Pretty much all of the techniques and trademarks we associate with Quentin Tarantino are in Jackie Brown, yet many still think of it as the least Tarantinoesque (it’s not a name that lends itself to adjectives) of his work. Perhaps that’s because here he ties himself down to someone else’s story, so his more self-indulgent urges are kept in check. There are plenty of stylistic flourishes and the dialogue is sharp and witty, but nothing is there that doesn’t develop the story or illuminate the characters.
The movie was not a financial hit and audiences didn’t take to it straight away, as they had done with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction: on IMDb only Death Proof is rated lower of his films. But while audiences may have been underwhelmed by that film’s shallowness, Jackie Brown, which is based on a novel by Elmore Leonard, may have alienated audiences because of its leisurely, if somewhat complex, plotting. Unlike other Tarantino movies, it doesn’t open with a grab-the-audience-by-the-balls scene, but rather builds patiently towards its conclusion. If its popularity has grown since, it is in part because, of all of Tarantino’s movies, this one particularly rewards multiple viewings.
The eponymous role is taken by Pam Grier, who made her name in ’70s blaxploitation pictures and here, pushing 50, is as beautiful as ever. She plays an air hostess who, near the film’s opening, is arrested after being found carrying money and drugs through customs. These were intended for Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson), an illegal weapons dealer. Ordell bails her out of prison and Jackie, now under the watch of the Feds and aware of the fact Ordell will kill anyone he sees as a liability, plays the cops against the criminals in the hope of running off with Ordell’s cash herself.
As with just about everything Tarantino has done, the casting is perfect. Robert De Niro plays Louis, an ex-con friend of Ordell’s whose stupidity seems to protect him, up to a point. Bridget Fonda plays Melanie, a sexily clad stoner who lives with Ordell, mostly watching chicks with guns on TV. Michael Keaton is one of the ATF guys breathing down Jackie’s neck (he turned up as the same role in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, also based on a Leonard story). Finally Robert Forster is Max Cherry, bail bonds officer. He’s the one who bails out Jackie for Ordell in the first place and, for he is only human, immediately falls in love with her.
The relationship between Jackie and Max is the beating heart at the centre of the movie; it’s one of the few cases in any Tarantino film where the characters could be described as ‘endearing.’ Their conversations stray away from the main thrust of the plot and the two characters discuss getting old, smoking cigarettes and CD vs. vinyl. Details like that are as significant factors in the rewatchability of Jackie Brown as its complex plotting. There are lots of moments few writer/directors would think to include, like the moment when Max tells Ordell to use his coffee cup as an ashtray, followed by a heavily loaded conversation about a nearby photograph.
Stylistically the film is just about perfect: there isn’t an extraneous shot in it, but neither is there a boring one. Often characters talk to or spot someone out of frame and Tarantino and his DP, Guillermo Navarro, are slow in revealing who it is, focussing first on the reaction before we see what prompted it. Most conversations in films are shot with mechanically alternating shots, but you sense the care and thought that has gone into every shot and every cut in this movie: credit should also go to the late editor Sally Menke.
As with Tarantino’s other movies, music plays a big part too. “Across 110th Street” by Bobby Womack opens and closes the picture, and it’s impossible to imagine the movie without it. A recurring motif has music being played in cars. Ordell is anal about the settings on his car radio; later, he is surprised to find that Max’s car has the Delfonics (recommended to Max by Jackie) in the cassette deck. Lewis and Melanie argue during a crucial sequence about the car volume. The last shot in the movie has Jackie singing along to her car radio. No song feels accidental, yet none feels contrived.
Jackie and Max might be my two favourite Tarantino characters; although he is without doubt a talented filmmaker, it saddens me somewhat that since this movie he hasn’t returned to characters as rounded and interesting. They are in a Tarantino movie, so it’s not that they’re exactly realistic, but there is something entirely believable about their relationship, even though it never goes beyond a brief kiss. When Max asks what Ordell’s business is, Ordell points out that the two don’t have any confidentiality agreement, so why should he tell him a thing? ‘Because you want me to know what a slick guy you are,’ replies Max. Unlike Ordell, Max isn’t trying to impress anyone. He doesn’t feel the need to show off. In the case of Jackie Brown, neither does Quentin Tarantino.
FILM: 5 out of 5
My second favourite Tarantino movie after Pulp Fiction – and it’s pretty close. Though it doesn’t necessarily dazzle you the first time the way that movie does, I find myself returning to this one more often because, technique and style aside, I just love the characters.
QUALITY: 4.5 out of 5
Excellent 1080p video transfer that will simply further your appreciation of this movie’s fabulous cinematography, and a sharp, remastered 5.1 audio track that will have you edging up the volume as soon as the first notes of Bobby Womack hit the speakers.
EXTRAS: 4 out of 5
For the most part, the same as the DVD: two decent documentaries, the full ‘Chicks with Guns’ video (if that’s your bag, although similar entertainment can be found online), Siskel and Ebert’s TV review of the movie, deleted scenes, etc. All are very good although the only new, HD, extra is a 45-minute discussion between various film critics, led by Elvis Mitchell.
PRESENTATION: 4 out of 5
Packaging pretty much the same as the DVD; the menus are well-designed and easy to use.
OVERALL: 4.5 out of 5
If you’re a fan of ’90s cinema at all, this is an essential buy. If you weren’t convinced by the film at the time, this is the perfect way to revisit it. And if you love the movie, this release will pretty much tick all your boxes.
Jackie Brown is available on Blu-Ray now.