Saturday, July 20, 2019

The Films of Quentin Tarantino: Jackie Brown (1997)

Jackie Brown (1997) 
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino.
Written by: Quentin Tarantino based on the novel by Elmore Leonard.
Starring: Pam Grier (Jackie Brown), Samuel L. Jackson (Ordell Robbie), Robert Forster (Max Cherry), Bridget Fonda (Melanie Ralston), Michael Keaton (Ray Nicolette), Robert De Niro (Louis Gara), Michael Bowen (Mark Dargus), Chris Tucker (Beaumont Livingston), LisaGay Hamilton (Sheronda), Tommy 'Tiny' Lister (Winston), Hattie Winston (Simone), Sid Haig (Judge).
It saddens me more than a little, that Jackie Brown is the one and only time Quentin Tarantino ever adapted someone else’s work as a screenplay. The film is based on an Elmore Leonard novel – who is a perfect fit for Tarantino in general, and what Tarantino does is combine his sensibility with Leonard’s, and really takes his time in the storytelling. Jackie Brown is the most narrative heavy of all of Tarantino’s films – and yet while many filmmakers’ instinct would be to move that complicated plots – with its schemes, and double crosses, etc. – along at a breakneck speed, Tarantino slows it all down so that you’re still hanging out with these characters for long stretches of time, even when seemingly not much is happening to drive the narrative forward. Perhaps this is why this is the best film ever made from a Leonard novel (the following year’s Out of Sight being a close second) – because it allows there to be time for these people to become real characters, and not just chess pieces being move around a board to get them where they need to be for the plot to work. This has always been a key in Leonard’s work – and it’s the easiest thing for most filmmakers to cut from his novels. Which is why so few actually capture his work well. I would have loved to see Tarantino take on other authors as well and come out with his own twisted versions of their style – because Jackie Brown is a masterpiece.
The plot revolves the title character (a great performance by Pam Grier), a middle aged airline stewardess, barely keeping her head above water, working for the worst airline imaginable, after a bust a few years before. She is bringing money into the country from Mexico for gun dealer Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) – when she is stopped by ATF agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton). They know who the money is for – but they want Jackie to help them prove it, and if not, she’ll go to jail. She is bailed out of jail by Ordell – who uses bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) – to do it. Max and Jackie develop a sweet, subdued relationship – never quite crossing into romance, but very close. She hatches a scheme to get out from under everybody – and needs Max’s help. Meanwhile, Ordell is running his own schemes – involving an old buddy just out of jail, Louis Gara (Robert DeNiro) and his white surfer girl “friend” Melanie (Bridget Fonda).

Tarantino takes his time with this movie – mainly staying faithful to Leonard’s novel – aside from switching the action to LA from Miami, and changing the race of the lead character – but allows things to play out at their own pace. It is actually quite a while before we even meet Jackie Brown proper – we see Grier in the opening title sequence (as Across 110th Street Plays) as she goes to work – but she doesn’t say anything. For the next almost 30 minutes, Tarantino immerses in Ordell’s world – as he shows off to Louis watching a video of women with guns, and explaining everything about them, and how much money he makes from them, as Melanie smokes pot and rolls her eyes in the background. Ordell first meets Max when another associate – Beaumont – gets busted, and he needs to bail him out. From their one scene together in Max’s bail bonds office, you know everything you need to know about both of them – Ordell cannot stop showing off, playing the big man, and trying to impress Max – who is clearly not impressed. He has seen Ordells before, and he’ll see more after – and he’s tired of the show. Following that we get the famous sequence between Jackson and Chris Tucker, as Beaumont, as Ordell has to convince him to come out with him. It’s a long, very long, dialogue sequence as Beaumont’s door – all in one shot – as the go back and forth in one of the great dialogue sequences in Tarantino’s career. How it ends lets us know how things will go from here on out should someone cross Ordell.
This is how Tarantino plays it throughout Jackie Brown. Every scene in the movie does, in fact, move the plot forward – this is a very narrative heavy film – and yet, each of them takes more time than is strictly necessary for the purpose of plot so that these characters become more than pawns in the game. And that is what makes the movie so great. The slow burn relationship between Jackie and Max is the most highly praised in the film – and with good reason. They have a slow key chemistry at first, that builds and builds throughout. There is an undercurrent of melancholy in their scenes together, as their connection deepens, yet they both know will not last. Grier, best known for play bad ass chicks in Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, is the perfect choice to play Jackie – who is as tough as any of those roles, but in a very different way. She isn’t going to be kicking ass like Coffy, but just getting through her life is tough enough. And Forster, whose career was even more on the skids that Grier’s at the time, is given the role of a lifetime – and underplays it brilliantly. There is a reason he is the only cast member to be nominated for an Oscar.
And yet, Tarantino extends that thought to everyone. Ordell is very much in Jackson’s wheelhouse – he can be funny and charming, but dangerous at the same time. But Jackson lets more insecurity to creep into this performance – Ordell is performing, because underneath it he is scared. This is one of the last great Robert DeNiro performances as well (he has started trying again – a little – in recent years but other than his underrated directorial effort, The Good Shepherd in 2006, there was about 15 years after this and Wag the Dog, where DeNiro seems to be phoning it in). He plays Louis as, well, nothing – a sack of dirty clothes basically – a guy who is out of jail, but has no idea how to fit in, and just kind of goes along to get along. And I think Bridget Fonda is brilliant as Melanie – the type of role that in any other film would have been a throw away role – an excuse to get an attractive blonde actress in a bikini for an entire role – but who Tarantino writes wonderfully, and Fonda plays even better. Melanie is a hanger on – falling further down the food chain as she ages – but just going along. Along with her performance in the following year’s A Simple Plan – this represents the best work of her career – and it saddens me greatly that she seemingly retired from acting just five years later – her last screen credit was in 2002).
Jackie Brown was somewhat underrated at the time it came out – and while I’m not quite on board with those who argue that it’s Tarantino’s best film, I do think it is a great film. Tarantino handles the twists and turns in the narrative – especially in that final act – in fascinating ways, doubling back several times to see how it all played out – but even then he takes his time. It’s also fascinating to think what direction his career could have gone had he kept adapting others work. Perhaps it would have made him concentrate on narrative more. And I like to think of a Tarantino film based on a Stephen King novel, or a James Ellroy or a Walter Mosley or any number of other authors. We aren’t likely to find out – but on the strength of Jackie Brown, I would have loved to have seen it.

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