel violence in his town, or his romantic relationship with Carolina, but these are largely underdeveloped. Narrative simplicity in a film like Desperado is fine. Character motivations in films like this one are concrete and don’t need a significant amount of discussion. However, one interesting thing about Rodriguez’s approach to storytelling in Desperado is his penchant for weaving the story together through narrated flashbacks. The film opens with one such instance of this technique, with the traveler telling the story of his encounter with El Mariachi interspersed with flashbacks of the mysterious gunman shooting up the bar. Though this isn’t a unique narrative device, Rodriguez employs it skillfully enough in Desperado that it helps to break up the linear progression of the film and makes for an interesting storytelling wrinkle.

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Though the script might not be complex or narratively innovative, it does feature several great individual moments and opportunities for characters to deliver memorable monologues in one-off scenes, particularly earlier in the film before the action really ramps up. Banderas is great as El Mariachi, which, for me, is his signature role. He plays the character with a combination of winking cool and ruthless, violent determination. There’s an elegance to the choreography that Rodriguez has designed, with Banderas performing his stunts like a dancer, performing a duet with the camera to graceful, devastating effect. Hayek has little dialogue in the film, but she proves equally capable of performing action stunts, and Rodriguez gives her enough agency in the film that she doesn’t sink to the role of eye candy, which would have been a typical choice in a Hollywood action film. Almeida is a hate-worthy villain as Bucho. His performance isn’t over the top, as he chooses to play Bucho as largely disinterested in anything going on around him. His defining characteristics are cruelty, greed, and apathy, and they’re manifested in Almeida’s nose-in-air performance and his utter disdain for the rest of his costars. In many ways, though, the film’s supporting cast are given the best moments in the film and provide the most memorable performances, aside from Banderas’s. Desperado features cameos from familiar faces such as Steve Buscemi, Cheech Marin, Quentin Tarantino, and Danny Trejo, and though most of these actors are only given a scene or two, they bring their established (or burgeoning) personae to their scenes, and individually nail them. I’ve already mentioned Buscemi’s opening scene, which sets the stage for the destruction to come, but Marin’s cynical, corrupt bartender is classic Cheech, particularly in his brief interaction with an entitled tourist. Tarantino gets a brief moment to ham it up with a memorable telling of a genuinely funny joke, while Trejo, in one of his first mainstream film appearances, makes the most of his silent performance by utilizing his imposing physicality in a role as a bounty hunter tracking El Mariachi. Top to bottom, the cast shines in a genre that often doesn’t ask much of its actors.

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It’s probably pretty obvious that my zeal for Desperado has not lessened any with age. It isn’t a film that I watch with any regularity anymore, but it’s one that I can get caught up in just as easily today as I did when I first saw it. Most modern action movies have become so formulaic and so obviously FX driven that I rarely seek them out. Desperado still feels like a breath of fresh air. It has its obvious influences, and it is clearly existing within a fairly rigid genre template, but Rodriguez’s sensibilities and his unique storytelling voice keep the film from ever feeling derivative. The film’s set pieces still hold up even with 20 years of technological innovation, and its central performance from Banderas as El Mariachi is an action archetype. I feel like Desperado doesn’t get as much consideration now, because Rodriguez’s career has moved away from making straight action movies and more into a direction of making B-movies and children’s sci-fi, but it’s a genre classic. In the 1990s, Desperado was a weekend cable TV staple, and it is still as fun of an experience to sit down and mindlessly consume as it was then.