Director: Quentin Tarantino.
Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino.
Starring: Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Robert DeNiro, Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton, Chris Tucker, Michael Bowen, Tommy “Tiny” Lister, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Hattie Winston, Sid Haig.
“AK-47. The very best there is. When you absolutely, positively got to kill every motherfucker in the room, accept no substitutes“.
After “Reservoir Dogs” in 1991 and “Pulp Fiction” in 1994, Quentin Tarantino was hailed as the new wunderkind of contemporary American cinema with his triumphant originality and seemingly effortless ability to excite audiences. However, there were still claims of him borrowing heavily from other movies and despite the second feature from a new filmmaker predominantly being the ‘tricky one’, it seemed that it was Tarantino’s third that posed this problem for him. Added to which, he still had a few doubters wondering if he could emulate his previous successes.
In trying to make ends meet, middle-aged air hostess, Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is also a courier for local gun-smuggler Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) but when federal agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) and LA cop Mark Dargas (Michael Bowen) get wind of her plans she faces time in jail. With the help of bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster), Jackie hatches a scam to play the police and her boss off one another.
As a big fan of crime writer Elmore Leonard and, in particular, his novel “Rum Punch” (upon which this is an adaptation), I was admittedly left with feelings of disappointment when I first seen “Jackie Brown“. I was unimpressed and even entertained the thought that Tarantino’s critics may well have been right. Upon repeat viewings though, it becomes apparent just how good a film it really is. For the most part, Tarantino resists the temptation of his usual pop-cultural references or the gratuitous violence that his name had become synonymous with. Instead, he opts for a more subtle and leisurely approach and in doing so, allows his actors the space to develop their characters and the drama to unfold at it’s own pace. Again, it could also be said that Tarantino pays yet more homage to films of the past. He changed the ethnicity of the lead female character in Leonard’s novel from the white Jackie Burke to a black Jackie Brown which allowed him to cast Pam Grier and reference her blaxploitation films “Foxy Brown” and “Coffy” as well as, employing the use of Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street“. In no way is this a blaxploitation film. It’s much broader than that but certainly has some hallmarks from that particular sub-genre.
As for Grier, herself, it’s a bold move by Tarantino to cast her in the lead and essentially structure the film around her. Many have applauded this casting choice (I mean, let’s face it, Tarantino rarely gets it wrong and has resurrected a few careers in his day) but I think I’m one of the few who actually thinks that Grier’s performance is a little stretched at times. With the abundance of talent around her, she seems to play her hand a little too forcefully and has a tendency to overact. That being said, it would be hard not to play it this way when the company she’s keeping are as strong as they are: Tarantino’s go-to man for dialogue delivery – Samuel L. Jackson – echoes Pulp’s Jules Winnfield, only this time his gun-running Ordell Robbie has less biblical monologues and more of a dangerous cutting edge; Bridget Fonda plays his vacuous beach blonde accomplice to perfection while Michael Keaton’s doggedly determined ATF agent Ray Nicolette has the requisite cocksure arrogance. The biggest revelation, though, is Robert Forster’s Oscar nominated turn as bale bondsman Max Cherry. Forster achieved some acclaimed film and television performances throughout the 1960’s and 70’s but eventually fell into obscurity before Tarantino revived his career with this role. On this evidence it’s hard to see why Robert Forster disappeared for so long. His work here is a nuanced and very subtle piece of work – which brings me to the other Robert…
Most of you will be aware of my fondness for all all things DeNiro but his work here is one of his most under-appreciated. While everyone around him sink their teeth into there colourful characters, his stoned ex-convict Louis Gara is left to sit in the background with very little to say or do. Leave it to DeNiro then, to bring this character to life; his glazed look and awkward social communication is pitched so well that it’s hard to take your eyes off him. When he is given something to do, though, DeNiro brings this subdued character’s volatility to the surface with dangerous and convincing results. Rarely have I seen him steal so many scenes by practically doing nothing and even though he’s seriously under-utilised, this is one of my favourite performances of his.
Not as well received on its release as the exceptional “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” but over the years this has gradually gained the respect that it deserves and, to this day, stands as one of Tarantino’s finest and most mature outings.
Trivia: Sylvester Stallone originally wanted to play DeNiro’s character of Louis, while John Travolta was the first choice to play Keaton’s Ray Nicollete.