I had a wild hare to watch Jackie Brown yesterday. The last time I’d seen it was probably 2004, so my memories were pretty hazy. I remembered that it didn’t feel at all like the other Tarantino movies I’d seen by that point, and the lack of that hyper-stylized violence probably disappointed teenage Andy. I heard Greg Proops mention it on a podcast yesterday, and I thought, “What the hell? Let’s give it another shot.” As usual, you can expect a strong chance of spoilers ahead.
I’m glad I did. Turns out Jackie Brown is an awesome movie full of excellent performances and a really amazing soundtrack. It really is Tarantino’s most unique movie, and if you didn’t see his name in the credits you could be forgiven for thinking he didn’t direct it. There’s no director cameo, the violence is minimal and restrained, and even the filthy dialogue is toned down a bit. It’s ostensibly an homage to blaxploitation movies, but it’s also Tarantino’s only adaptation of material that wasn’t his own (it’s based on Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch). I was entranced from the long opening shot of Jackie on a moving walkway at an airport and didn’t feel the 154 minute run time at all.
Speaking of that opening shot: it set the tone of the movie perfectly with “Across 110th Street” by Bobby Womack and J. J. Johnson as it’s theme (first used in the blaxploitation flick of the same name). Back in 2004 I didn’t have much taste in music outside of Top 40 hits and They Might Be Giants, so I didn’t appreciate the collection of great soul and R&B tracks that populate the soundtrack. Tarantino uses music to underscore the relationships of the main characters, and most of it is diegetic, so we see Pam Grier and Robert Forster singing along as the songs play in their cars. I love it.
All the actors in this movie are great, especially Pan Grier and Robert Forster as flight attendant Jackie Brown and bail bondsman Max Cherry, both looking at home in roles written for them. They both seem like boring, milquetoast people at first, but show fierce pride and capability when pressed. The two have nice romantic chemistry, but both are intelligent and don’t let their passions rule them. I really like the part where Max leaves a long message on Jackie’s answering machine giving her his phone number, office number, and, last but not least, beeper number. It’s adorable.
Samuel L. Jackson deserves a special mention for his portrayal of gunrunner Ordell Robbie, a gangster whose outward charm belies his calculating capacity for violence. It’s his best role in any Tarantino movie, and maybe any movie period. The scene where he just closes his eyes and thinks hard for about ten seconds might be the best acting he’s ever done. I also really like the scene where he convinces Chris Tucker (in a small role as one of Ordell’s underlings) to get in the trunk of his car, only to shoot him moments later.
Michael Keaton has some great scenes as FBI Agent Ray Nicolette, a role he reprised in Out of Sight. Robert de Niro has an unusually quiet and understated performance as ex-con Louis Gara, a really odd role for such a commanding guy. Bridget Fonda is great as Melanie, Ordell’s pot-smoking, trouble-starting girlfriend who seduces Louis and then drives him insane, becoming an explosive catalyst for the violence at the end of the movie.
Not that there’s much violence. Only four people die in this movie, and only nine gunshots get fired. The movie manages to be intense and engaging without explosive action scenes. This feels the most like a “normal” movie of all the Tarantino flicks, and it makes you wonder what he could have done if he continued in this vein. I love the indulgence and excessiveness of Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, but I’d be interested in seeing QT try his hand at another adaptation. He clearly knows what he’s doing.
I think what I like most about Jackie Brown is how surprising it is. You’d think a Tarantino blaxploitation flick would be hyper stylish and hyper violent, more like Django Unchained, but it’s not. It has the tense and complicated plot of an Elmore Leonard novel, but lacks the comedy and nonstop pace of an Elmore Leonard adaptation like Get Shorty. Instead we get a subtle drama that seems affable and charming at first, but eventually reveals a scary intensity, just like Ordell.