When Quentin Tarantino burst onto the scene in the early 90’s he changed the landscape of moviemaking forever. A former employee of Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, California, Tarantino had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of films that wowed fellow customers and film buffs alike. When his directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs, came out in 1992, he was hailed as a breathe of fresh air and one of the most exciting new talents in decades. A darling on the film festival circuit, QT crossed over into the mainstream with the release of his 1994 masterpiece Pulp Fiction. A huge success both critically and commercially, Pulp Fiction launched Tarantino into the stratosphere of the Hollywood A-List. Audiences were transfixed by his non-linear, hyper stylized storytelling. The wonderfully loquacious screenplays chock full of pop culture references and gallows humor. The unexpected moments of savage, graphic violence. The soundtracks filled with a variety of quality music ranging from 60’s surfer rock to the classic soul tunes of the 70’s. People had never been exposed to a talent quite like Quentin Tarantino. His movies were alive, wild and unpredictable. Now, the question was how would QT follow up back-to-back home run films? Would he finally hit a creative wall and stumble with his first flop? Was he a lightning in a bottle talent that would flame out just as quickly and spectacularly? Well, dear readers, march on and find out for yourself.
Many people who know me can tell you that Pulp Fiction is my all-time favorite film. It reinvigorated my passion and love for all that movies aspire to be. I doubt very seriously that its position on my greatest movies list will ever change or even be challenged. Let me pause though to tell you that I’m not going to launch into some tangent going on and on about how and why Pulp is my favorite film. Honestly, what more can be said that hasn’t been said already? Thousands of some of the brightest most highly regarded minds in journalism and film criticism have dissected this movie ad-nauseum over the past two decades. So, instead of continuing to beat the proverbial dead horse, I’d like to focus on what is, in my mind at least, another far more intriguing question. What is Tarantino’s second greatest film? I often pose this question to friends and fellow film buffs and have never received a consensus answer. Some say its his revisionist WWII action/dramedy Inglorious Bastards. Others, prefer his Ante-Bellum spaghetti western/slavery revenge saga Django Unchained. A few even mention his 3 hour martial arts, Japanese cinema influenced opus, Kill Bill. My two cents? No question, its Jackie Brown.
After breathless anticipation from the cinephile community, Quentin Tarantino announced that he would be adapting renowned crime author Elmore Leonard’s 1992 novel Rum Punch as his follow up to Pulp Fiction. After tweaking the screenplay, he changed the title to Jackie Brown and cast legendary blaxploitation actress Pam Grier in the title role. In the film, Jackie is a stewardess for the lowly Cabo Airlines. One character describes it as “the shittiest little shuttle fucking piece of shit airline” in the business. Struggling to make ends meet, she also smuggles money into the US from Cabo San Lucas for Ordell Robbie played by Samuel L. Jackson. Robbie is a black market gun runner with eyes on an early retirement. Shacked up in a house on Hermosa Beach with his stoner girlfriend Melanie (Bridget Fonda) and a dim bulb buddy (a grizzled Robert De Niro) newly released from prison, Jackson schemes to get over half a million dollars even while being under the close watch of the police. Problems escalate quickly after Jackie is picked up by ATF officer Ray Nicolet (Michael Keaton) and LAPD officer Mark Dargus at the airport with some of Ordell’s money and a small bag of cocaine. Unwilling to cooperate and cut a deal with the cops to frame Ordell, she is sent to jail to serve hard time. Afraid that Jackie is going to rat him out and scuttle his plans, Ordell arranges for bail bondsmen Max Cherry, a terrific Robert Forster, to get her out of prison. Newly freed but terrified of Ordell and the prospects of unemployment at middle-age, Jackie concocts an elaborate scam to play the cops and Robbie off of each other all the while planning to make off with the half million dollars herself. Got all of that? Good.
Jackie Brown is a terrific movie. I liked it the first time I saw it at the tender age of 8 and my love for it has only grown over time. I can’t for the life of me tell you why more people don’t talk about this film. It’s certainly not as flashy as Pulp Fiction or his later genre busting epics of the 2000s. Perhaps that’s one reason. Jackie Brown reveals a different side of the Tarantino persona, calmer and more reserved. Some might call it mature. With his other movies, you got the sense that QT was a kid in the candy store shot full of adrenaline. Drunk and high off of pure moviemaking bliss, he could barely contain his giddy enthusiasm as he directed these tales. Jackie, on the other hand, showcases a reigned in Tarantino. He lets the story play out at a more leisurely pace, the characters are allowed to breathe and grow. A story of this kind should really only take about an hour and 45 minutes or so to tell but he pushes the running time to over 2 and a half hours. Some folks thought the movie was bloated and ponderous, I wished it wouldn’t end. In his original review, Roger Ebert wrote, “You savor every moment of Jackie Brown.I wanted these characters to live, talk, deceive and scheme for hours and hours.” I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment. Maybe the popularity of the internet and social media, with constantly updated Twitter feeds and an endless onslaught of information hitting us daily, has plagued my generation with a serious case of ADD. We can’t savor character development and a slow burn story like our parents and grandparents. We want quick fixes and instant gratification. My advice? Slow the fuck down and let some things just carry you along. Haha, sorry I’m ranting a bit here, lets get back to business.
One of my favorite aspects of Jackie Brown is the tender romance between Pam Grier and Robert Forster that lies at the heart of the film. Forster’s Max Cherry falls for Jackie almost at first sight, the night he picks her up from jail. Bloodstone’s classic song “Natural High” plays as she walks towards him, the words of the song providing a clue to his innermost feelings, “Why do I keep my mind, on you all the time? And I don’t even knoooooowww yoooouuuu,” it croons. Much of the romance is left unspoken, you sense the mutual attraction with body language, a look, a gesture, and certainly with the music. There is another great scene not long after where Max comes to Jackie’s apartment to retrieve his gun. Anticipating a visit from Ordell, she lifts the gun from the glove compartment of his car for protection. Anyways, they share a cup of coffee and discuss approaching middle-age and the terror of growing old. “Well, I’ve flown seven million miles. And I’ve been waiting on people almost 20 years. I make about sixteen thousand, with retirement benefits that ain’t worth a damn. And now with this arrest hanging over my head, I’m scared. If I lose my job I gotta start all over again, but I got nothing to start over with,” Jackie tells him at one point. Tarantino uses some terrific music from Philly soul group The Delfonics, particularly “La la I Love You,” and “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time?,” as background during this scene. A sort of unofficial soundtrack to their romance if you will. Max later goes to a music store and picks up a Delfonics cassette and leaves it playing endlessly in his car as the film progresses. Fantastic. I’ll leave it to you to watch the movie and find out what happens with these two, but I will say that it plays out in a very realistic fashion and doesn’t cop out with a Hollywood ending.
The acting, as per usual with a Tarantino film, is top notch from the main characters all the way down to the bit players. QT has a preternatural gift for plucking fading actors out of obscurity and reigniting their careers with plum roles. First of all, Pam Grier absolutely hits it out of the park as Jackie. I mentioned earlier that she was a big star in the 70’s starring in blaxploitation films such as Coffy and Foxy Brown. She easily does her best work here maintaining the badassery of her earlier roles but also showcasing a vulnerability that is illuminating. Jackie has to stay 10 steps ahead of everyone to make off with the money and not wind up dead. She comes up all aces here. Robert Forster is her match. Also a longtime industry vet, he starred in thrillers from the 60’s such as The Stalking Moon and Medium Cool. He gives the best performance of his career as the tough but vulnerable bail bondsmen who has been in the game all too long. He garnered a well deserved Oscar nomination for his work here. Sam Jackson is his usual reliable self playing a variation of his philosophical hit man from Pulp Fiction, although much scarier. He’s a formidable opponent for Jackie, not just a dumb thug. A special shout out goes to Bridget Fonda as well. She is priceless as Melanie, the airy beach bunny who crashes with Ordell, her brain clouded with bong smoke. “You smoke too much of that shit, it’s going to rob you of your ambition,” Jackson tells her. “Not if your ambition is to get high and watch TV,” her classic reply. Performances like this should be cherished.
I’ve already talked a little bit about the soundtrack already, but allow me to expand on it just a bit more. Again, overshadowed by his other films, Jackie Brown also has a fantastic soundtrack. I’d even go as far to say its the best compilation of songs in any Tarantino film. Hell, I have the CD playing in my car even now as I write this blog. Besides the Delfonics and Bloodstone who I’ve discussed already, there are also some terrific songs from Bill Withers, Bobby Womack, Johnny Cash, and even Pam Grier. Check it out, one of the great underrated works of movie music.
Aging like a fine wine, Jackie Brown just keeps getting better and better the more I think about it. Following up the celebrated Pulp Fiction was no easy task, which I’m sure is why this film was met with mixed reactions upon its initial release. Now, I implore you to revisit this movie. Unbound from the expectations it was saddled with, audiences can appreciate Jackie Brown for what it is: a soulful, mature, maximum cool crime caper with rich characterizations, first caliber acting, great storytelling and a terrific soundtrack. This is Tarantino’s other masterpiece. Grade A