Jackie Brown is an oddity among Tarantino’s features. It’s the only one not to be in 2.35:1, it’s the only adaptation, it’s said to be a tribute to blaxploitation, but instead takes a long look at aging in a life of crime. It’s almost a Coen Brothers movie at the end of the day, what with its slow, talky pace, understated dark comedy and absolute refusal to get going until half an hour into the movie. Now, I found the Coen Brothers hit-or-miss for the longest time (finally decided on miss, sad to say) but when I say that about Jackie Brown, it’s not an insult. It’s to let all my fellow cinephiles know the kind of movie this movie is. If you could picture Fargo but with all the Minnesota references with shoutouts to blaxploitation and with a significantly tighter backend, you’d end up with something like Jackie Brown.
You know how with some movies, you can see the amount of money spent on them in the movie itself? Jackie Brown looks like one of those movies. Tarantino finally got a crane shot, and let me tell you, he milked it. The roads are wet, the film is crisp–it’s fantastic. The look befits the movie that Tarantino wanted to make–his “why can’t you see me as an actual filmmaker” picture. Adaptation of a respected author; clean, crisp cinematography; a mature set of characters and interactions. While I would be the last person on Earth to characterize Tarantino’s filmmaking or style as juvenile, this is indeed his most mature effort.
Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is a forty-four year old black flight attendant who has been living a life of crime since she was a 20something year old black woman. She’s involved in the runnings and dealings of Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), a local gun- and drug-runner. By runner, of course I mean kingpin. When Jackie Brown gets arrested for possession and being connected to Ordell (despite the fact that she doesn’t talk, not one word), Ordell gets Max Cherry (Robert Forster), a bail bondsman to bail her out with money they had left over from another deal. Neither Jackie nor Max are spring chickens anymore. Their conversations reflect this. As do the conversations between Ordell’s friend Louis Gara (Robert de Niro) and his young piece of tail Melanie Ralston (Bridget Fonda).
It’s a cleverly written movie. Tarantino has always had and will always have a gift when it comes to dialogue. I wrote in my review of Death Proof that even though over half of the movie is talking and less than a third is car-on-car action, it doesn’t feel like empty talking. It’s always revealing character, it’s always establishing plot, it’s always laying the foundation for future action. And at least, if it doesn’t do any of that, it’s always fascinating. When people he writes talk, they come alive. Again, a big difference between him and the Coen Brothers–Tarantino’s films are always open to improvisation and naturalization from the actors playing the characters. As a result, his dialogue is natural, as opposed to feeling natural.
Pam Grier is a legacy in Tarantino’s universe. She was mentioned in his first feature, Reservoir Dogs. She was alluded to be tough as nails back then, but here in this feature, she plays it more like a retired criminal, out for one last score. Pam Grier plays Jackie as a woman who’s mastered the art of pulling the strings without having to lift a finger. If you don’t watch the meat of the heist scene with a careful eye, you’ll find she’s pulled the strings on you without you noticing.
The crux of this movie is her relationship with Max Cherry, played with a similar attitude by Robert Forster–it’s been too long in the game, and it’s time to get out of the business. He’s past his prime, but has accepted this fact with a quiet grace unshared by American culture. Both roles are played as characters who have vivid memories of what it felt like to want something. Now, they’d be happier settling for comfort and not being in fear for the rest of their days. That’s not a young man’s motivation.
The accomplishment in this film is showing “the Hollywood Establishment” that while he may be the run-and-gun dude movie filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino is also a master storyteller. It’s easy to understand the point-of-view of a common criminal, as in Reservoir Dogs or the point-of-view of a down-and-out boxer or a mob crime scene cleaner, as in Pulp Fiction. Tarantino used this film as his opportunity to stretch his legs character wise in a movie, having used Pulp Fiction to stretch his legs in terms of scope. While the quality of the characters he’s written since is debatably better (Hans Landa being the obvious comparison), their complexity and subtlety hasn’t been matched since Jackie Brown.
And overall, that’s what’s not that good about this movie. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a necessary movie for Tarantino to have made at this point in his career–coming off a total dude movie and a shallow epic–he needed to show that he wasn’t just a one-trick pony. While both Dogs and Fiction have literate themes and high-quality filmmaking behind them, he needed to tell the world that as much as he can do dude movies, he can also do rich character dramas. As long as they’re LA crime movies.
I guess the problem is, I never doubted Tarantino as a director. I came on as a fan along with the release of Kill Bill. I saw the trailer for that, and I was hooked. Didn’t see the movie for a couple years–my mom hates violence, but didn’t realize it was a kung fu movie–but I knew it was different, and special. And I suppose that after all these years, Jackie Brown is, too. It’s the oddball in Tarantino’s career, and will always be. And there’s something to be said for the oddball. It takes courage to make a film like Jackie Brown when you’re known for Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. While that’s definitely worth something, Tarantino’s too far out of his comfort zone to make much but a damn good movie out of it. THREE STARS