Director: Quentin Tarantino
The runaway success of Pulp Fiction in the autumn of 1994 rocketed Quentin Tarantino to stardom, earning him the Cannes Film Festival's highest honors, an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and a reputation as one of the most imaginative writer/directors in Hollywood. However, as the buzz surrounding his sophomore project cooled, Tarantino spent the next few years on other projects, writing and directing a segment of the 1995 comedic anthology Four Rooms and both wrote and starred in the excellent vampire film From Dusk Till Dawn in 1996. He returned to the director's chair in 1997 for his third feature-length film, a loose adaptation of Elmore Lenard's novel Rum Punch that Tarantino titled Jackie Brown. An homage to the blaxploitation films of the 1970s, Jackie Brown is a solid third film that, although it isn't as famous as some of Tarantino's other work, is a fantastic film worth watching.
Our story primarily follows Jackie Brown (Pam Grier), a flight attendant for a crappy Mexican airline. Though the job is awful and the pay is meager, it allows her to smuggle money into the United States for gun runner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). Ordell has attracted the attention of the ATF, who've recently arrested one of his employees, Beaumont Livingston (Chris Tucker). Working on a tip from Beaumont, ATF agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) and local cop Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen) catch Jackie as she arrives in Los Angeles with Ordell's latest shipment of funds. Initially refusing to deal with the agents, Jackie gets sent to jail pending trial.
Ordell, having already disposed of Beaumont after having him bailed out of jail, is afraid fears that Jackie too may be inclined to talk to the ATF like Beaumont did. He contacts Max Cherry (Robert Forster), the bail bondsman who arranged for Beaumont's release, and convinces him to bail Jackie out too. Max gets her out, and is smitten as soon as he lays eyes on her. He offers a ride home, and on the way to her house, offers to help determine her legal options. Jackie isn't home long before Ordell shows up at her house to silence her, but she gets the drop on him. She pulls a gun that she stole from the glove compartment of Max's car, and cuts a deal where she'll pretend to help the ATF while still managing to smuggle half a million dollars to Ordell.
To accomplish this, Ordell employs a few others, mainly ditzy stoner Melanie Ralston (Bridget Fonda) and Louis Gara (Robert De Niro), a bank robber recently released from prison. Nicolette organizes a sting to catch Ordell, though Ordell believes that Jackie will double-cross him by diverting the money before he can make an arrest. But unknown to any of them, Jackie plans on keeping the money for herself with a little help from Max. Everyone has their eye on that 500,000 dollars, but only Jackie knows how it's going down.
That synopsis may look relatively simple, but the movie is a complicated one. Fail to pay attention, and you'll probably get a little lost. But that's the beauty of Jackie Brown. It's hard to avoid getting pulled into the movie. It's a shame that it is, for all intents and purposes, the forgotten movie on Quentin Tarantino's résumé, because it's a fascinating watch. There are no wasted moments with Jackie Brown; everything serves to either develop the characters or move the plot forward. It's fascinating to watch where things go and how they're getting here.
Tarantino's direction, as always, is fantastic. Though his technique in this particular flick is no different than anything you'd see in any of his other movies, he at one point utilizes a technique straight out Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon. Instead of following one important sequence through one point of view, we see from three. Though I'm not sure how much of this was necessitated by the plot, it's intriguing to see just how this scene is perceived from each party involved. I don't really know if I'd call it an innovation or anything like that, but it's still pretty neat. Where Tarantino really succeeds, however, is his screenplay. Now I haven't read Rum Punch so I can't vouch for any similarities or dissimilarities between the book and Jackie Brown, but the script once again shows Tarantino's knack for writing dialogue. However, it differs from his usual style because of its mostly straightforward narrative that isn't as frenetic as we would come to expect from him. It's a rare move on Tarantino's part, but he still manages to keep his audience guessing. He's successful in including plenty of twists and turns, making us wonder just how things will turn out until it's all revealed in the grand finale. So I guess it's a variation of a typical Tarantino theme: making sure we never really know how we're getting from Point A to Point B until we actually get there.
Let's not forget the cast, either. Nearly everyone puts forth an amazing showing. In the title role, Pam Grier is absolutely superb. She displays the strength that made her characters from Foxy Brown and Coffy so memorable, yet makes Jackie Brown distinguishable from those two by giving Jackie a certain vulnerability as well. She really makes you care about Jackie; she makes you believe that she could amount to more than just a washed-up stewardess on some crappy airline. Meanwhile, Samuel L. Jackson is, as always, fantastic as the swaggering arms dealer that talks a good game and tries backing it up. Michael Keaton is fine as the trusting ATF agent, and Robert De Niro and Bridget Fonda are both acceptable as the dimwitted duo that backs up Ordell. Not to make any accusations, but I think Fonda is only in the movie to satisfy Quentin Tarantino's foot fetish. Seriously, Reservoir Dogs is the only one of Tarantino's movies that doesn't have a close-up of the bare feet of one of his actresses. The guy likes what he likes and I won't knock him for that, but come on, Quentin. Not everybody's into feet, dude. Could you cool it in your next movie?
But perhaps the most surprising performance comes from Robert Forster, who earned an Oscar nomination for his appearance here. The majority of the characters that Tarantino has created over the years have been either irredeemable scumbags or over-the-top people that wouldn't exist in the real world. But Forster's character is different. You could believe that someone like Max Cherry exists, both due to how Tarantino has written him and how Forster portrays him. Forster gives Max a heart and soul while having an extremely amiable and believable chemistry with Grier, and I'll say he deserved that Oscar nomination.
And I'd be remiss if I neglected the excellent soundtrack Tarantino has put together. The soundtracks for each of his movies are great, and this compilation of '70s R&B and soul is no different. The opening title sequence alone, set to "Across 110th Street" by Bobby Womack, was enough to sell me on the music. But there are so many wonderful songs in the movie, it's hard not to find at least one song to like. The only exception to that is "(Holy Matrimony) Letter to the Firm" by rapper Foxy Brown. This song is really out of place when compared to the rest of the music, and I think the only reason Tarantino uses it at all is because Foxy Brown's stage name was inspired by the movie.
Of all the movies Quentin Tarantino has directed over the years, Jackie Brown is the only one that feels like it could take place in the real world. Maybe that's why it's his most underrated piece of work. Everyone is used to Tarantino giving us characters and situations that are bigger than life, but everyone and everything in Jackie Brown could truly exist. It might be what makes it so underrated, but it might also be what makes it such an entertaining film. So I'll give Jackie Brown four stars and a "Sutton At The Movies" seal of approval.
Final Rating: ****