(Revisionist) Movie Review : Jackie Brown (1997)
Quentin Tarantino is a director you either love or hate. His movies are long, hyperviolent, unapologetic and hopelessly juvenile, and not everyone’s into that. But he's passionate about cinema and developed a strong, distinctive style, which earned him a legion of die-hard fans. There’s only one movie Tarantino fans and film nerds in general can’t seem to agree on: Jackie Brown. The 1997 follow-up to Pulp Fiction has been labeled a bust in theaters, but slowly crept its way into pop culture since then. So, which one is it? Good or bad? Hipsters choice or cult classic?
I’ve re-watched Jackie Brown last week to try and figure it out.
Jackie Brown is based on an Elmore Leonard novel titled Rum Punch. It features a middle-aged flight attendant (Pam Grier), who gets caught smuggling money and cocaine into the United States. But law enforcement is not interested in her. If she cooperates and gives them her employer Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson), she’ll be allowed to walk away. Little they do know, Jackie Brown obeys to no one. Not the law and especially not a psychopathic arms dealer with a penchant for shooting untrustworthy people in the face. Jackie would figure her way out of anything.
The revisionist diagnostic for Jackie Brown isn’t straightforward. It’s a good movie. It’s smart and original for what it is, but I’m not sure it would’ve withstood the test of time if Quentin Tarantino’s name wasn’t attached to it. So, it’s better AND worse than we remember it to be.
Worse: Elmore Leonard & Quentin Tarantino are only moderately compatible
Jackie Brown is the only Quentin Tarantino movie where he didn’t come up with a 100% original story. It’s an Elmore Leonard adaptation and it shows. Leonard was great at what he did, but his strength was always cartoon-y, larger than life characters. These characters rarely did anything interesting, but in a novel setting, they had the breathing room to express themselves.
It’s… kind of the problem here. Jackie Brown is one of these movies where hidden money is the main character. The typically large Tarantino-esque cast’s existence revolves around it: the money’s Ordell retirement plan, it’s Jackie’s way of getting away from Ordell and the cops, it’s what the cops hope to catch Ordell with, etc. The only character with original motivations is Max (Robert Forster), who has a crush on Jackie.
That makes Jackie Brown more straightforward and predictable than any other Quentin Tarantino movie. It wouldn’t be a problem… except for one thing: it’s as long as the others.
Better: Unpredictable pacing
Rhythm is a variable usually so internalized by filmmakers, that most of them are doing it the same way: they try to cram the most information in the smallest amount of footage possible. Not Tarantino. For example, he spends almost 30 minutes on Ordell Robbie’s exposition by having him bailing out Beaumont (Chris Tucker): he goes to the bail bondsman office (the scene also introduces Max), pays a visit to Beaumont, convinces him to get into his car trunk as “backup for a business transaction”, drives him to a vacant lot and ruthlessly shoots him in the face.
The point of all that? Showing that Ordell’s a cold blooded motherfucker.
That is so bizarre and so Tarantino-y. He goads the audience into establishing a false relationship with Ordell. They first meet him in his apartment, where he recites gun facts to his henchman Louis (freakin’ Robert De Niro) like a nerd, argues with his passive-aggressive pot smoking side chick (Bridget Fonda) and gets called a harmless loser by her. Then, Tarantino has you following Ordell around town for what seems to be a good deed and then BAM! He hits you in the face with the truth about the character.
Long-winded, unpedictable pacing is a staple of Quentin Tarantino cinema, but it is best exploited in a movie like Jackie Brown, which would’ve greatly suffered without it.
Better: Love saves the day
Let’s talk about Max. He’s being used by Jackie, but his feelings are pure. While everybody else is motivated by greed, Max is taking unbelievable risks for selfless reasons: he loves Jackie and doesn’t want to see her harmed. He’s old enough not to have possessive impulses towards her and to know something terrible would happen to him as soon as they don’t see eye to eye, but Max risks his life for her anyway. Sure, there is money involved, but he’s the only character in the movie that doesn’t need it. My dude has a decently paying job.
Movies about gangsters double-crossing one another are a dime a dozen, but movies about a fifty-something bail bondsman selflessly putting himself in harm’s way because he has romantic feelings for a woman are another ball game. Cold-blooded brutality is being undercut by chivalrous, middle-aged romance in Jackie Brown, which is… unusual? That is this movie’s legacy in the end. Quietly subverting a familiar genre. Jackie Brown is not fiercely original and in-your-face like the other Quentin Tarantino movies, but it has its quirky, nuanced charm.
It was an atypically unambitious endeavor from perhaps the most ambitious storyteller working today in Hollywood, but it challenged formulaic genre movies like no other before it and… kind of deserves its cult classic status in its historical context?