Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) is somewhat of an anomaly in the director's repertoire. The only one of his films to be based on a novel, it is relatively low on action, and it is not one of his most financial successful endeavours. Some saw it as a step down after he took the world by storm with Pulp Fiction while others rightfully believe it showcases some of his best work. It shows QT doesn’t need buckets of blood to make good entertainment. Sometimes it can be all about the story.
I first saw Jackie Brown sometime after Kill Bill had come out, which in contrast goes full-tilt boogie in terms of violence. By then I was hooked on his filmmaking and was very enticed every time I would see the cover for the Special Edition DVD at HMV. I wasn’t too familiar with Pam Grier since she rose to fame in the 1970s, but if I see Robert De Niro, Samuel L. Jackson, and Michael Keaton on a poster I take at a sign this is something good. Watching it for the first time I was surprised by how low-key the violence was based on Tarantino’s previous films, but loved the performances by Grier as Brown and the excellent Robert Forster as bail bondsman Max Cherry. What a great name for a character.
The great late Elmore Leonard came up with that name for his novel Rum Punch, which I later bought to compare to the novel. A small but key difference is the main character’s name, Jackie Burke in the novel, and Brown for the movie. The name change is a reference to Pam Grier’s blaxploitation film Foxy Brown (1974), which is of course the exact kind of movie Tarantino, would have watched when he was working at a video store in his youth. In that movie Grier was a one-woman army gruesomely killing the bad guys. In Jackie Brown however she is a stewardess in her mid-40s smuggling money into Los Angeles for gunrunner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). Despite not being armed to the teeth, the character is a prime example of strong woman standing up for herself.
After getting caught at the airport by A.T.F agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) and detective Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen) Jackie is of course offered the option to rat out on Ordell in order to avoid jail time. There have been plenty of small time criminals stuck in a similar situation before, and to illustrate just that Tarantino shoots a great sequence with Chris Tucker to show what Ordell does to people who are given the option to become a snitch. When Jackie gets wind of this she decides to turn the situation on its head.
Forget about risking her life to send Ordell to prison. If that happens, Jackie is still working for a small airline for little pay while not getting any younger. She decides to raise the stakes by not only serving up Ordell to the cops, but also stealing a large chunk of his money at the same time. Of course to pull off a trick like that with both Ordell and Ray Nicolette keeping a close eye she will need a partner.
Max Cherry (Forster) takes a liking to Jackie the minute she walks out of jail after he has arranged for her bond. He has been working as a bail bondsman for a long time and like Jackie he is starting to feel the weight of the years. In yet another great scene Max tells her about the time he had to track down a criminal who had skipped out on his bail hearing, only for him to wonder, is this what his life has come down to? When Jackie proposes a complicated scheme to take Ordell’s money and run, he is cautious but interested.
The marriage between Tarantino’s direction and Leonard’s dialogue is perfect, even though Tarantino of course made the story his own thing. These characters do a lot of talking, whether it is De Niro as ex-con Louis Garra smoking weed with Ordell’s girlfriend Melanie (Bridget Fonda) or Max and Jackie discussing topics like their taste in music and how they deal with ageing. Violence is something all of these people would prefer to avoid as seen when Jackie believes Ordell will come for her and tries to remain calm sitting at a desk while practicing her quick draw skills. This is not something she does everyday.
Given the film’s low body count of four people and its emphasis on dialogue rather than action, some fans might be turned off by this rather tame turn by Tarantino. Me, I think it’s one of his best movies. Grier and Forster deserved every nomination they got, the plot requires you to pay attention while not being too complicated, and as usual the soundtrack is superb. Plus, you get Samuel L. Jackson saying lines like: “AK-47. The very best there is. When you absolutely, positively got to kill every motherfucker in the room, accept no substitutes.”