Jackie Brown (1997)
The legions of Quentin Tarantino imitators always seem to miss the essential characteristics of a Tarantino film. Focusing on violence, Tarantinoesque movies are frequently more violent, both quantitatively and qualitiatively, than the genuine article. Violence in actual Tarantino films is oblique, suggested more than seen. Strongly suggested, granted, but it always occurs just outside the frame, or off at a distance, signified by a sound or a splatter of blood -- no victims clutching at blood-spurting arteries, no bullet-riddled dance of death. Someone's talking, and suddenly, they are not. A fine moment in *Jackie Brown* is a case in point: A gun dealer needs to eliminate a talkative employee. Convincing the gullible fellow to crawl inside the trunk of his car, Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) drives around the block and disappears as the camera pulls way, way back. At a distance, a car appears and parks in a vacant lot, cloaked in darkness, only the song on the radio identifying it as Ordell's car. Shots are fired, but only two small flares are visible. Ordell drives away, as the same song ("Strawberry Letter 23") continues. No blood, no body, just two pops, and an old, innocuous pop tune with a fresh coat of taint.
*Jackie Brown* is full of fine, true Tarantino moments like that, moments built on small, cunning details. The director's first feature since the influential *Pulp Fiction*, *Jackie Brown* is based on Elmore Leonard's novel *Rum Punch*. It's a seamless adaptation (Tarantino has long acknowledged Leonard as an influence), full of the writer-director's distinctive, hyperactive hyperbole and visual flair. *Jackie Brown* makes obvious what is suggested by the handful of films written, but not directed, by Tarantino (*True Romance*, *Natural Born Killers*): Tarantino's unique and subtle visual style, his uncommon ability to pick out unlikely talent, his sense of timing and ear for the rhythms of speech and street dialects, and his immersion in film history are inimitable, elusive qualities that only emerge when all the elements are together. It isn't just the writing, or the acting, or the directing, but the whole magilla.
*Jackie Brown* is a dense, complicated, and thoroughly entertaining crime caper. Jackie (Pam Grier) is a flight attendant for Cabo Air, the worst airline in the industry. To make ends meets, she acts as a courier for Ordell, who keeps his funds in a Mexican bank. When she's busted by the ATF, Jackie, knowing that Ordell's plans for her don't include longterm survival, schemes to steal half a million from the gun dealer while pretending to sneak his money past the ATF. ATF agents Nicolet (Michael Keaton) and Dargus (Michael Bowen), meanwhile, think she's working for them.
*Jackie Brown* takes its sweet time getting to the heist, which is almost incidental to the elucidating, detailed study of the characters. The movie doesn't even get to Jackie for a good half hour or so, instead spending time with Ordell and his minions Louis (Robert DeNiro) and Melanie (Bridget Fonda). With the exception of movies about criminals (*The Godfather*, *Goodfellas*), it is the rare film that is so lavish and languorous in its devotion to the bad guy. Too many movies spend precious little time establishing any characters, and opt for off the shelf villlains with scars and accents and other telltale features that are supposed to substitute for personality and character. Ordell has a long ponytail and a skinny little braided beard, which give him the look of a kung fu movie villain, but he's more than a haircut baddie. Forever talking about guns, gun buyers, and the small fortune he's got stashed south of the border, Ordell is not psychopathic but frigidly businesslike -- he kills troublesome employees with all the conscience of a CEO plotting a round of layoffs. With a wink at anti media violence crusaders, Ordell is also a media-savvy entrepreneur: his top selling weapons are always the ones featured in the latest movies and TV shows.
Louis is none-too-bright, staring blank-faced while the garrulous Ordell pontificates. When she isn't provoking Ordell and Louis, Melanie, a beach bum stoner, gets high and watches TV all day in Ordell's beach-side condo.
All the time spent with Ordell and company doesn't make them remotely likable, but it makes Jackie so very likable by contrast. In Ordell's dog eat dog milieu, Jackie gets to be the crook *and* the heroine. Knowing Ordell so well, ethical shortcomings, quirks and all, reveals just how much Jackie is risking by double crossing him, and adds an excruciating sense of tension to the story once her scam finally gets under way.
Aiding Jackie is Max Cherry (Robert Forster), the bail bondsman Ordell hires to spring her from jail. Max, world-weary, ultra-cool and street smart, has a sweet spot for Jackie, which prompts him to help plot her early retirement with benefits. The complex sting, with Jackie scamming Ordell and duping the ATF has her risking life and freedom should anything go wrong. But Jackie, aside from being quick thinking and cool (even Ordell is a little intimidated), is desperate. She's middle aged and watching her already limited options get fewer and fewer, and she understandably feels little remorse about ripping off Ordell. The scheme she devises is so deliciously, deviously complicated that it is never entirely clear that she's really pulling it off -- it frequently looks like things are going terribly wrong.
*Jackie Brown* promises to resurrect the careers of Grier, 70's blaxploitation queen (*Foxy Brown*, *Coffy*), and Forster, who, for the most part has seen action in B movies. Grier, far less glamorous then usual, is really terrific as Jackie, playing a woman whose days as a hip, hot action babe left her smart, steely and tired. Forster is marvelously entertaining as a weary businessman, less ruthless than Ordell, but dealing with the same lowlifes. The two characters together, people with as much time behind as ahead of them, are fascinating in their maturity, their well-earned fatigue, their patience and self-possession, and their middle age cool.
Tarantino's love of crime genre literature and film is evident in *Jackie Brown*. Less flashy than Pulp Fiction, and slightly less perfect, *Jackie Brown* is nonetheless consistently entertaining and engrossing, a brisk, stylish film full of wit, smart writing, and shrewd, telling details. Accept no substitutes.