Friday, January 22, 2016

Jackie Brown: The Forgotten Tarantino


In advance of the NZ  release of Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful 8, the Academy is playing a season of his previous films, including Jackie Brown, which I have never seen.

Jackie Brown is the forgotten child of Tarantino's filmography. Released after the one-two punch of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown was considered a disappointment, a feeling increased when Tarantino took a 6 year hiatus from filmmaking.

Based on the novel Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard, Jackie Brown tells the story of a middle-aged air hostess named Jackie Brown (Pam Grier). She's on the verge of retirement, and makes a few extra bucks smuggling currency for an LA gangster, Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson). After she gets caught with the money (and a small amount of drugs that Ordell had secretly stashed with the cash), she is arrested. Ordell arranges bail and sends veteran bail bondsman Max (Robert Forster) to pick her up. And then things get complicated...

So, how does Jackie Brown stack up?

Before the movie began, a short clip was played from Tarantino himself basically introducing the movie (kudos to the Academy staff for getting him to do that). He called Jackie Brown a 'hangout' movie, a movie where you could just chill out and get a feel for the characters. That's a pretty good encapsulation of the movie. It's not as propulsive or tightly wound as his previous movies, nor as crowd-pleasing as the ones which succeed it.

And yet, taken on its own breezy terms, Jackie Brown has a lot to offer. It's a movie more interested in its ensemble than the criminal caper, and spends more time 'hanging out' with the characters than worrying about the plot. The ensemble in Jackie Brown may be the most likeable group of characters Tarantino ever put onscreen.

 

Before its release, this movie was seen as a career comeback for Pam Grier, a major star of the blaxploitation era from such films as Coffy and Foxy Brown. Tarantino made several changes to the book, including changing the race of the heroine and re-titled the film to reflect the connection with Grier's past work. These links back to Grier's past dovetail nicely with her character -- Jackie used to a flight attendant on a major airline but after a brush with the law, she is stuck on a low-rent route between California and Mexico. At 44, she is not in a place to stage a career comeback -- like Grier, she has been counted out.

Grier's performance as Jackie cannot help but bring back memories of her ass-kicking in the 70s. The scene where she turns the tables on Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson) when he comes to her house to kill her is vintage Grier: smart, cool under pressure and packing heat. Tarantino puts her squarely in the centre of this story, and Grier carries it to the finish line. Still charismatic and sexy as hell,  Grier infuses Jackie with an intertextual life that gives the character a real sense of weight and history.

The same can be said of her co-star.


In the mid 90s, Robert Forster was in a similar slump to Grier. He was a veteran character actor who had never quite had that one role that could break him out into bigger and better things. His biggest exposure before Jackie Brown had been when he played the leader of the Arab terrorists who hijack a plane of hostages in the Chuck Norris action flick The Delta Force (1986).

Forster plays Jackie's bail bondsman, Max Cherry. A no-nonsense everyman, Cherry's reserve is melted when he meets Jackie. There is something incredibly sweet about the relationship between Jackie and Max. They've both been around the block a few times, they're both too old to fantasise about changing who they are, and that makes them perfect for each other.

Forster excels here, conveying his growing attraction to Jackie with total understatement: the scene where he leaves her a message on her answering machine is hilarious, as he runs through all of his professional contacts through to his private and pager numbers -- all the better for the way he tries to maintain his professionalism. For me, his was the performance of the movie, and his chemistry with Grier is electric.

The rest of the cast are all up to Tarantino's usual standard. Samuel L. Jackson is terrific as crime boss Ordell, while Robert DeNiro dials everything way back to slip seamlessly into the background as Ordell's dim bulb friend and flunky Louis. Chris Tucker turns up and is not annoying -- which is the real testament to Tarantino's talent with actors. Bridget Fonda probably got the most laughs, with her fuzzy surfer chick, while Michael Keaton, in only a few scenes, manages to leaven his by-the-book ATF agent with a dollop of his nervy wit.

 While it is not the obvious winner that some of Tarantino's works are, Jackie Brown is a really great movie that delivers all the Tarantino-ness you could want, with a perfectly pitched adult relationship at its core. It may be his most moving and empathetic picture.

PS: The soundtrack kicks all kinds of ass.

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