In Retrospect: 'Jackie Brown'

                                          Photo: Miramax

"It's Jackie Brown", mutters Ordell Robbie as he quietly ponders who could have sabotaged his money exchange. In this pivotal and nearly poetic moment, Samuel L. Jackson's character sits in a van, closes his eyes and goes into deep, silent thought as the camera slowly zooms in towards him. He's contemplative, but most importantly, he's finally vulnerable. It's a reaction that's not expected from this character, because all the while before this he's so cool, collected and sure of himself. This scene, like many other scenes in the film, speaks volumes about the enigmatic Jackie Brown, the film's main protagonist. She seems to have the world at her heels.

When I first saw Jackie Brown years ago, I was a young, maniacal Tarantino fanboy, having recently watched Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction---the latter of which I immediately proclaimed to be my favorite film of all time (I still put it in my top three). Needless to say, my expectations for Jackie Brown were very, very high; but like many others, I was somewhat dissapointed, and really felt that the film lacked something that should of been there. I suppose that my initial reactions were that the film was a little too conventional to be a true Tarantino film, and I recall being a little annoyed with the film's slow pacing and long runtime. I had also grown accustomed to Tarantino's blatant disregard for linearity, and was a little offended by the fact that the story unfolded chronologically for most of the way.

Jackie Brown quickly slipped from my memory bank and I really didn't give it much thought until about a year ago, after the release of Inglorious Basterds. I was trying to decide where that one fit in on my list of favorite Tarantino films, and it occurred to me that I should also revisit Jackie Brown as my recollection of it was a bit fuzzy. Over the last year or so, I've probably watched the film three times, and my take on it now is much different than it was back then.

On the surface, Jackie Brown might seem to lack the energy of Tarantino's previous two efforts. Compared with those two, this one is also slower paced, and features a prominently plot-driven narrative. There's also less violence, and there's a certain lack of those cool, hipster moments which were a prominent part of both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

I now have a much greater appreciation for Jackie Brown, and I realize that's largely because it strays from some of the elements that made Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction so great. I've embraced this because it represents a maturation and a certain versatility of Tarantino as a filmmaker. It's blaxploitation-inspired framing of Pam Grier's character and the constant barrage of iconic funk & soul music make it unique from all of Tarantino's other films. Granted, there certainly was some blaxploitation influence in Pulp Fiction, but here Tarantino really indulges himself in it. He's taken some of his trademark energy and replaced it with subtlety. The plot is as much of a driving force in the film as the dialogue is. It's full of many twists and turns, and it constantly leaves you guessing where each character's loyalty lies and what their motivations are. Much of the violence is reserved for the final third of the film, but that's only because the story doesn't really require much and works well enough without any.

Where this film really shines is in its performances. Pam Grier is terrific as Jackie Brown, the victimized flight attendant who some believe may actually be the victimizer. Her character was perfectly drawn by Tarantino to be enigmatic and strangely appealing. Never is there a point in the film where her motives precede her, as she leads on a dangerous arms dealer, two hard working detectives and an intrigued bail bondsman. It's a great performance and Grier was wonderfully cast by Tarantino.

Samuel L. Jackson plays Ordell Robbie, an arms dealer who is as dangerous as he is charismatic. I would go as far as to say that Sam's as good here as he was in Pulp Fiction. The characters are actually very similar, though here he's more menacing and less likeable. He received a Golden Globe nomination for his performance, but I really believe he was snubbed of an Oscar nomination.

Robert Forster, on the other hand, did receive an Oscar nomination for this movie in the category of Best Supporting Actor. Here he plays Max Cherry, a bail bondsman who gets in a little too deep with Jackie Brown and Ordell Robbie but never appears too phased by any of it. He's drawn into the mystique of Jackie Brown and clearly has some burning desire for her, but it's all expressed without any directness or physicality. The great chemistry that exists between the two really fuels most of their time together.

Also giving solid supporting performances are Robert De Niro and Bridget Fonda. To no surprise, Tarantino uses De Niro brilliantly as he essentially turns him into a more criminalized version of The Dude from The Big Lebowski. An atypical performance if i've ever seen one, and also very entertaining to watch. Bridget Fonda is sort of a surprise casting choice as she basically plays Ordell's main mistress. In her limited screen time she manages to be annoying and fussy enough to add some decent comic relief.
Another strong aspect of this film is its soundtrack. Tarantino chose not to use a score, and instead mainly used iconic funk & soul songs from the '60s and '70s. Like his use of music in Pulp Fiction, the selections are so evocative and memorable that I'll probably always associate a lot of the songs with this film. Tarantino certainly has a knack for lighting scenes up with brilliant music cues.

So what we have with Jackie Brown is a film that screams Tarantino in many ways, but also represents a slight maturation and toned-down approach for him as a filmmaker. I still don't think it's as brilliant as Pulp Fiction, but I would probably put it just above Reservoir Dogs and Inglorious Basterds. Hopefully it'll start getting the credit it deserves as more time passes.

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