To paraphrase Calvin Candie from Django Unchained, with Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino had our curiosity, but with the release of Pulp Fiction in 1994, he most definitely had our attention as pop culture promptly exploded with the sight of a suited and booted John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson blasting away at some poor bastard off-screen. The world waited with bated breath to see what unbearably cool stuff the director was going to unleashed next and what we got – well, it wasn’t quite what we expected.
Essentially committing the cardinal sin of daring to do something different, the response to 1997’s Jackie Brown was somewhat muted compared to what came before as Tarantino attempted to try something a little different to his usual pop culture chats and pistol pointing, but was the world too harsh on QT’s third feature film?
Jackie Brown is a flight attendant who gets caught as she smuggles money from Mexico to the United States for her gun runner boss in LA. Her boss, the egotistical Ordell Robbie, figures out that another one of his employees, a courier named Beaumont, must have been responsible for the leak after he gets picked up by the cops and blabs in order to avoid serious jail time, so the gun runner goes to world weary bail bondsman Max Cherry to bail him out with the express intention of filling him full of holes before he blabs any more.
This kicks off a string of events that link a disparate group of people to the resourceful Jackie who desides to take advantage of the situation to finally guarantee a life for herself.
Over zealous ATF agent Ray Nicolette wants Jackie to set up her boss in some sort of sting operation while Robbie just wants to keep his name out of everybody’s mouth by any means necessary, but after he realises that Jackie is far too smart to be simply killed, he has no choice to play along with her plan. However, unbeknownst to him, her plan is to play them off against each other with the help of the smitten Max Cherry and somehow pocket the money the next time she has to smuggle cash in with the police and Ordell watching.
While the cops think they’re going to sting Robbie for the amount of $50,000, the gun runner actually has Jackie flying in $550,000 and he has his cohorts surfer-girl squeeze Melanie and former cellmate Louis Gara prepare for the drop. But even with Cherry’s help, can Jackie actually pull this off right under the nose of the cops: and even if she does, Ordell is going to find out sooner or later and we already know what his chosen method is of getting rid of trouble makers…
Jackie Brown is always a movie that’s confounded me ever since I first saw it and not entirely in a good way either. It was legitimately inspiring seeing that the auteur was adding more strings to his bow what with the movie being an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s 1992 novel, Rum Punch and a strong nod to blaxploitation cinema floating in the air, but it just wasn’t the movie we wanted out of him back in 1997 – and guess what, despite it’s numerous good points it still isn’t what I want from him now.
The overriding, main issue is that Jackie Brown is just too slow, ambling when it should be striding and jogging when it should be sprinting and all the zip and verve Tarantino brought to his previous movies is swapped out for a more measured and laconic pace. I get why; because QT wants to tell a slower story about older, wiser people, who are realising they’re all too old to carry on the life they’ve been living and Tarantino admirably fills his movie with middle-aged characters, all greying at the temples and flawed as hell. Pam Grier, a veteran of such exploitation classics such as Foxy Brown, Coffy and Black Mama, White Mama, is a revelation, as is Robert Forster, two bygone character actors who bring their A-game in breathing life into two leads who are trying to reassess their lives on the fly years after they’ve past their prime (Foster in particular looks as rumpled as a screwed up paper bag). Opposing them is Samuel L. Jackson taking full advantage of his “overnight” transition into superstardom after Pulp Fiction who gives Ordell Robbie his all as a brash, shit-heel, small time crook who isn’t as smart as he thinks he is while simultaneously having more intelligence than a lot of people give him credit for. Jackson naturally embraces him wholesale and even gets one of the movie’s few, genuinely memorable moments as he excitedly gives commentary over a “Girls With Guns” promo video. However, from here, things get a little frustrating and when most people heard we were getting both Robert De Niro and Michael Keaton in a Tarantino movie, the mind boggles as to what earth shattering dialogue they where going to get to play with. After all, if Harvey Keitel got to grand stand as Mr. White and Jackson got the ridiculously iconic Ezekiel 25:17 speech in Fiction, imagine what these guys are gonna get! What we got was a subdued De Niro mumbling under his moustache and Keaton saddled with reciting police procedure in a squeaky leather jacket – they give good, solid performances, but once again it just isn’t what we wanted. However, sneaking away with her scenes much like Jackie wants to steal away with the money is Bridget Fonda as drug enthusiast and arch wind-up merchant Melanie who’s contant badgering of De Niro’s bewildered Gara leads to the movie’s most shocking instance in a movie surprisingly low on the sort violence Tarantino usually brings.
So, as I’ve spent most of this review kicking the crap out of QT’s attempt to try something different I guess it’s time to be nice and aside from the lead performances, there’s truly a lot to love here. Thanks to the occasional return of that old time jumbling, storytelling zing we loved so much in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, the languid pace picks noticably and the drop off scene is pretty tense. It also goes without saying that the music selection for the movie is fucking resplendent with the Delfonics, Bobby Womack and Johnny Cash all featuring predominantly, but when has there not been a truly great Tarantino soundtrack?
I’ll admit, those willing to debate that my views on a film that have been formed from the fact that it didn’t meet my expectations twenty five years ago, have a fairly solid case – but as try as I might (and I swear I have tried) I just can’t bring myself round to it’s way of thinking.
Maybe it’s too slow, maybe it’s too “normal”, or maybe my expectations are simply unreasonable, but whatever it is, I’ve just never been able to get down with Jackie Brown.