Quentin Tarantino’s third feature and his homage to the blaxploitation and heist films of the 1970s, Jackie Brown has been for a long time the Tarantino film I’ve told people was my favourite. On my first round of watching his oeuvre when I was in my mid to late teens, something about Jackie Brown made it my favourite Tarantino to date. Recently I’ve re-watched Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction as well as the Director’s latest Django Unchained and the film is no longer at the top of my list but it remains perhaps Tarantino’s most restrained and focussed film to date and features a great story and top cast on fine form.
When middle aged air stewardess Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is caught smuggling $10,000 and a couple of ounces of cocaine through customs she is picked up and charged. Facing a stretch in jail or a bullet to the head from her arms dealing employer Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), Brown attempts to play one side off against the other and pull of an epic but dangerous heist.
Jackie Brown begins with footage of a tired looking Jackie Brown aboard an airport travelator with Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street playing over the top. As well as being another great choice of title music, the lyrics also resonate with the film’s plot. Lines like “I'm not saying what I did was alright, Trying to break out of the ghetto was a day to day fight.” Could almost be used to describe the plot and others such as “You've got to be strong, if you want to survive.” And “You don't know what you'll do until you're put under pressure,” also ring true with the film’s story. I hadn’t noticed the connection between the song and film on either of my two previous watches but one of the good things about a Tarantino film is that it is often so deep that there’s always more to find on each viewing. The song is also used over the closing credits and for me Jackie Brown has the best soundtrack of any Tarantino film. The mix of funk and soul is right up my street and works really well with the genre, setting and style.
The plot unfolds quite slowly and takes in just a few characters and only a couple of storylines. The main story running through the film is that of Jackie’s attempt to get Ordell’s $500,000 from Mexico to L.A. To do this Jackie convinces Ordell that she can do it right under the cop’s noses. The cops just want Ordell. In the mix are the recently released from prison Louis (Robert De Niro), Ordell’s blonde haired surfer girl Melanie (Bridget Fonda) and Jackie’s bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster). The plot weaves around a little as various factions team off hoping to outsmart the others and one important scene is viewed from three different angles. The story isn’t complex though and is instead a basic heist thriller with revenge undertones. Each time I watch the film I find the story really engaging and particularly like the relationship between Jackie and Max. To me it is perhaps Tarantino’s greatest pre-Django romance. Jackie Brown features typical Tarantino dialogue which is rich and realistic. This varies from De Niro asking how to turn off a car alarm to multiple uses of a racial epithet for which he has become synonymous. I can totally see why the word is used so often as the characters using it are the sort of people who would drop it into everyday language but it occasionally feels as though the Director has a fetish for the word as it crops up so often in this and other movies.
The acting is fine throughout Jackie Brown from bit part players like the usually annoying Chris Tucker to the main cast of which Sam Jackson and Pam Grier stand out the most. Robert Forster received the film’s only Academy Award nomination and is very good but I was a little surprised to read that he was Oscar nominated. He is solid but unspectacular. Michael Keaton plays a good, greasy cop and Robert De Niro puts in his final decent performance before his decade and a half in the wilderness. I enjoyed his take on a confused and bumbling ex-con. As I said though, it is Jackson and Grier who shine here. Jackson, under a ridiculous wig, plays PulpFiction’s Jules’ less smart, less cool cousin and is great, especially in the closing stages. Pam Grier is superb and still at 48 or so, really hot. She has little of her trademark action here but is instead masterfully calm and smart, outwitting all of those around her. She remains incredibly seductive though and most male characters appear to fall a bit in love with her. It is nice to see a middle aged woman get a film lead too. So often female actors reach a peak at thirty five or so then aren’t seen until they play grandma twenty years later.
Overall Jackie Brown is still a favourite of mine even if PulpFiction edges it slightly in Tarantino’s cannon. I think that it is an underrated film from the Director perhaps due to the relative lack of blood, style and action. To me it is a well crafted thriller with echoes of 70s exploitation, a perfect soundtrack and fine acting.
- Mandingo, the blaxploitation film which was one of the many influences on Django Unchained is briefly mentioned by Samuel L. Jackson.
- Jackie Brown is the least violent Tarantino film to date. Nine shots are fired and only four squibs of blood are seen.
- As Max Cheery leaves the movie theatre the music heard is the closing credits of this film.
- The casting director was called Jacky Brown