With immense expectations to meet or top his game-changer Pulp Fiction, back in 1997 QT delivered what now appears to be his most modest film to date, a rich experience in character and minus the cinematic razzle dazzle he’s injected into every film since then. Jackie Brown ages as well as any of his films including the lauded Pulp Fiction.
Jackie Brown (1997) dir. Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Robert De Niro, Michael Keaton, Bridget Fonda
By Alan Bacchus
There’s some meta-filmmaking going here but less for clever’s sake than to enrich the title character of Jackie Brown (Grier) – a lowly stewardess long in life experience but short in her career, her relationships and her financial status. The underlying theme at the heart of this picture is age, the two characters of Brown and her bails bondsman/partner Max Cherry (Forster) who comes together on opposite sides of the law in order to extricate Ms. Brown from her dangerous gun smuggling employer.
Tarantino carefully reveals a history of underachievement from Brown with startlingly subtlety. We can imagine her beauty as a youth, perhaps getting by on her looks moving in and out through some criminal circles, but also never fitting into the legitimate white collar working life. In the present she’s a stewardess making a pittance on the worst airline flying out of Los Angeles. Her side gig is bringing in money from the Caribbean for Ordell Roby (Jackson), a loquacious, charming, but diabolical gun smuggler. The opening has her stopped by the FBI and detained. Brown finds herself caught between jailtime and ratting out Roby who would, in any case, seek to kill her before she can cut a deal.
Brown’s unlikely partner becomes Max Cherry, a weathered bail bondsman working the north side of 10,000 cases. And while Brown’s regret over her failures in life eat away at her, Cherry’s positivity and optimistic self reflection is admirable and infectious to Brown. As played by Forster, his humble working class Midwest accent and his deliberate speech pattern and sluggish gate exudes supreme confidence even when confronting the dangerous Roby.
Tarantino plays out Elmore Leonard’s complex scheme by Grier, Roby and the FBI with loopy cleverness. And yet the narrative never seems to get in the way of Grier and Cherry as wayward heroes. There’s an admirable modesty in the work, a conscious attempt not to top the delirious cinematic bravura of Pulp Fiction. And Tarantino places his grounded characters in middle class suburban Los Angeles. The eye-popping Jack Rabbit slims diner, the underground S&M layer and the luxurious and glamourized heroin culture in general are replaced by sanitized shopping malls, airports and non-descript LA parking lots. As exemplified by Bridget Fonda’s Melanie character Jackie Brown is the beach bum version of Pulp Fiction.
QT still places his influences front and centre with high regard. The opening sequence, highlighting Grier walking and running through LAX is pays homage to Mike Nichols’ opening shot of The Graduate – that is, Dustin Hoffman, in profile coasting on the people-mover airport escalator. And in the final act as QT tracks back on his heist plotting to show Brown and Cherry’s execution of their scam, we’re reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant temporal innovations in The Killing.
While the length of the film matches the two and half hour running time of Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown is enriched by the added breathing room, allowing us to soak in Tarantino’s luscious imagery, moody soul music and his effortlessly embodied characters.