Jackie Brown (1997)A column article by: Nick Hanover
Dir: Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino detractors tend to utilize a few arguments when criticizing his films: he's overly beholden to style, his plotting is too gimmicky, he just "samples" older works. Conveniently, Tarantino's third feature film Jackie Brown functions as a defense against those qualms, ably demonstrating that even with all of Tarantino's signature directorial moves removed he can churn out incredible work. A hybridization of blaxploitation films and the LA noir of Elmore Leonard, whose Rum Punch would form the basis of the film and mark the only occasion where Tarantino would adapt an existing work, Jackie Brown is nonetheless Tarantino's most straightforward and controlled movie. But that doesn't mean it's boring.
Largely built around a sticky situation that the eponymous protagonist (brilliantly depicted by Pam Grier) has found herself immersed in, Jackie Brown's closest peer in the Tarantino canon is likely True Romance, which similarly took an unassuming, seemingly unthreatening character to dangerous heights. In Jackie's particular case, that involves juggling three sides of a money running deal, with her boss Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson) in one corner while two ATF agents (Michael Bowen and Michael Keaton) wait impatiently in another. In between is bond agent Max Cherry (Robert Forster in a career redefining turn), who's nursing a bit of a crush on Jackie.
Tarantino wisely focuses the movie on the way the different sides present themselves, with Ordell acting like a hotshot arms dealer whose ambition far outstrips his abilities and who surrounds himself with people he thinks he can push around, like recent parolee Louis (Robert de Niro), while Jackie plays at being simpler than she actually is. The acting across the board is, as usual, stellar, with some standard Tarantino players fitting comfortably into their roles while Grier and Forster are the beneficiaries of Tarantino's ability to singlehandedly resurrect careers. The film would also mark one of the last times you could watch De Niro actually put some effort into a role as his take on Louis is restrained and surprising, a clear contrast to the tic-heavy caricature performances he would soon make his default mode.
But what makes Jackie Brown such a standout in Tarantino's ouevre is the way it shows the director using basically conventional Hollywood plotting to maximum rewards. Jackie Brown is in many ways a simple heist film, all centered around a desperate ploy by a player no one else deems a threat. As a character, Jackie Brown is incredibly interesting because her power lies not in sex (though Grier can't help but exude sex appeal at every moment) or violence or any of the traits normally associated with Tarantino's leads. Instead she's just crafty as all fuck, the kind of character who can lay on the charm while wearing a bathrobe and blasting the Delfonics for a bond agent she just stole from to turning her own potential murder around into a dark standoff where she holds all the power...twice.
Tarantino's silent partner in this is Guillermo Navarro, Robert Rodriguez's cinematographer on Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn, who frames every scene in beautiful clarity. That really comes out in this Blu-ray release, which demonstrates just how gorgeous a film this is, especially by Tarantino standards, and Navarro's work at times recalls what he brought to Guillermo del Toro's early work Cronos. Thematically this film may not have much in common with Tarantino's follow-up Kill Bill but aesthetically, they're much closer than one might think, with impeccably lit backdrops and intense moments drenched in absolute darkness, where the only illumination comes from barely there lamps or wisps of cigarette smoke.
This Blu-ray, other than just looking pretty, also includes all of the original extras from the original DVD release, which means the "Chicks with Guns" video is still there (though I remain sorely disappointed that no one thought to soundtrack that to the Cramps' "Bikini Girls with Machine Guns"), as are the deleted and alternate scenes and the infamous "Enhanced Trivia" subtitle track. While most of this material will be old hat to those who own the DVD it's still an excellent addition to the experience and one new extra, a critics roundtable looking back on Jackie Brown, is especially worthwhile viewing.
Despite immense success in theatres and an Academy Award nomination for Forster, Jackie Brown is often treated as a lesser Tarantino work, a pause between the genre-heavy Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill. But the expert pacing and finely honed craftsmanship on display in the film easily makes it one of Tarantino's best, an irrefutably great display that Tarantino is more than just flash, he's a director who knows how to tell a story better than most, no matter what that story may be.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and a staff writer for No Tofu Magazine. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon.