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There was once a time, not too long ago, when I considered Jackie Brown to be the weakest of Quentin Tarantino’s films. After watching it the first time, I came away feeling very underwhelmed. “That wasn’t anything like Pulp Fiction!” I remember saying to myself, as well as to everyone else in the room that’d just seen it with me—I’ve always been a prima donna when it comes to movies. Everyone I know knows I know everything there is to know about movies. I am the one they seek out for an opinion on a certain film; I am also the fool they try and stump with their trivial questions, and references. They do not yet possess the capacity to stump someone such as I; therefore all of their futile attempts are met with not only the answer they’re seeking, but a hearty laugh in the face as well.
But I was wrong this time, and I’m man enough to admit it. I wasn’t just wrong though; my early ignorance in regards to the bountiful layers of awesomeness this movie possess was enough to warrant me having to endure five minutes with Kakihara! I now consider what I did all those years ago to be a sin. I feel dirty just thinking about it.
Now, you might be thinking, “J. K., why so rough on yourself? It’s only a movie.” And you’d be right; it is only a movie. But hot damn if it isn’t one of the greatest movies I’ve ever seen not involving Shannon Tweed naked, or a gorilla that knows sign language!
Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s ode to the Blaxploitation genre. I recently learned that Mario Van Peebles prefer to call this genre, “Soul Cinema” but I think Mario can go eat shit. To me, Blaxploitation is a groovy title that I can dig. It transcends any negative connotations it might have add in the beginning, which makes the title all the more powerful in my eyes.
Based on the novel, Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard, Jackie Brown is a character driven crime flick where the double-cross is treated as an art form, and the dialogue is snappier than a lit pack of Blackcats. Pam Grier stars as Jackie Brown, a hardworking flight attendant who supplements her meager earnings with the occasional smuggling of contraband. Her employer in these dirty deeds is a smooth-talking jivester named Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson) who’s dabbled in a little bit of everything, but for the moment, is totally devoted to dealing assault weapons.
When Jackie is busted at the airport with a suspicious amount of cash, the fit really starts to hit the shan! Luckily, Ordell is there to pick up the pieces, employing the services of reserved bail bondsman, Max Cherry (Robert Forester). Ordell thinks he’s hot-shit, but Max has been around long enough to see slicksters come and go. Through Forster’s performance, we’re led to believe that at one time Max was probably a man of high ideals and ambition; but the years spent hunting down some of societies more unpleasant members has beaten him down, reducing him to an apathetic middle-aged fella whose gas tank ran out a long time ago, leaving him to coast through life on fumes.
Eventually, Max meets Jackie, and the duo concoct a means to resolve their impending issue with Ordell, but I’ll leave the rest of the story for you to discover yourself.
The acting within this film is by far the best from any of Quentin’s movies. Every character is so well played by this veteran cast, it’s almost impossible not to lose yourself in their story. By the end of the film, you’re rooting for the heroes, and to some degree, probably rooting for the bad guys too. There is an aura of likeability to every character in this film, with the exception of maybe one—beach bunny Melanie (Bridget Fonda) is an integral character to film’s plot, but damn if I can’t stand the wench! Kudos to Bridget for turning in what is probably her best performance—ever—but hers is the sort of character you can’t wait to see get whacked!
Also along for the ride are Robert De Niro, Michael Keaton, and Chris Tucker playing parolee Louie, Federal Agent Ray Nicolette, and small-time hood Beaumont respectively. Each character is as well crafted as the main characters, and every bit as fun to watch. The subtleties in Louie and Ray are real treats, and only work to enhance the overall enjoyment factor of the film.
And of course, as with any Tarantino film, there is the outstanding soundtrack! In true Blaxploitation form, the film takes all of its auditory ques from classic 70’s R&B, with a unique nod to Johnny Cash as well. Randy Crawford, Minnie Riperton, and The Delfonics all have a presence throughout the film, but the real standout is Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street”, a song that introduces the film, and then closes it out. The song also works as sort of an unofficial theme to the movie.
Jackie Brown isn’t as flashy or stylish as Q's other films, which I’m sure is why it didn’t receive the kind of embrace from fans that it deserved. It’s the sort of film you really should watch again and again, in order to pick up on all the little things that make it truly great. Quentin’s ability to “tone it down” for this film also shows that, as a director, he recognizes when to lay it on thick, and when to ease back. Don’t worry; despite much of this film being linear, there is a rather sizeable chunk that jumps back and forth in time, showing the same series of events from multiple perspectives—possibly the best use of the non-linear method of storytelling Q made famous with Pulp Fiction.
It is obvious that Tarantino truly loves the genre of film with which Jackie Brown pays homage. Taking risks in casting Pam Grier and Robert Forster—both of whom had fallen off the mainstream Hollywood radar for sometime—shows as just another example of Quentin’s intelligence as a filmmaker; casting the right people for the right roles, rather than the wrong people for the wrong reasons.
If you’ve seen Jackie Brown and written it off, as I had years ago, I urge you to take the time to revisit it. To not give this classic a second chance isn’t just wrong – it’s downright abhorrent!
Yes, I once said that this film was Quentin Tarantino’s worst. I couldn’t have been farther from the truth. This is, without a shadow of a doubt, his greatest cinematic achievement to date. All of his movies are great, but Jackie Brown is perfect.
J.K. Radtke can also be found talking smack over at Living Corpse Dot Com.
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