So far at this point in Tarantino’s career he had directed two very successful films and written another for Tony Scott to direct. For his third directorial (Well, technically 4th) effort Quentin decided he would adapt one of three Elmore Leonard novels. The original plan was to adapt the books Freaky Deaky and Killshot but, at some point, he re-read Rum Punch and two more potential Tarantino films went into his vault of ideas never realised. A vault that includes a James Bond film and, apparently, a third Kill Bill. Face it, he’ll never make Volume 3. Anyway, now fully back in love with Rum Punch Quentin made a few small adjustments, changing the lead character’s name and changing the title, and then began to set about making his ode to 70s Blaxploitation films. So how did Tarantino’s third film turn out? Click the link to find out.
Before even the first frame of the film proper has appeared Tarantino is setting the tone for you. As the Miramax and A Band Apart (I C wut U did thar.) company logos play out the first few bars of Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street plays out. This then leads to a 3 and a half minute scene of Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) travelling through the airport she works at as a hostess as the song plays out to completion. The scene shows much of what Tarantino is about. Visually it parallels The Graduate’s intro. Musically it mirrors the soul and funk of the 70s cinema that Tarantino is very much obsessed with. With see Jackie moving forward without taking a step which, in a sense, signifies her way of life. She’s always moving forward through life with her herself being fully in control. The desire to change that is the centre of her story. She also rushes to get to her post exactly in time to start work popping behind a curtain and reappearing with just enough time to have put on her scarf. This shows that she always has appearances in mind and is always prepared to get what she needs done done. She might just squeak through but she there. I love the intro sequence to Jackie Brown. It exemplifies Tarantino’s style whilst at the same time being the perfect introduction to the character and setting.
As far as the plot goes, for a Tarantino film, Jackie Brown is pretty straight forward. Jackie smuggles money for a small time, but wishes he was big time, arms dealer named Ordell (Samuel L Jackson). She is caught in possession of the money and a surprise gift in the form of a bag of cocaine and is now at risk of going to jail. Ordell can’t allow that in case she talks about his operation and so he intends to pay for her bails and to kill her so she stays quiet. Jackie expects this though and sets up a counter offer to Ordell, that she helps him get all the money he has in Mexico out in one go in exchange for her silence and a pay off if she needs to go to jail. What he doesn’t realise is that she intends to set Ordell up with the police. What they don’t realise is that she’s playing both parties for fools and intends to leave with all the money for herself. To do this she enlists the help of bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) and sets up her very complex plan of deception. OK, so it’s not that simple, but the film does play out linearly so by default it’s a simpler presentation than usual.
When Jackie Brown came out it received good reviews all around for the most part. Trouble was many critics got the knives out simply because it’s not quite as good as Pulp Fiction. Because of this Jackie Brown was, for some time, referred to as Tarantino’s weakest film. This is unfair. Of the three complete films he had directed, including this, only one was a genius level masterpiece of film making. That being Pulp Fiction. Jackie Brown is an exceptional film that deserves heavy praise. It might not be as full of the effortlessly cool dialogue Tarantino had become known for at this point, although it is there, but it is still a damn sight better than the majority of films being made at this time. Tarantino displays restrain with his Blaxploitation aesthetic by merely utilising aspects of the genre rather than flat out attempting to create a new entry. The film still has a lot of his DJ Director style but it’s never at the expense of performance, tone or the films reality. In a sense this is one of his most grounded works.
In recent years Tarantino has begun to be a little obsessed with filling his films with all star casts. He still gets to throw in a few people you wouldn’t expect but the casting of his last few films hasn’t been up to the inspired levels of his 90s work. I put it down to actors begging to work with his and studios wanting star power on the poster. Jackie Brown did something amazing. It takes two actors who were largely forgotten at the time and put them in roles they could get their teeth into. Pam Grier and Robert Forster were nominated for a Golden Globe and an Oscar respectively for their work in this film. Much deserved they are too. Pam plays Jackie as a woman that’s been through the ringer over the years and is ready for change. She’s got a 70s sass to her fitting of Foxy Brown herself but is older and tired of the routine. Robert Forster meanwhile keeps his performance understated and dry keeping much of his characters emotions under the surface. His character, Max, is tired of life too and Jackie has given him the chance to take part in something exciting that could get him out of the repetitive grind of his work life. The rest of the cast does a fine job with possibly Robert DeNiro being the most interesting to watch. He plays an ex-con called Louis who remains mostly silent throughout the film. He’s another character tired of his life but has chosen to just go with the flow and get stoned. When he finally gets involved in the operation at hand his handling of the job shows that maybe he’s not really cut out for this life any more. It’s interesting to see DeNiro in a role where he’s not the film’s focus. He’s one of the greats but these days he’s been doing nothing with his ability. I’d maybe say this was his last great performance but he was delightfully camp in Stardust.
I’ve mentioned the film’s soundtrack already but it deserves going deeper. Pulp Fiction had a cool soundtrack. That is a fact. Jackie Brown has one of the coolest. The use of classic soul legends such as Bobby Womack, The Metrics, The Delfonics and so on is what gives this film it’s feel. It sets the mood, enlightens you to a characters disposition and even provides a couple of laughs. Max gets introduced to the music of the Delfonics by Jackie, later he’s seen picking up a cassette and listening to them in his car. Later still Ordell is taking Max to where he is to meet Jackie to collect his money. The scene is tense. Ordell switches on the stereo and on comes The Delfonics. It’s a simple laugh but it works whilst at the same time hinting to Ordell that the relationship between Jackie and Max might be deeper than just business. The film also manages to incorporate a little Johnny Cash and Slash’s Snakepit in there. What makes the films soundtrack especially unique is that there isn’t a single piece of original music composed for the film. This is Tarantino creating a musical mix-tape to go alongside his film. It takes skill, musical knowledge and a lot of good taste to pull this sort of effect off. Tarantino does it in his sleep.
Overall Jackie Brown is one of my favourite Tarantino films. Pulp Fiction is obviously the best, you have no idea how much I will gush over that one. This comes close to being the second best though. It is a tough call for me between this, Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill Vol 1 for what would be the second place. Like many of Tarantino’s works Jackie Brown is a film doing its own thing and not giving two shits what anyone else thinks. That is pretty much what makes great cinema. The moment a film starts to compromise for anyone other than the director and the audience is the moment it begins to lose its true potential. Not that a studio made film fitting nicely into a 12A certificate can’t be good. It just can’t be as truthful. Tarantino puts himself into every film he makes and so, at the very least, with his works you’re getting something truthful.