JACKIE BROWN could be Quentin Tarantino’s best movie. It doesn’t have the sweep of Django Unchained or the wild audacity of Pulp Fiction or the Kill Bill’s, but this 1997 crime & character game plays its aces from a straight Real World deck, with people, conversations and actions that ring true, their mirth and menace fashioned out of reality’s insanity rather than wishful escapism. It didn’t hurt that the source material came from Elmore Leonard, who wrote it five years earlier as “Rum Punch” (Leonard loved Q.T.’s adaptation), but the bold writer-director makes it his own in style, an urban who’ll-get-it cobweb with some of his sharpest dialogue (often hilarious) and best-crafted performances.
Middle-aged stewardess ‘Jackie Brown’ (Pam Grier) pads her meager salary by smuggling money in from Mexico to L.A. for slippery gun-runner ‘Ordell’ (Samuel L. Jackson). Caught by a DEA agent (Michael Keaton), she’s kicked from jail by Ordell, using bail bondsman ‘Max Cherry’ (Robert Forster), who takes a shine to Jackie. Ordell’s less-than-stellar associates ‘Louis’ (Robert de Niro) and ‘Melanie’ (Bridget Fonda) are brought into a scheme. The cops try to play Jackie off against Ordell, but she has her own game plan.
Tarantino always cites the classic western Rio Bravo as a favorite, astutely calling it a “hang-out movie”; lengthy and relaxed in atmospheric settings, zapped with sudden bursts of energy, and particularly, people you simply enjoy watching casually interact with one another. Affectionate eavesdropping. *
For 154 unhurried, studiously observed minutes, Quentin-does-Elmore—and goes him one better, making the various L.A. locations—sunny and seedy simultaneously—as much of a character as the humans, and selecting perfect song choices for the soundtrack to underline and accentuate mood and attitude, including “Across 110th Street” (Bobby Womack), “Tennessee Stud” (Johnny Cash), “La-La Means I Love You” (The Delfonics) and “Midnight Confessions” (The Grass Roots).
Speaking of attitude, does anyone deliver it better & badder than Samuel L. Jackson on a riff? He makes Tarantino’s profane yet complex dialogue come off like street poetry, almost soul-Shakespeare, elevating a certain 4-syllable coinage involving matrilineal relations to art-form currency, “serious as a heart attack“. De Niro’s ‘whatever, it’s cool’, cloddish, bong-hitting ex-con and Keaton’s anxious DEA hound are ripe scene-stealer gigs, but even those venerable timing aces are bested by Bridget Fonda’s amoral stoner/surf tramp, a nasty picture of heedless vacuity on parade.**
The crown of casting & acting glory is shared by the old pros from the 60s & 70s, Pam Grier and Robert Forster, blessed by having the director choose them to inhabit his superlative cut on Jackie and Max, down-but-not-out survivors from both sides of the system’s unjust justice. Late better than never, these are beautifully modulated, career-high jobs from two actors finally getting overdue dues. Forster had been a guy-to-watch in around 1967-70, getting breaks in his mid-20s in such diverse fare as Reflections In A Golden Eye, The Stalking Moon and Medium Cool, then the momentum petered out into two decades of unworthy schlockville. A weathered but still compelling presence at 56, he reinvigorated his resume with this role, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. It was the film’s only nomination, a real crime of omission, as Pam Grier, 48 and F-i-n-e, delivered the performance of her career in the title role, investing Jackie Brown with a lifetime-been-there cocktail of wariness & confidence, pain & dignity, sensuality & serenity. The 70s sex-bomb asskicker from blaxploitation hits like Coffy and Foxy Brown deserved to be on the Oscar-roster for the year.***
Done for $12,000,000, it tacked 56th place in the States, 36th internationally, a cumulative gross of $74,727,500. With Michael Bowen, Chris Tucker, Lisa Gay Hamilton (a touching bit as a sweet, pathetically ignorant ‘country girl’ used by Ordell), ‘Tiny’ Lister, Hattie Winston and Sid Haig (Pam’s alumnus from The Big Doll House and other exploitation fests of the anything-shows 70s) .
* Quote Quent: “It’s a hangout movie….Jackie Brown is better the second time, and I think it’s even better the third, and the fourth time. Maybe even the first time we see it, we go, ‘Why are we doing all this hanging out? Why can’t we get to more of the plot?’ But, now the second time you see it, and the third time you see it, you’re not thinking about the plot anymore. You’re waiting for the hangout scenes. To me, that’s the thing that Rio Bravo did. I remember the first time I saw Rio Bravo, but I remember more the fifteenth time I saw Rio Bravo. It’s about hanging out with the characters.” Bravo.
Too bad Tarantino didn’t take on direction & adaptation chores for another great crime writer—to my mind The Best—James Lee Burke, whose marvelous ‘Dave Robicheaux’ stories have fared poorly (so far) on screen with Heaven’s Prisoners and In The Electric Mist.
Other law & disorder crews you could hang out with in 1997 included those of L.A. Confidential, Cop Land, Midnight In The Garden Of Good and Evil, The Rainmaker and Donnie Brasco.
** The acting world’s loss was composer Danny Elfman’s gain when Bridget Fonda left thesping behind after marrying him in 2003. Her superior work in choice items like Singles, It Could Happen To You and A Simple Plan show that the Fonda screen-gene skipped a generation over father Peter to infuse her work with the same easy grace displayed by her legendary Grampa. She didn’t resort to the shrill artifice too often put over by Aunt Jane, either.
*** Forster’s chance at a statue went to Robin Williams nice turn in Good Will Hunting. The Best Actress nominees were all top-drawer—winner Helen Hunt for As Good As It Gets, Kate Winslet for Titanic, Julie Christie in Afterglow, Helena Bonham-Carter for The Wings Of The Dove, and Judi Dench is Mrs. Brown—but Pam Grier really should have been in there somewhere.