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Non-Review Review: Jackie Brown

I think Jackie Brown suffers in comparison to the rest of Quentin Tarantino’s distinguished filmography. While Grindhouse: Deathproof divides film fanatics along “love it” or “hate it” lines, it seems the general critical consensus on Jackie Brown is that it’s simply “quite good.” I like the film, even if I don’t rank it as highly as most of his other work, and I wonder if the movie feels so strange because it’s probably the most “conventional”film that Tarantino has directed. While the dialogue and the character interactions help immediately identify the film as the product of Tarantino, it’s an adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel, and it feels like a reasonably conventional little crime thriller.

That's her name...

A lot of Tarantino’s somewhat characteristic touches feel strangely out of place in a film like this. The plot is a ping-pong back-and-forth “who is playing whom?” thriller, as the eponymous stewardess finds herself trapped between a major gun dealer and the ATF agent out to catch him. The movie features Jackie trying to outwit the two men trying to play her, while hoping to walk away with a rather substantial amount of cash. So there are plots; there are plots within plots; there are plots within plots within plots.

So it feels a little surreal to see that level of conspiracy and double-crossing going on, set against the long and wonderfully meandering conversations Tarantino likes to include between his characters. That’s not to say that these scenes don’t work – indeed, they work quite well individual, as Tarantino smartly pairs off Robert DeNiro and Samuel L. Jackson, and Pam Grier and Robert Forster, with both sets of actors playing off each other remarkably well. It’s hard to point to an individual scene in Jackie Brown that doesn’t work, at least on its own terms.

Driving the plot...

On the other hand, it feels strange to see all those scenes of long and rambling conversations joined together in a fairly conventional plot. Pulp Fiction allowed Tarantino to wander off on these tangents because it gave the orchestrated impression of random chaos, rather than a carefully-constructed crime thriller. Reservoir Dogs suited Tarantino’s style because the actual plot was relatively light, allowing the writer and director to flesh out the movie with his trademark dialogue. Here, it seems like an attempt to fit that style within a more conventional framework – almost like putting a round peg in a square hole. He manages, but it doesn’t seem quite as deft or smooth as his earlier work.

On the other hand, as with a lot of his material, Tarantino’s enthusiasm for film is infectious. From the opening sequence, where Across 11oth Streetplays over a retro credits sequence (complete with copyright notice appearing in the titlecard), it feels like Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s affectionate homage to the crime thrillers of the seventies. Tarantino is easily one of the more nostalgic modern film directors, and Jackie Brown feels like his most nostalgic of films. I’ve always found it somewhat ironic that the only film in Tarantino’s filmography drawing explicitly from another writer’s work would be perhaps his most personal.

Can Jackie survive this Ordell?

Changing the ethnicity of the lead character from Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch so he could cast Pam Grier, it’s hard not to get the sense that Tarantino genuinely loves those sorts of old-fashioned exploitation films. Here, more than any other film from the director, you get a sense of his love of film – not the medium, but the recording technology. In the late night scenes, you can see the hint of grain flickering across the screen. The colours feel a little richer than normal, as if hinting at the technicolour process used during the seventies.

At one point, Robert Forster (another relic of seventies cinema) asks about Jackie’s outdated LP collection, wondering why she hasn’t gotten in on “the whole CD revolution.” Given Tarantino’s good-natured rejection of digital technology (having directed a scene in Sin City using the technique), the discussion seems vaguely prophetic – there’s no ill-will about the advancing technology, it’s just that Jackie grew up listening to LP’s. There’s an added retroactive irony in that we later see Forster pick up an album recommended by Jackie… on cassette.

Time to bail?

In a way, Jackie Brown feels like more than just an affectionate homage to a style of film that you just don’t see anymore, but a slice of genuine cinematic nostalgia. While Tarantino had already established his skill at reinvigorating old screen icons and setting talents like John Travolta loose upon the world again, there’s something rather wonderful about he choice of leads. Pam Grier was an icon of the blaxploitation scene, but it feels sentimental to see Tarantino make her the hero of this story.

Indeed, there clearly a hero to this particular story, as Tarantino goes to great lengths to rationalise that Jackie’s actions aren’t simple theft. Stealing half-a-million dollars would typically make any character morally suspect, but Jackie seems the least ambiguous lead character in any of Tarantino’s earlier films. In fact, it’s quite heart warming to see Jackie and the old bail bondsman Max Cherry manage to outwit all those around them – almost proving that these two icons have life in them yet. Jackie Brown almost seems like the least cynical film that Tarantino has directed, something which makes it immediately interesting.

Proof it's a Tarantino film...

Also of note is the superb supporting cast Tarantino has assembled. He continues to demonstrate a great eye for casting, even managing to find room for Chris Tucker in this film, without the comedian ever seeming irritating rather than amusing. It’s always great to see Michael Keaton, and I appreciate the fact that Soderbergh also used him to play the same character in Out of Sight. It’s hardly the lead-up to The Avengers, but it was a clever way of suggesting a shared cinematic universe.

However, it’s Samuel L. Jackson who puts in the best supporting performance as the vicious gun dealer Ordell. We spend most of the first half-hour with him, as we see how exactly Ordell does business – from his loud mouth boasting on the couch to his calculated murder of an underling he suspected would have ratted him out to the authorities. Jackson is fantastic, playing a man who is slick and smooth, yet incredibly sinister and violent. There’s a lovely sequence towards the end, where he seems genuinely remorseful about the death of an old friend, and Jackson nails it perfectly.

Shot on film?

There’s also a wonderful sequence between Pam Grier and Jackson shot in the dark of her apartment, as Ordell tries to determine if Jackie is a liability to him. He has his gloves on, wrapped slowly around her neck. All of a sudden, Ordell pauses.

Is that what I think it is?
What do you think it is?
I think it’s a gun pressed up against my dick.
Well, you thought right. Now take your hands off from around my throat, n****.

It’s one of those perfect moments that Tarantino captures so very well.

Jackie Brown isn’t perfect. It feels a little surreal, like Tarantino is trying fit his trademark style within a relatively conventional film. However, it’s still well worth a watch – partly because of the wonderful sense of nostalgia Tarantino evokes so skilfully, and also because it’s such an interesting cocktail. It’s a film made with genuine love and affection, which I think carries it a lot of the way. It’s not up there with his best work, but very few films are.

3 Responses

  1. One thing you didn’t mention in your non-review was the fantastic chemistry between Forster and Grier. Even just the way they have coffee together, and talk about life, they seem perfect together on screen. It just makes the ending all the more poignant.

  2. One of my more appreciated Tarantino films as it is more mature than Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill. Grier and Forster are aces as the leads.

    • They are indeed, and – as mentioned above – I feel guilty for not spending more time talking about them. I think it’s awesome that the movie is essentially about two seventies screen stars getting one up on a bunch of more modern and hipper characters.

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