After the commercial success of Pulp Fiction (1994), Quentin Tarantino could make whatever film he wanted. He decided to defy expectations by adapting Elmore Leonard’s crime novel Rum Punch as Jackie Brown (1997), a comeback vehicle tailor-made for one of his favorite feminist Queens of Kicking Ass, Pam Grier. After years of plugging away in countless unremarkable supporting roles, she started resurfacing on the popular culture radar with small but significant parts in Mars Attacks! (1996) and Escape from L.A. (1996). However, Jackie Brown would be a starring role alongside Robert De Niro and Samuel L. Jackson who appeared in supporting roles. Tarantino’s gamble paid off and while it didn’t rack up Pulp Fiction-type grosses at the box office, it was a critical darling primarily due to Ms. Grier hitting it out of the park with a confident, assured performance. More importantly, it demonstrated that Tarantino could step back from the pop culture pastiche that was Pulp Fiction for a more substantial outing that placed emphasis on mature, fully-realized characterization over the more superficial reproductions in his previous films. The end result was a sometimes funny, sometimes poignant look at the notion of aging and the baggage that it brings.
Pam Grier appears on-screen during an opening credits sequence that evokes a similar one in The Graduate (1967) only instead of evoking a somber mood as that film did with “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel, Jackie Brown sets an upbeat tone with the triumphant strains of “Across 100th Street” by Bobby Womack and Peace thereby proudly announcing the return of the actress to the mainstream after years of toiling away in television.
We are subsequently introduced to Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), a slick guns dealer who loves to talk big (we first meet him explaining the pros and cons of various guns), but he is also someone not to be messed with as an interlude with one of his flunkies – an even chattier guy known as Beaumont (Chris Tucker) – illustrates. In trademark Tarantino fashion, the two men verbally spar as Ordell convinces Beaumont to do a favor for him. As in most of his films, characters often talk as a form of survival and only when they stop is when bad things tend to happen. The Beaumont interlude has nothing to do with the story, but it does provide us with crucial insight into Ordell. He’s clearly a dangerous man who will do anything to protect his business. Tarantino depicts this sequence in a series of his characteristic long takes that establishes the stylistic approach he adopts for the rest of the film. This allows scenes to breathe and the actors to savor each word like a fine meal.
Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is a stewardess for Cabo Air, an obscure Mexican airline, and works for Ordell, bringing him large amounts of money across the border into the United States. One day, she’s stopped by L.A.P.D. detective Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen) and A.T.F. agent Ray Nicolet (Michael Keaton) who search her. In addition to finding $50,000 in cash, they also discover a small packet of cocaine that was planted and which lands her in L.A. County Jail. Ordell hires Max Cherry (Robert Forster), a veteran bail bondsman, to get her out. When Max meets Jackie coming out of lock-up it is quite possibly love at first sight as the camera oh-so gradually zooms in on Max’s face and he is clearly drawn to this beautiful woman walking towards him as the soulful strains of “Natural High” by Bloodstone plays over the soundtrack, complimenting this moment perfectly.
Being the nice guy that he is, Max drives Jackie home and on the way they go for a drink at a local bar. It gives her a chance to have a drink and a cigarette and decompress after a brief stint in jail. Fed up working for an increasingly suspicious Ordell and feeling pressured by Dargus and Nicolet, Jackie – with Max’s help – devises a scheme to con Ordell out of $550,000 of his retirement money and give the cops what they want – the gun dealer.
After the sprawling epic that was Pulp Fiction, with its unexpected plot twists and shifts in time, Tarantino dials it back for Jackie Brown, taking his time by delving deep into these characters, letting us get to know them in a way he hadn’t done in his previous films. In the past, his characters were pretty superficial – a collection of pop culture references and quirky dialogue, but working from solid source material provided a strong foundation from which he could add his trademark flourishes.
The best scenes in Jackie Brown are between Jackie and Max, like when he visits her the morning after she gets out of jail. In-between discussing what to do about Ordell, they talk about vinyl vs. CD and getting old. Max speaks frankly about losing his hair and doing something about it while she speaks of gaining weight over the years. It is a wonderfully honest conversation between two adults who have been around the block more than a few times with very little to show for it except a few regrets.
Tarantino wrote the role of Jackie Brown specifically for Pam Grier and clearly plays to her strengths while also allowing her to show off acting chops that the veteran actress was rarely given the opportunity to in the past. Grier has definitely aged well, but Tarantino doesn’t avoid the issue of age and in fact makes it the film’s central theme. Like Jackie, Grier has had her share of ups and downs in life, only her character has little to show for it. The scam she plans to pull on Ordell is her chance to get out of a crappy situation and start over in style. This scheme revitalizes Jackie and Grier does a great job of conveying the transformation that her character undergoes over the course of the film.
Much like Grier, Robert Forster’s career started off strong, but fizzled out over the years into a string of forgettable B-movies and T.V. shows. However, Tarantino never forgot about him and was confident that, with the right material, the actor would remind everyone just how good he could be. Forster brings a world-weary charm to Max with every line in his weathered face suggesting years of dealing with criminal low-lifes like Ordell and Louis and he’s tired of it all. Forster has a great scene where Max tells Jackie a story about when he decided to quit being a bail bondsman. It not only provides his motivation for going in with Jackie on her scheme, but also brings them closer. They are both looking for a better life.
Jackie Brown was part of a solid run of films for Robert De Niro in the 1990s that included the likes of Casino (1995), Heat (1995) and Ronin (1998). Where in those film he played ultra-professional criminals, in Jackie Brown he’s a slightly dim-witted goon, but the actor wisely doesn’t go for a stereotypical caricature that we’ve seen in so many films, but rather a guy who thinks he knows what’s going on. Ever the chameleon, De Niro looks the part with his unshaven, unkempt appearance. Louis is incompetent as evident in his actions during the climactic money switch as he lets Melanie’s increasingly annoying behavior get to him. De Niro handles this sequence so well – we share in Louis’ mounting frustration.
As he demonstrated with Pulp Fiction, Samuel L. Jackson was born to say Tarantino’s dialogue. No one issues badass threats quite like he does and you can see the actor relishing every word as he flat out enjoys the hell out of his role. Ordell thinks he’s the smartest guy in the film and this over-confidence proves to be his undoing as he underestimates Jackie. Not surprisingly, Jackson gets most of the film’s flashiest dialogue, but he’s also quite gracious with is castmates as evident in the scenes he has with Grier, which crackle with intensity as Ordell maintains a jovial façade, but there’s an undercurrent of menace. It’s a tricky balancing act that the actor manages so well.
Tarantino gives all the significant characters prominent moments to do their thing, like when Louis (Robert De Niro), a friend of Ordell’s, and Melanie (Bridget Fonda), Ordell’s beach bunny girlfriend, bond over getting high. Both them aren’t too bright with Melanie only thinking she is while Louis struggles to keep up with Ordell’s plans, content to go with the flow. Initially, Melanie comes across as a flighty pothead, but as the film progresses her annoyance factor increases, so much so that we actually sympathize with Louis’ growing frustration, which comes to a head during the climactic money swap. Bridget Fonda, a mainstay of ‘90s cinema, really sinks her teeth into the role during this sequence as Melanie relishes needling Louis about his lack of intelligence, right down to over-annunciating his name in a way that would make even the most resilient person lose their cool.
Michael Bowen and Michael Keaton have small, but pivotal roles as a cop and an ATF agent respectively. They nail the condescending arrogance of their characters who think that they’ve got Jackie under their thumb. Keaton especially is good as a guy who thinks he’s some sort of hot shot with his new-looking black leather jacket and tight white t-shirt. It’s a role he would go on to reprise briefly in another Elmore Leonard adaptation, Out of Sight (1998). One of the joys of Jackie Brown is watching all of these actors bouncing off each other and having fun doing it as they get to chew on these meaty roles.
When Quentin Tarantino was 15-years-old, he shoplifted a paperback copy of The Switch, a crime novel by Elmore Leonard. He loved it and read the author’s other books and was amazed at how Leonard created “his own unique universe.” After Pulp Fiction, Tarantino took his time until the right project presented itself and that was Leonard’s 1992 novel Rum Punch, which featured some of the same characters from The Switch. Tarantino remembered, “When I read the book, I saw the entire movie in my head.” In particular, he was drawn to the age of the characters: “I liked their age. I liked the fact that this is an older movie, that we’re dealing with more mature people … I liked the fact that there was a wonderful desperation about these people, due to their age and their place in the scheme of things.”
Early on, Tarantino reached out to Leonard and told him that he was adapting Rum Punch. In adapting the book, Tarantino made a few significant alterations, including changing Jackie’s race from white to black, because he wanted Grier to play the role, and the setting from Florida to L.A. because he knew that area better. Then, Leonard heard from Tarantino again just before filming started and the filmmaker admitted that he had been afraid to talk to him because of all the changes he made. Leonard simply told him: “Why? Because you’ve changed the title and you’re starring a black woman in the lead? Do what you want. You’re the filmmaker, you’re going to do what you want anyway.”
While writing the screenplay, Tarantino began to think about who could play Jackie and thought of Pam Grier. “She had all the right qualities. She had the right age – she’s in her 40s. She had the right looks for that age.” Initially, he envisioned playing the role of Ordell because the filmmaker felt that the character was a composite of all his mentors when he was a young man. Ordell was the “persona of who I could have been at 17 if I didn’t have artistic ambitions … I would have been involved with one scam after another. I would have done something that I would have gone to jail for.” It took some effort on Tarantino’s part to let go of the character and let Samuel L. Jackson play him. To prepare for making Jackie Brown, Tarantino watched Hickey & Boggs (1972), Straight Time (1978) and They All Laughed (1981).
Tarantino first met Grier when she auditioned for a role in Pulp Fiction (which would eventually be played by Rosanna Arquette). A year afterwards, the actress met him on a street in Los Angeles where he told her that he was writing a film with her in mind. A year later, she met Tarantino again and inquired about the film. He gave her the script. At first, Grier figured that his then-girlfriend Mira Sorvino would be playing Jackie and she’d play her best friend. She was pleasantly surprised when he told her that she would be playing Jackie. Grier identified with the character because “there are metaphors in her life that parallel mine. I know I’ve brought a lot more humanity, a lot more pain and emotion and texture to this role than to anything I’ve done because of everything I’ve been through.” When she accepted his offer, she told Tarantino, “You’re asking a lot. I’ll have to strip myself bare. I’ll have to reveal myself and be raw on screen.” To that end, she gave it her all: “I was so tired at the end of the day, I’d just go home, sit in the tub and cry.”
Robert Forster first met Tarantino when he auditioned for Reservoir Dogs. He didn’t get the part (the role went to Lawrence Tierney) and the director told him that he wouldn’t forget the actor. While writing the script for Jackie Brown, Tarantino had four actors in mind to possibly play Max – Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, John Saxon and Forster, but was always leaning towards Forster. When he finally decided to cast Forster in Jackie Brown, he had no agent and according to the actor, “nobody wanted me.”
Jackie Brown enjoyed mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it four out of four stars and wrote, “You savor every moment of Jackie Brown. Those who say it is too long have developed cinematic attention deficit disorder. I wanted these characters to live, talk, deceive and scheme for hours and hours.” The New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris wrote, “Mr. Tarantino has returned after a long directorial hiatus with his wisest, warmest, subtlest and most suspenseful effort without sacrificing his patented outrageousness and his exhilaratingly clever narrative strategies.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Pam Grier looks marvelous, with her diamond eyes and sexy half sneer, and though the middle-aged bulkiness of her body gives you a bit of a start, she is, as always, a commanding actress; she blends street smarts and melancholy the way she used to blend street smarts and Amazonian hauteur.” The Washington Post’s Steven Hunter found the film to be “funny and the plot twists are so sudden and violent it’s great fun.”
However, in her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “The film is best (and most patiently) enjoyed as a set of laid-back sketches that don’t always head anywhere, even if a filmmaker of Mr. Tarantino’s talents can make schmoozing such an end in itself.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan wrote, “For one thing, at 2 hours and 40 minutes, Jackie Brown plainly takes longer than it should to unfold. Along with that too-leisurely pace goes a lack of immediacy, a sense that this is the kind of thing that Tarantino not only might have done in his sleep but in fact has.”
When Jackie Brown was released, filmmaker Spike Lee criticized Tarantino for excessive use of the “n-word” racial epithet in the film. “Quentin is infatuated with that word,” Lee said, “What does he want to be made – an honorary black man?” Years later, Tarantino addressed Lee’s comments: “My biggest problem with Spike was the completely self-serving aspect of his argument. He attacked me to keep his ‘Jesse Jackson of cinema’ status. Basically, for a little bit of time before I came along, you had to get Spike Lee’s benediction and approval if you were white and dealing with black stuff in a movie. Fuck that.” Regardless, Leonard himself approved of Tarantino’s film: “I liked it. I like to see my characters done so well on the screen.”
At the heart of Jackie Brown is an unrequited romance between two people that we want to see get together. They come from different worlds and this conflict is captured perfectly in the last scene as Jackie drives off with the Delfonics’ "Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” playing over the soundtrack. I love that this fine example of classic early Philly soul is their song (it might as well be also known as the “Jackie Brown Love Theme”) and encapsulates their relationship. Jackie’s facial expression goes from slightly sad to a slight smile at having successfully accomplished her goal back to slightly sad because of the unrequited romance with Max.
Tarantino has to be commended for refusing the temptation to simply crank out another Pulp Fiction and instead adapt someone else’s work and make it his own. He made what is easily his most mature and substantial film – a Quentin Tarantino film for people who don’t like his films. Jackie Brown isn’t merely a pastiche of other movies and pop culture references, but actually tells a substantial story with characters that resonate long after the film ends. Unfortunately, it didn’t perform as well as Pulp Fiction did at the box office and ever since Tarantino has fallen back to what he knows best – endlessly sampling other movies, giving genres like the martial arts movie and the western his own unique spin, but they all lack the soulful substance of Jackie Brown.
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