I have been hesitant in the past to be one of the geek army who worships Tarantino as a cinematic god who can do no wrong. While I have seen everything he's ever written, rewritten, directed, or acted in, including that episode of "The Golden Girls" in which he played a sneering Elvis impersonator at Sophia's wedding, I always took pains to make it clear that it wasn't like I thought he could do no wrong. But after Jackie Brown, which was preceded by the other two Tarantino written-and-directed films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, I think I can safely say that when Quentin Tarantino writes or directs something, it'll be great. If that makes me a Tarantino geek, I'll just smile and pull down the brim on my Kangol ball cap.
Jackie Brown is a funny, moving love letter to Pam Grier, the blaxploitation star of the 1970s who made her first mark in such films as Jack Hill's The Big Bird Cage, Foxy Brown, and Coffy (her best film role), along with gentler actioners like Sheba Baby and Friday Foster, and Scream Blacula Scream. She's also known for roles in Fort Apache the Bronx, Escape from L.A., and Mars Attacks! and her stage work, which has linked her with the works of Sam Shepard. While some view Grier as a B-movie girl action star, and she was, she's also a much underappreciated actress of the first caliber, and Jackie Brown proves it. If Grier doesn't win the Oscar, it'll be pure Tarantino backlash, and nothing to do with her shattering performance.
Grier plays the title character in this story based upon Elmore Leonard's novel Rum Punch. Tarantino has changed the character from a white flight attendant named Jackie Burke to our black flight-attendant heroine in order to create this stellar part for Grier. The setting has been changed as well, from the underworld Miami of Leonard's works to the underworld L.A. Tarantino portrays in his films.
Jackie Brown works for a little airline called Cabo Air, flying back and forth from LAX to Cabo San Lucas. Not exactly the best job for a forty-five-year-old woman who has been a flight attendant for 20 years. In order to supplement her income, Jackie has been moving money for a gun dealer named Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). When Jackie gets caught, she and bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) concoct a scheme to try to play the feds on Ordell's trail off Ordell in order to keep Jackie out of jail and out of harm's way.
A rough outline can't convey the incredible pacing, humor, and depth of character with which the story is told. Other characters include Louis Gara (Robert De Niro), an ex-con who may have seen better days, his pot-smoking compadre Melanie Ralston (Bridget Fonda), Beaumont Livingston (Chris Tucker), a hood with a craving for chicken and waffles, and Ray Nicolet (Michael Keaton), the ATF agent after Ordell.
Working in the crime genre, Tarantino has been criticized for over-the-top violence. That charge is bogus. Tarantino portrays violence, but not to lovingly dote on it. It's another element, which may advance the plot, add humor or a jolt of adrenaline, and which always has consequences. Like real-life violence (like I hang out at gang-fights, right?). But Tarantino's real talent is a Jane Austen-like attention to manners among the small-time hoods, dealers, and hangers-on he portrays. Who would imagine a film in which the fireworks fly not over verbal gymnastics or gunfights, but the looks Ordell and Melanie give each other, the sexual ethics of Louis Gara, the almost-underground depth of emotion of the love story between the tough Max Cherry, and the even tougher Jackie. It all works sublimely. The characters truly live and breathe.
Of course, in addition to the truly, almost unbelievably perceptive writing, the acting is what puts the characters over. In addition to Grier for Best Actress, I'd like to hereby nominate Robert Forster for Best Actor for his career-changing acting bravado, Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro for Best Supporting Actor, and Bridget Fonda, in her acting debut (not her movie debut) for Best Supporting Actress. Somebody told me they were waiting the whole movie for Robert De Niro to do something. They missed the point. They should have watched what Louis Gara was doing--every second he's on-screen, De Niro is wonderfully in character.
Jackie Brown is one of the most tightly and cleverly plotted films I've ever seen. The Money Exchange sequence takes your breath away with its economy, intricacy, and suspense. Characters and relationships have their own theme songs. See also witty references to Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, Saturday Night Fever, and Taxi Driver.
See it. Don't expect Pulp Fiction 2. Expect Brown. Jackie Brown.
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