Did anyone in the mid-‘90s really think that Quentin Tarantino was at risk of being a two-hit wonder? Certainly there wasn’t much reason to expect him to drop as cool and calm a movie as Jackie Brown for his third feature. Jackie Brown turns 25 this Christmas. It still looks and feels like the older sibling to its upstart predecessors, Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), singled out among Tarantino’s movies for being more mature and tamped down in its ambitions, less flashy and postmodern than the clever gadgetry of what came before.
But I’m not so sure. I think there were glimmers of Jackie Brown in Tarantino’s earlier work. Think back to Ving Rhames in Pulp Fiction schooling Bruce Willis in a down-tempo, seductive bit of exposition on the nature of pride — a speech on the inevitable reality of being washed-up and getting out ahead of the downturn, even if it means selling out. “Boxers don’t have old-timers day,” he says. The boxer in question, played by Willis, famously refuses to sell out. But that’s still the choice of a man on the verge of being past his prime — he wouldn’t be a target for Rhames’s insinuations if he wasn’t — and with something to prove. He and Rhames and John Travolta and the rest all seem to know a little more than they openly let on about being washed. Isn’t Eric Stoltz’s drug dealer a little too old for all of this nonsense? Would it be nearly as funny, or awkwardly tragic, if he weren’t? The older I get, the more tired they all sound. And the more I notice how often it’s the silly young men in the movie that get set up to catch every bullet. When one of the middle-aged old heads dies, it almost feels unfair.
Jackie Brown is a different movie. Rewatching it today, with a compatibly mature yarn like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in the rear view, it feels a lot less different than we’ve tended to claim. You can hear echoes of Rhames in the way that Jackie, played by Pam Grier, unwinds a monologue about the slow descent of her life into middle-aged nothingness. It’s one of the movie’s greatest and, wisely, simplest scenes, predicated on two people — Jackie and the seen-everything bail bondsman Max Cherry (the late Robert Forster) — who get along because they’re both just getting by. It’s true that Jackie Brown moves through its heavy stretches of dialogue and twisty plot in ways distinct from its predecessors. And even its showy bits — casual split-screens and the occasionally dynamic swerve of the camera, a trust-no-one heist plot that’s more complicated than at first appears — feel subtle in comparison. But the movie is more of a logical next step for the director than a side-step. It’s one of Tarantino’s best movies in part because the razzle-dazzle is still there, just put to finer uses than before.
Jackie Brown is an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, from 1992, and it must be said that Tarantino and Leonard’s combined fervor for language is one of the shining delights of the movie. The script is talky but smooth, delivered at a hang-out pace and, per its crime genre nature, always more psychologically revealing than at first appears. This is the kind of movie in which the central bad guy, a gun runner named Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson, in one of his best roles), is both a slippery verbal genius and a fiendishly insecure small-time crook who’s out of his league with the authorities. You believe that he’s dangerous; he goes out of his way to show us and the other characters this much from the start of the movie. Thanks to Jackson and Tarantino’s writing, you also believe that he’s out of his league. We see in him what Jackie must see: a guy who’s not too big, nor too smart, to get taken down — no matter what he says — but who’ll also kill if he has to, without hesitation or remorse.
The movie hinges on the hot-cold of Ordell and Jackie’s ties to each other. He’s verbose, always spouting billowing clouds of nonsense, sometimes playing the salesman, sometimes prying to see who he can trust, and often talking himself up, repeating shit he heard from other, better gangsters. Jackie is a 44-year-old flight attendant with 20 years in the service industry to her name and not much else. She gets involved with Ordell, running money from Mexico at his behest, only to get a cop and an ATF agent (Michael Bowen and Michael Keaton, respectively) on her ass. The purse-lipped cops discover more than money in her purse: someone has tried to sneak some cocaine into the mix.
What happens next is what happens when an extremely smart woman with nothing to lose finds her back up against the wall. (That is: extremely smart with nothing to lose while being played by a Blaxploitation legend.) She puts up a fight — with as much of her dignity intact as she can manage.
It’s gripping because it dares to keep things loose, reveling in the who and why and what of it all rather than just the demands of the story. The movie flits between memorable L.A. locations — the Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrance, a sunny apartment in Hermosa Beach, Max Cherry’s office, the colorful airport terminal that’s home to Cabo Air — and equally memorable characters, major and not. It’s Tarantino, we’re talking about. Sure, there’s a plot. Quite a lot of it, in fact, centered on a heist scheme that pinwheels around the conflicting motivations of the cops, who want to take Ordell Robbie down, and Ordell, who among other things wants to keep his money, and Jackie, who wants to stay alive — and keep Ordell’s money. It’s her way out of this life. The relationships to either side nudge themselves toward the center, at times. Everyone’s got some sort of dynamic going. Keaton and Bowen make a meal of their pleasurably silly good cop/bad cop routine. Bridget Fonda’s lazy, stoned surfer girl, Melanie, flirts and connives in the background but is just as much of a schemer as Ordell and the rest. Robert De Niro’s Louis, an old friend of Ordell’s from their Detroit days who’s just out of prison and newly along for the ride, also hovers in the background, far more crucial to this plot and its weird ascent into tragedy than at first appears. Forster’s Max Cherry appears first on the sidelines of Ordell’s story before Jackie’s calm desperation reels him into something deeper.
Jackie Brown was Jackson’s second time working with Tarantino and, as we’ve seen in the subsequent years, hardly the last. The pair work well together because Jackson gets the vibe and cadence of Tarantino’s language and Tarantino writes characters worthy of Jackson’s vibe. Grier, however, was a Tarantino first-timer despite reading for a part in Pulp Fiction. She’s just as much of a natural, finding cool beauty in the rhythm of the words. Even more than Pulp Fiction, with its heroic revival of Travolta and other great actors’ screen personas, Jackie Brown is a movie about its actors and their histories. That’s part of the pleasure: watching legends like Jackson and Grier and Forster square off and reveal more and more of themselves over the course of the movie.
In 1997, and in part thanks to Pulp Fiction, Jackson was a bona fide movie star; high-performing hits like Die Hard with a Vengeance had sealed the point, box office-wise, while movies like the still-underseen Eve’s Bayou reminded people that he was not simply a matinee draw, but an extraordinary actor, as pronounced and vibrant as a stage actor even when in movies. De Niro was a star, too — obviously — but Tarantino cast him somewhat against type, downplaying his charisma, whittling him down into a bumbling nobody, a tagger-on to whatever Jackson’s Ordell had going. That changes over the course of the movie. The De Niro we know peaks his head out eventually, losing his cool. But the movie enjoys its right to take its time getting there. Jackson’s Ordell is a violent man but a rational one; you know why he does what he does, just as you know why Jackson is perfectly suited to the role. But why does De Niro’s Louis shoot Melanie in the Del Amo mall parking lot? Even Ordell can’t fathom that. But a De Niro fan probably can.
Obviously, with Grier in the title role and an omnivorously referential mind like Tarantino’s at the helm, the movie’s ties to Blaxploitation are inescapable. Tarantino’s crackling, stylish crime dialogue already owed something to ’70s cool, and you can feel some of the nostalgia for that, regarding Tarantino’s Black characters, in his scripts’ overuse of the N-word throughout his career (which became something of a sore spot with this particular movie). Jackie Brown is not a Blaxploitation movie. It doesn’t need to be one to firmly make the point that it wouldn’t exist without them. There’s the metatext of Grier’s career, for one thing, and her importance as the headliner of Coffy, Foxy Brown, Friday Foster and other staples of the genre. Tarantino is going for more than mere reference, even when it explicitly nods back to those movies. Grier’s Jackie knowingly reminds us of the star’s tough-cookie image of the ‘70s and remembers that there was always a softer side to those women. Her blaxploitation pictures already knew there was more to Grier, and to the women she played, than met the eye. Jackie Brown takes that idea and runs with it, far into those women’s future, long after they’ve seen it all and emerged unimpressed. Like some of those earlier characters, Jackie’s central instinct is for survival. That’s partially how she gets into this mess: thinking fast when she knows that Ordell Robbie is going to be knocking on her door like some angel of death.
What Jackie Brown owes to Blaxploitation is more than a titanic heroine. Certain cues in the style harken back to that genre and others in Tarantino’s wheelhouse, like the dynamic, heroic character entrance: that moment when the world of a movie just seems to stop, time seems to slow down, because the person we all came to see is here. Pam Grier gets more than one, here. We start the movie with that timeless shot of her in the airport, Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” blaring on the soundtrack, a willing co-conspirator in her late-to-work power walk. We get another later in the movie, when Max Cherry shows up at the L.A. County Jail to bond Jackie out. It’s a long shot, nearly a silhouette, and without even seeing her face, we know that Jackie is tired. Another iconic needle drop hits: the sexy stroll of Bloodstone’s “Natural High,” a song that we can rightly guess Max Cherry doesn’t know, but which suits the moment because of his suddenly being lovestruck by the woman in question. The needle drops, the heft and classic feel of the soundtrack, feel like another throwback to the Blaxploitation of it all, and to the power of the soundtrack as its own entity, as imagined by Melvin Van Peebles and other legends of the genre. It works in part because it doesn’t feel Tarantino at all — you’d almost expect him to be more in line with Max Cherry, who, hearing a Delfonics record for the first time back at Jackie’s place, reveals that he does not know who that group is.
That’s part of why Jackie Brown isn’t quite a Blaxploitation flick — the Max Cherry of it all, the white-guy-ness of it all, that certain something that knows nothing about Jackie Brown or her world and yet makes for an extraordinary companion to her story. There’s a lo-fi L.A. noir feel to some of this movie, something sort of plain-clothed and gumshoe-y about Max Cherry, contra the danger and excitement of Jackie’s scheme. It suits Forster because he is precisely the kind of actor, a veteran of B-movies and an unlikely romantic lead, that can pull it off almost invisibly. Jackie is more than an everywoman — there’s no one like Pam Grier. But there are certainly men like Forster, easily pulled in by her power. That’s one of the great tensions of Jackie Brown. Ultimately, Jackie has to use people; she has to work people. Is she using Max Cherry? It works because we’re as willing to believe that she would have to as we are that she’s too kind, and Max too good, to actually do it. Jackie and Max understand each other. Their relationship makes the movie bittersweet because of that understanding. Compare it to what Ordell has with his Rolodex of misbegotten women, with their drug problems, attitudes, thievery. Most of our time with Jackie and Max is spent watching them simply talk. They ask questions about each other. Max, in particular, dares to develop an actual crush.
Tarantino has said that Robert Forster wasn’t on anyone’s “list” when he cast him for Jackie Brown — he wasn’t a name that casting directors had top of mind. This movie got him an Oscar nomination. Twenty-five years on, it remains one of his best-known, most perfectly-written roles — ditto to a handful of the other actors, here. There’s a lot of love in this movie. Tarantino’s work has always gloried in its love for movies and for the people who make them, the styles and archetypes they’ve invented, the memories we’ve all formed while watching them. But Jackie Brown has always felt like it had a broader, deeper love. I used to claim it as the best of Tarantino’s movies, by which I really probably meant that it’s the movie I admire the most. It’s Tarantino at his most deferential — he practically hands the movie over to his stars, finding inventive and crucial ways to stay out of their way while heightening what they have to offer.
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It’s the casual genius of it that sticks. Its unfussy but pitch-perfect images, courtesy of Guillermo Navarro, have clung to my brain over the years just as much as the snappy one-liners and slow revelations. The L.A. of this movie has seeped into movie history. Surfer-girl Melanie slinking into an armchair. A crane shot of Ordell methodically driving one block over, to an empty lot, to execute Chris Tucker in his trunk. Melanie and Louis with their backs to the camera, talking over a photo on the wall as a pretext to getting laid. The slow push onto Ordell’s face toward the end as he stops, thinks, and puts it all together. Max Cherry’s spontaneous half-smile as he realizes this plan might work. And every image of Jackie herself, who is so memorable in part because the movie’s feelings about her are so much bigger than her feelings about herself, at least in the beginning. The movie is about an everyday woman on her last leg. She steps into herself and finds a way out. And the movie, knowing what it has, stays out of her way.