Pulp Fiction gets all the praise, while Inglourious Basterds earns elephantine amounts of geek glory. Kill Bill is considered (in both parts) a practiced love letter to the genius of the Hong Kong action genre, just as Reservoir Dogs rewrote the rulebook on the American archetypes within same. Indeed, it seems like every film he’s directed since hitting the scene in 1992 has contributed to his growing mythology, a moviemaking legend that has simultaneously stimulated and/or sunk the independent film while laying out the blueprint for a billion auteur wannabes. Even the slight if still very good Grindhouse contribution, Death Proof, gets noticed for its nods to ’70s car chase drive-in epics.
So where’s the love for Tarantino’s terrific take on the blaxploitation films of the same era, Jackie Brown? Coming so soon after the seismic shift that is Pulp, it’s not hard to understand the lack of support. It lacks a few of the signature Tarantino tropes. For one, it’s not an “original” work: it’s actually a freehand adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch. It also lacks the lauded quirks that have made the director’s work so beloved: the weird homages; the odd pans and close-ups; the devilish attention to detail; the glorified film nerd shout-outs. In their place is something so sensational, so slow burn brilliant that it defies an easy embrace. Where all the other films in his canon seem easier to enjoy, this overlooked outcast is probably the wunderkind’s best.
Jackie Brown centers around the title character – played with sexy gusto by an always illuminating Pam Grier – who works for a lowlife Mexican airline as a flight attendant. It’s all she can get after a run-in with the law a few years back. Earning a measly $16K a year, she earns some extra scratch helping local gun runner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) transfer cash from his offshore bank account. When he finds out one of his underlings (Chris Tucker) ratted him out to the Feds, he grabs a .45 and goes after him. In the meantime, Jackie is stopped at the airport by ATF agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) and LAPD detective Mark Dargas (Michael Bowen). They got a tip about the money, and now our heroine is in hot water.
Enter bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster), who takes an instant shine to Jackie. When he finds out that his main lifeline to Mexico has been pinched, Ordell has a decision to make – kill her, or play along with a plan she has to trick the cops and get all $500K of his loot. Naturally, he goes along with the ploy, making sure his new right hand man Louis (Robert DeNiro) and gal pal Melanie (Bridget Fonda) got his back. Of course, with things growing between Max and Jackie, there may be more than a mere double cross in order.
When he’s hyper, hitting on all crazy 88 cylinders with madcap aplomb, Tarantino is terrific. He is unmatched in vision and vitality. Take the horrific crash in Death Proof, set to the lost gem “Hold Tight” by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mitch & Tich. Every shot, every moment of that menacing mayhem is conceived and created to get the hairs standing on the back of your head and the heart pumping along to the beat. From the various stand-offs and showdowns in his oeuvre to sequences which merely showcase his love for obscure pop and soul songs, the typical Tarantino is like tightly wound TNT. But in Jackie Brown, the filmmaker is mellow. He’s relaxed…and as a result, revelatory.
Anyone who thinks that all he can do is amp up the soundtrack and bolster a bullet ballet is sadly mistaken. There is very little violence in Jackie Brown – at least compared to the rest of his films – and yet Tarantino has managed to find a way to make this movie even more brutal. It’s all about character, about people pitted against each other in high stakes positioning where jail time, or death, is the sole consequence. Jackie, for all her womanly ways, is only out to protect herself. She’s been in prison and won’t go back. In the case of Ordell, he’s a mere plane trip away from a life of retirement. He’s not going to let some sniveling snitch, dumb blond surfer girl, or middle aged flight attendant screw that up.
As each conversation plays out – and no one does dialogue better than QT – as the flim flams and ruses reveal new layers of possible peril, Jackie Brown turns intense. Then suspenseful. And finally unnerving. It’s not that we root for our leading lady and want to see her succeed or wish harm to come to Ordell and his minions. With the various personalities on display and the way in which Tarantino defines them, we want the natural cinematic order to be restored and the obvious comeuppance to satisfy. Indeed, the payback in Jackie Brown is sweet, as sweet as the superb soundtrack selections offered. Everything from the Delfonics to Bobby Womack’s wonderful “Across 110th Street” resonates with a power reserved for true masters.
This is why Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s best “film.” It represents everything a writer and director needs to do in creating a masterpiece without being obvious or invasive. There is an organic flow to this film that’s lacking in his other work, while the performances aren’t pushy or forcibly flashy. In fact, had Tarantino walked into the world of motion pictures with this as his resume reel, people would be calling for his canonization. It’s the perfect realization of everything the artform has to offer – approach, actualization, and aesthetics. Nothing is out of place or overdone. It should be his calling card. Instead, because it followed Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, it was seen as a bit of a letdown before his next boffo explosion. Now, with a new Blu-ray release offering a wealth of extras and an image to die for, perhaps Jackie Brown will finally find its rightful place. His other films may be splashier, but none are better.