Quentin Tarantino’s star couldn’t have burned any brighter in the fall of 1997. The one-two punch of Reservoir Dogs in 1992 and Pulp Fiction in 1994 had turned him from a “who’s that?” into one of the biggest Hollywood directors around. So, it was obvious that Tarantino’s next film would feature his idiosyncratic blend of ultra violence and postmodern gangsters, right? Wrong. While Jackie Brown does revel in nostalgia and feature its fair share of firearms, it’s a much more subdued, nuanced and mature film than any of Tarantino’s previous works, or any other production within his entire filmography.
(MOSTLY) GROUNDED CHARACTERS
It should be noted that Jackie Brown is based on Elmore Leonard’s 1992 novel Rum Punch, making it Tarantino’s only adaptation. This might account for the significant tonal shift. It’s a crime movie with more than a few twists, but there are no extended watch-up-a-butt monologues or redneck gimps. There’s less shock and more contemplation. Jackie (Pam Grier) isn’t a hotshot, over-the-top heroine. She’s a middle-aged woman who is looking to make something of her life before it’s too late. She’s smuggling money from Mexico to the U.S. for gun runner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson.) to make ends meet, not out of any desire to be a badass or to be a career criminal. Grier does a fantastic job of capturing Jackie’s desperation. She’s caught between Ordell and the feds, and one slip-up could ruin her for good. But Jackie isn’t a milquetoast character either; she’s got swagger and confidence that, in the end, gives her an edge over the goofy cops and the creepy Ordell.
Grounding the film with Grier is Robert Forster, who plays bail bondsman Max Cherry. Like Jackie, Max runs with a bad crowd, but he’s not a menace or some off-the-rails criminal. There’s something old-fashioned and sweet about Max. He’s like someone’s dad who just happens to bail people out of jail for a living. He’s soft-spoken, orderly and sincere. In Jackie, he sees a good-hearted woman who has wound up on the wrong side of the law. Sure, Max helps her steal half a million dollars in the third act, but he’s smart about it, and he’s doing it to help.
It’s Samuel L. Jackson who brings maniacal and menacing energy to Jackie Brown, much like he did as Jules in Pulp Fiction. Ordell is scary when he threatens Jackie, but he’s goofy-fun when he needs to be to be, cracking jokes about machine guns. He’s the kind of guy who seems like he could explode at any moment, and he proves to be both a convincing villain and charming criminal. This would be the first of many return appearances for Jackson in Tarantino’s films, and it’s a welcome one.
The rest of the characters are mostly inconsequential, but Tarantino makes some interesting casting choices. Robert De Niro plays Louis Gara, Ordell’s would-be partner and former cellmate, and it’s got to be one of the weirdest, most understated roles of his career. De Niro barely makes a peep throughout Jackie Brown, at least until he explodes at the end and kills Ordell’s “blonde-haired surfer girl,” Melanie (Bridget Fonda). He’s an awkward fool of a guy, almost comical. Rounding out the cast are ATF agent Ray Nicolette, played goofily by Michael Keaton. He’s the “good cop” to Michael Bowen’s “bad cop” Mark Dargas, and it’s not hard to see how Jackie can easily dupe these guys.
LOVE AND LOSS
As mentioned before, Tarantino explores more mature themes via Elmore Leonard’s characters, and Grier is perfect for the titular role. In the 70s, she was the star of blaxploitation films like Foxy Brown and Coffy, but by the mid-90s, her shine had diminished. Like Travolta in Pulp Fiction, Grier was a pop culture relic, and Tarantino helped revive her career. She’s the perfect person to play Jackie, not only because she’s got the crime-thriller credentials, but because she almost mirrors the character — an older female looking to make an impact. The soul music that serves as the soundtrack isn’t just awesome to listen to (honestly, “Across 100th Street” still slaps), it’s a callback to Jackie’s more youthful days; she still listens to those old records, longing for days when she wasn’t hanging by a thread.
Max Cherry may have a successful career as a bail bondsman, but he, too, longs for a better life. Though Jackie is caught between the ATF and a gun runner, he finds in her a partner in crime, someone to help him get out of his own rut. Max is smitten by Jackie, and even buys a Delfonics tape – music she enjoys. The Delfonics’ hit “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind” plays during several of Max’s scenes. Not only does the song remind him of Jackie (who hasn’t listened to a song that reminds them of a crush?) but it’s an oldie, a sweet throwback to simpler times, before bail bonds and bills and threatening gun-runners. That Tarantino features such quiet moments and transforms these aging people into sympathetic protagonists highlights the director’s evolution; a quick step away from his motormouth, over-the-top, postmodern AF tropes.
DASHES OF UNORTHODOX STORYTELLING
Tarantino defied traditional plot structure in Reservoir Dogs, bouncing back and forth from present to past events, and he pushed the boundaries even further in Pulp Fiction, taking a time-hopping, non-linear approach. Jackie Brown follows a linear narrative, of which aligns with the more-grounded story being presented. Tarantino is mostly concerned with the female protagonist, so there’s no reason to get wacky with the presentation. It’d betray the tone of the film.
However, there are a few scenes where Tarantino follows his outside-the-box tendencies. The first notable scene transpires when Max brings Jackie home from jail. Ordell arrives at Jackie’s door, intent on killing her for protection from the cops. Tarantino presents a split-screen car sequence, in which Max discovers that his gun has been removed. It’s then revealed that Jackie has the gun, which she uses to defend herself from Ordell. It’s a clever way to build suspense — how is Jackie going to get out of this? — and to offer new information to the viewer.
The next notable scene comes at Jackie Brown’s climax, as Jackie and Max run their heist to run off with Ordell’s $500,000. The scene plays three times, each from a different point of view, each offering new information that challenges the viewer’s expectations. The first run-through is told through Jackie’s eyes, as she walks out of a changing room and tells Nicolette and Dargas that Melanie has run off with the money. The second run-through focuses on Melanie and Louis — Melanie grabs the bag, they bicker in the parking lot and Louis shoots Melanie. The big reveal comes in the third run-through, which is focused on Max. He walks into the changing room and seamlessly walks out with the money. It’s a clever way to present the heist that might not have been so interesting with real-time cutbacks.
There’s been talk about Tarantino making a Star Trek movie, but that wouldn’t necessarily be a TARANTINO film, just an oddball STAR TREK film. Who knows if he’ll adapt another story, but looking at Jackie Brown — an outlier in Tarantino’s filmography — it might not be a bad idea to give it another go. There aren’t many iconic moments or visuals to latch onto in Jackie Brown, but the story and screenplay are top notch. That Tarantino would follow up Jackie Brown with something as bloody and cartoony as Kill Bill is quite the sea change.
John Brhel (@johnbrhel) is an author and pop culture writer from upstate New York. He is the co-author of several books of horror/paranormal fiction, including Corpse Cold: New American Folklore and Resurrection High, and the co-founder of independent book publisher Cemetery Gates Media. He enjoys burritos and has seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom way too many times.
Categories: 1990s, 2019 Film Essays, Crime, Drama, Film Essays, Thriller