Following the rampant success of Pulp Fiction in 1994, Quentin Tarantino faced the gargantuan expectations to create another trend-setter. This was an impossible task, and the easy choice would be to deliver another energetic genre picture in the same vein. Audiences would likely enjoy it, leading to a stable career for the young director.
Looking at Tarantino today, it’s obvious that he would try something different. There’s little pressure on him now because he’s a proven commodity in Hollywood. Back in 1997, his long-term stability wasn’t so certain. Pulp Fiction spawned numerous imitators, and many were derivative attempts to mirror its success. By the time Jackie Brown appeared three years later, the indie landscape had changed dramatically. It showed a much different side of Tarantino, and the end result was a remarkable film that remains his best movie.
Adapted from the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch, this movie offers an intriguing mix of the author’s voice and Tarantino’s unique style of dialogue. What’s surprising is how much remains from the original book in this film. It pays tribute to the source material while providing a new spin from the young director.
The big change was in the lead character, which was changed from the white, blond-haired Jackie Burke to the African-American Jackie Brown (Pam Grier). This shift adjusts the movie’s tone, but it also gives Grier the chance to deliver a stunning performance. She originally rose to prominence in “Blaxploitation” films like Foxy Brown and Coffy during the mid-’70s. Although she continued to work throughout the ‘80s, this movie brought her back into the public consciousness. The attention was well-deserved, and it’s nearly impossible to envision another actress playing this role.
Grier’s striking performance is equaled by her co-star Robert Forster, who makes bail bondsman Max Cherry a sweet, believable guy. He’s dealt with enough criminals to understand this world but hasn’t been corrupted. Once he sees Jackie while escorting her home from jail, it’s love at first sight. This story hinges on us liking Max and believing he’d do anything to help Jackie.
The middle-aged Forster was a new face to many viewers even though he’d been working in movies for 30 years. Since Jackie Brown, his career hasn’t enjoyed a Travolta-like renaissance, but he’s appeared in a variety of interesting projects. These include David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Gus Van Zant’s Psycho remake, and a recurring role on Heroes. Tarantino’s choice of Forster and Grier, along with the excellent supporting cast, plays a key role in this film’s success.
The opening act spends a considerable amount of time introducing Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) and his associates Louis Gara (Robert De Niro) and Melanie Ralston (Bridget Fonda). Jackie appears in the credits sequence while Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” plays. Shot in LAX, the inventive scene provides a side view of Jackie as she rides a moving walkway to her job as a flight attendant. Afterwards, she exits the movie and doesn’t return for a while.
This risky approach succeeds because the other characters are fun and interesting. Jackson shows both the lively and cold sides of Ordell’s personality as he deals with a cowardly acquaintance (Chris Tucker). By showing what he’ll do to protect his business, Tarantino clearly presents the stakes for Jackie as she faces charges from the Feds. While Ordell seems like a comic individual, we’ve already seen the darker side of his personality before Jackie even takes over the story.
The main plot focuses on Jackie’s attempts to steal a half million dollars from Ordell right from under the Feds’ noses. Agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) feels like he has the upper hand, but she’s way ahead of the game. Joined by her loyal ally Max, Jackie is willing to take the chance for one big score. Facing little career prospects and possible death, the choice is easy.
Tarantino presents this sequence from multiple perspectives by repeating it several times. It’s a clever device and doesn’t feel like a gimmick because we’re interested in each character’s destination. The story is more than just Jackie’s and keeps us engaged across the board. Goofball characters like Louis and Melanie work because they’re fully drawn individuals. Tarantino shows their perspective clearly, even when their actions lead to shocking results.
Revisiting Jackie Brown nearly 15 years later on Blu-ray, it’s surprising to see how well the story has aged. Leonard’s stories tend to stay relevant because he creates full-fledged characters with complex motivations. Combining this fact with Tarantino’s ear for dialogue makes for a rewarding experience, even after multiple viewings. Another big change from many of his other films is the minimal on-screen violence. There are no shocking explosions of blood or striking images of violence. Instead, Tarantino moves the camera away from the events before they occur. There are still some surprises, especially during a late scene in a mall parking lot. The choice to avoid the blood actually makes the violence more effective because we’re not distracted by the physical act itself.
Although this Blu-ray offers impressive extras, most of them were included on the previous two-disc DVD release. Regardless, this is still an enjoyable collection of material that provides an interesting background. The significant new addition is “Breaking Down Jackie Brown”, a 43-minute conversation between a roundtables of five film critics. Hosted by Elvis Mitchell, this group might not be the most attractive gang (especially the two goofily dressed guys on the left), but they provide an excellent discussion. The other major extras are two repeat entries, the documentary “How It Went Down” and a long interview with Tarantino.
The 38-minute behind-the-scenes piece is mostly promotional but still is worth seeing. Another exciting feature is a trivia track, which is always a worthwhile inclusion. Other extra footage includes 15 minutes of deleted scenes, Siskel and Ebert’s review from At the Movies, and even appearances on MTV Live with Carson Daly.
Jackie Brown is a divisive film for Tarantino fans, who typically place it near the top or the bottom of their rankings. It’s easily my favorite, and a main reason is the near-perfect soundtrack. Classic tunes from the ‘60s and ‘70s play throughout the movie and never distract from the story. The best example is the Delfonics’ 1970 hit “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time”, the song that inspires Max. Watching him drive around town with that romantic tune playing on his car stereo is a classic moment.
The songs bring extra flavor to a film that works as a love story, a heist film, and an offbeat crime story. This effective combination explains why Jackie Brown is easily Tarantino’s finest work and among the best of the many Leonard adaptations.