No acclaimed filmmaker is immune to the curse of “that one movie that everyone ignores“. For Francis Coppola his film in that category is pretty much everything after Apocalypse Now, for Martin Scorsese, that film is Bringing Out The Dead (or any of his documentaries), and for Quentin Tarantino, it’s Jackie Brown.
It’s easy to see why it isn’t held as high in regard as, say Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill, as there are quite a few features that set it apart from his other works- for one it was his first film to utilize linear storytelling (he’d have much better success with it in Kill Bill), it isn’t quite as vibrant or flamboyant as Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, and it’s his tamest movie to date- for example, only four people die in the entire film, there’s nowhere near as many uses of the word “fuck” as his previous two films (though it does almost reach 200 uses), and its feel is leisurely compared to Pulp Fiction, which was a colourful blast of energy. It’s also his first and only adaptation to date as it is based on the late Elmore Leonard‘s 1992 novel Rum Punch, which is a sequel to his popular novel The Switch.
But don’t let any of these qualities put you off from seeing Jackie Brown, because it’s still a Tarantino movie through and through. In fact, it has all his trademarks; dialogue-driven plot, all-star casts, feet shots, trunk shots, POV shots, long tracking shots, and jukebox-style soundtracks. Like Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, it’s also an homage to genre flicks, this time it’s an homage to the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s and 80s. Tarantino grew up with the Blaxploitation flicks, and in particular, took a liking to Pam Grier. She is known for Friday Foster, Coffy, Women in Cages (which spawned her number one hit “Long Time Woman“, which- unsurprisingly- is heard in the film), Foxy Brown, and Scream Blacula Scream among others. Pam Grier was the foxy queen of Blaxploitation, arguably one of the many who cultivated the genre, and it was Quentin Tarantino’s dream since he became a filmmaker to work with her. In fact, she was supposed to be Jody in Pulp Fiction but Tarantino didn’t think the audience would find her being constantly yelled at by Eric Stoltz believable enough to the audience. That said I would absolutely hold this right up there with Pulp Fiction. They’re two different movies, but two quality movies at that. As per usual Tarantino is on fire with his dialogue, with tons of one-liners and witty remarks all over the place (Samuel L. Jackson) does take credit for most of them – hell, why wouldn’t he?), the directing and editing have never been tighter, and the soundtrack matching up with shots and what not has never been more fitting.
Strangely enough we aren’t introduced to Jackie until 25 minutes into the movie despite the film’s opening credits focusing entirely on her boarding her flight on the airline she works for, Cabo Air, the film instead focuses on Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), an arms dealer, Melanie (Bridget Fonda), one of his clients, and Louis Gara (Robert De Niro), an ex-con who is interested in buying some guns off of him. The opening scene is typical Tarantino- all of them sit in Melanie’s living room, Louis watching as Ordell shows him a “Women with Guns” video to showcase some of his specialty guns, and Melanie getting high with a weed pipe. In this part of the film, we’re introduced to Ordell’s criminal profession, to start within this scene he gets a phone call from one of his business partners Beaumont Livingston (Chris Tucker), who is in jail for DUI with a weapon. Immediately he goes to Max Cherry (Robert Forster, who was nominated for an Oscar for this film) to bail him out. Later that same night he goes to Beaumont’s house to visit him, and this is where we get a hint of how seedy he is, he lures Beaumont into thinking he’s going to follow through on his assault with a weapon, but instead Ordell stuffs him in the trunk, drives him out into a park, and shoots him to death. Later, to show Louis exactly what he should prepare for should he plan to work with him, he shows him Beaumont’s corpse, and tells him why he did it: “He got himself in a position where he would have done 15 years in jail“. Gulp. “Don’t fuck with Ordell” is putting it lightly.
After this, we’re introduced to Jackie Brown (Pam Grier). She’s on her way home from an exhausting shift, and two cops, Ray Nicolett (Michael Keaton) and Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen) stop her on her way to her car in the airport parkade. They seem to be typical nosey cops, but they soon reveal that they’re there because she was connected to Ordell. They find a huge amount of money in an envelope in her bag, clearly meant for Ordell. When doing a search through her bag at the police office, they find a bag of cocaine in the envelope, which was slipped in without her knowledge- and yep, she spends the night in the slammer. Ordell attends her hearing and immediately takes the money he owes for the Beaumont bail bond and puts it forth for Jackie. Jackie is a beautiful, albeit clearly stressed 44-year-old flight attendant, who is clinging onto her sinfully low-paying job, a 16K a year plus retirement benefits, and can’t afford to be in jail. Ordell is aware of this, to which he responds by attempting to pull the same stunt he did on Beaumont, but here’s what we love about Jackie she’s no fool. In fact, when Max goes to pick her up, the first thing she asks is how much the bond was, and almost immediately follows it up with, “It was Ordell, right?” This is just the first of many reasons why she may be my favourite Tarantino protagonist. After she has a drink with Max at a nearby bar, she proves herself to be a strong and tough lady when Ordell goes to her house. It’s obvious he’s going to try to kill her, which is why he keeps turning off the lights in her house, but she knows it- in fact, she steals Max Cherry’s gun to protect herself. She waits for the right moment to make a move, threatens him at gunpoint, and lays down her deal, Ordell owes her. BIG fucking time. If she tells on Ordell, she’ll walk free, but if she doesn’t she spends 10 years in jail. She decides she’s worked for him long enough and flat out tells him, it’s time for him to figure things out now.
Here’s where the real plan comes into play; she works out a plan with Ordell to pretend to help the authorities while smuggling in $550,000 US of Ordell’s money, which is enough for Ordell to retire. So Ordell decides that in order for this to work he needs Melanie, Louis, and Sheronda (Lisa Gay Hamilton) another client of his, to participate. Jackie also deceives the cops by not telling them this and attempts to catch Ordell during a money transfer himself, 10% of the money to be exact. Another thing to love about Jackie, she’s a master at deception. One thing she hasn’t told anybody about is that she plans to keep the other 500K for herself. They stage a trial run at Del Amo mall where the transfer will take place. When Jackie realizes Ordell fucked up with the Sheronda plan, they devise a plan to fool the cops into thinking the transfer will take place in the food court- but knowing Jackie, she has more than a few tricks up her sleeve.
To spoil any more of the film would be dead criminal because the third act is probably the most quietly intense of Tarantino’s filmography. I’d even go so far as to say it rivals the Crazy 88 scene in Kill Bill Vol. 1 and the Candie Land shootout in Django Unchained. In fact, the way Tarantino lets the story unfold is just stunning, in the actual money transfer scene Tarantino reverts to his usual “different POV” style and all 3 POVs are well executed. One particular bit involves an almost one-take scene that’s amazingly suspenseful, thanks in part to the camera work, Pam Grier’s performance, and the use of “Escape” by Roy Ayers from the score for Coffy. The film’s climax is quiet and restrained, but because you’ve already sat through so much intensity already, it doesn’t matter.
As far as technical aspects go Jackie Brown is top notch Tarantino. This is the one and only film that Tarantino has made that wasn’t released in 2:35.1 aspect ratio, nut that aside, some of the camera work here is outright gorgeous. Never have shots of the food court in a shopping mall looked so pretty, or even a van driving down a seedy street in Los Angeles. This is one of his more colourful looking films too, albeit in a different way from Pulp Fiction. Whereas Pulp Fiction shows off its colours in an almost comic bookish way the colours here are more subtle and restrained, but it’s more fitting of the film’s nature.
Jackie Brown really deserves more credit than it gets. As I mentioned earlier in the review this film is largely ignored because it doesn’t have the same feel as Quentin’s other films. It’s largely dialogue-driven, and a bit more willing to wear its homage-frais on its sleeve than the films that surround it. But for those who love typical Tarantino dialogue, cinematography and technical specs, this film is a must.
Jackie Brown is different from Tarantino’s other films, but is by all means a must see.