Movie review: ‘Jackie Brown’

When you choose to watch a Quentin Tarantino film, you’ve gotta know that you’ll be in for a rough ride. It’s gonna be nowhere near family-friendly, but, at the same time, you also know that you’re going to get top-notch dialogue, excellent characters and storytelling as well as actors giving their best and the director getting even a little bit more from each. You know, kinda old-school Neil Simon words mixed in with congenital violence in context. I consider “Jackie Brown” as Tarantino at his best and you cannot go wrong watching if you have missed it until now or have a chance to see it again. It is dark but not as disturbing as his signature film “Pulp Fiction” and you get the benefit from a winning performance by Pam Grier and a career-best from Robert Forster. Enjoy!

‘JACKIE BROWN’
(1997; 154 minutes; rated R; directed by Quentin Tarantino and starring Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Forster)

FORGET ‘PULP FICTION,’ THIS ONE IS TARANTINO’S BEST

(NOTE: As Quentin Tarantino’s newest film “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” is about to open nationwide, I expanded this review with additional opinion and trivia and the updating of links on July 24, 2019.)

A few films are fortunate enough to have individual roles so powerful as to have the actor’s ability seethe through his or her character and have the emotion emote such as the mist coming off dry ice. Russell Crowe simply oozes menace and unparalleled violence in “L.A. Confidential” (click here for my review) and Samuel L. Jackson, in Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown,” simply oozes evil. Both fill the screen with these traits. So, today I’m looking at “Jackie Brown” and I’m sure you weren’t (or won’t be) disappointed.

(CLICK HERE FOR ALL MY MOVIE REVIEWS)

From “Reservoir Dogs” to the “Kill Bill” volumes to his most recognized and over-the-top “Pulp Fiction,” Tarantino knows how to bring character-driven dark drama to the screen. However, he reigned in the violence with “Jackie Brown” and comes up with what I consider his best work as a director. “Jackie Brown” is great from top to bottom; from scene to scene; and the entire cast is without flaw (well, there’s one exception).

Each word is carefully written and performed and delivered with such ease or emotion that it isn’t difficult to believe you’ve been delivered into the life of a murderous, amoral gun seller and all those who ultimately become entangled in his web of … well, evil. Although the screenplay is by Tarantino, it is one of his few works that’s adapted from another writer (in this case the Elmore Leonard novel “Rum Punch” – the novel is set in South Florida, while “Jackie Brown” is in Southern California).

The plot isn’t complex. It’s direct: Local and federal authorities seek to bust a criminal who sells guns. They get tipped off about cash being moved into the U.S. by a stewardess for the bad guy and then try to use her to get to him. It all turns on her bringing $500,000 cash into the U.S. for him and the operation ensnares virtually everyone in the cast.

In turn, she must turn things around for herself while, uh, staying alive. On the periphery is a bail bondsman, a “surfer” girlfriend of the bad guy, his ex-con partner and an assortment of women he uses in his nefarious schemes. Just about everyone suffers from or through violence, greed and personal foibles played out in a condo, a bar and a bail bondsman’s office, with the film’s central location that all-American of locales: the shopping mall.

From Captain Obvious: It’s not the story, it’s the actors and acting … and how they were directed.

So, let’s take a look at the top of the cast …

  • An Oscar nominee for “Pulp Fiction,” Jackson is the ultimate bad guy here as he plays “Ordell Robbie” (he even conveniently spells it during the film). He’s a weapons-dealing psychopath who won’t let a little murder stand in the way of his business deals – especially where he might go to jail. Jackson, known for his volatile characters and carpet f-bombing in films, simply becomes “Ordell.” It’s a chilling performance (just a glance from him conveys all the meance contained in his physical being), and all the more so since he can be affable, friendly and even appear to be the kind of guy you’d like hanging out with. Jackson has also been in “Deep Blue Sea,” was “Mace Windu” in the middle three (actually volumes I, II and III) efforts in the “Star Wars” franchise and the neat sci-fi thriller “Jumper.” Jackson was nominated for a Golden Globe for “Jackie Brown.”
  • The title character “Jackie Brown” is played by 1970s black cinema icon Pam Grier, who does an Oscar-worthy of performance here, but only earned a Globe nomination for it. She plays vulnerable, tough, scheming and, in her own way, is just as cruel and cold-blooded as Jackson. But, in the end, she’s actually human. Grier easily conveys the tiredness of soul of a nearing middle-age stewardess whose life has been everything except champagne and caviar. She is simply wonderful and performs with such sophistication you wonder why over the years she didn’t get bigger dramatic roles that would have earned her an Oscar. Grier has been “Foxy Brown” and done films such as “Scream Blacula Scream” “The Big Bird Cage,” “Above the Law” and TV shows such as “The Love Boat” (thanks, Pam! … and click here for my look at that kitschy series) and “Miami Vice.”
  • An Oscar nominee for this one, Robert Forster is the third member of the top-billed trilogy here and he is the backbone and conscience of the film. Just as Grier shows how to be her character, Forster is pitch-perfect as bail bondsman “Max Cherry” who is in the questioning mode of his life. He’s the honesty and come-to-the-edge ethics that Grier comes to know she needs. Forster does the work of his career here. He has also been in “Me, Myself & Irene,” “Mulholland Drive” and “Diamond Men” as well as a roles on several dozen TV shows.

Each of these three have nothing but outstanding interplay with each other and it doesn’t take much to imagine that you’ve been inserted into any one of various conversations as you watch each scene.

Next, you just don’t get any better than this supporting cast:

  • Two-time Oscar winner and usual headliner Robert De Niro plays Jackson’s somewhat dense sidekick “Louis Garza.” De Niro is just out of prison and begins working with Jackson when the crook kills a soon-to-be-former employee who posed a threat. De Niro is great as the not-as-clueless-as-you-think, somewhat dimwitted and always slightly distracted “Louis.” He never tries to overplay his character or take command of every scene. He’s been in “Heat” with Al Pacino (click here for my review), the unbelievably outstanding “The Deer Hunter” (he was nominated for an Oscar here) and, of course, was the young “Vito Corleone” in “The Godfather: Part II” (he won an Oscar for this one). De Niro’s varied career includes drama “Raging Bull” as well as comedy with “Meet the Parents” and the profane “Dirty Grandpa” with Zac Efron (click here for my review). He also did a good job in the light drama “The Intern” (click here for my review) and is, of course, known for work with Martin Scorsese in “Goodfellas.”
  • A two-time Golden Globe nominee (not for this one), Bridget Fonda, who is the daughter of Peter Fonda and granddaughter of Hollywood legend Henry Fonda, plays the vacuous and wannabe double-crossing “Melanie Ralston,” who is Jackson’s blonde “surfer girl.” She lives off Jackson and ultimately winds up involved in the caper and makes a fatal decision. Fonda is solid but does not elevate to the spectacular like the others, but it’s an unfair comparison because her character just doesn’t get the chance even though she’s that good. Fonda has also been in “The Godfather: Part III,” “Doc Hollywood” and horror’s “Lake Placid” as well as the little-remembered but excellent films “Scandal” and “Single White Female.” She was nominated for “Scandal” and TV’s “After Amy.”
  • An Oscar nominee (not for this one), Michael “ Mom” Keaton plays federal agent “Ray Nicolette” and he’s one of the two cops here out to bust Jackson. Keaton, while not over-the-top aggressive, is confident and cocksure. Like Fonda’s “Melanie,” Keaton’s role isn’t big enough to become a scene-stealer, but he does the ultimate step that brings the entire thing to what you’ll find is the inevitable conclusion. Keaton was also in “Gung Ho,” played the manic “Beetlejuice” and was “Batman.” Along with Henry Winkler, Keaton starred in Ron Howard’s superb but little-remembered “Night Shift” as a hyperkinetic ambulance worker who uses his job to become a pimp. Keaton was nominated for “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).”

The exception to the excellence of the supporting cast is Chris Tucker, the no-talent half of the “Rush Hour” franchise with Jackie Chan. He has a small, doomed role as “Beaumont Livingston,” a Jackson associate who gets caught and can implicate the deadly killer. Tucker, as always, tries too hard and his shrill screeches are just annoying. He’s also been in “The Fifth Element” and the audience is fortunate he departs this film early (and I’m not sorry if this is a spoiler due to my dislike of Tucker as a so-called actor).

In the end Grier gets what she wants; Forster has come to grips with himself; and the cops get their man. Only four people are killed here (I’ll let you remember or find out) and all are in the principal cast.

Tarantino is fortunate to have had the success that allows him to do what he does best: Put together a movie he enjoys. You’ll never find “I’m cashing a check on this one” for this director.

As for Tarantino’s writing ability, he has the ear for dialogue, but, when he writes, he reportedly needs an editor, according to interviews about his scribbles. While the great Sally Menke edited Quentin’s films until her death in 2010, it has been the little-known Linda Chen who typed and edited Tarantino’s words for many films (buffing out his inevitable misspellings, poor grammar and sometime incomprehensible notes) and is my unsung hero for that under-appreciated accomplishment.

No matter the road, ultimately, the film has to go first on a page and then in front of a camera. Tarantino knows his audience; he knows what’s what; and he’s certainly tied in to what’s coming. He can do that as an auteur but only with the help of others. But, make no mistake, it’s a Tarantino movie and all the great editing doesn’t make up for a lack of creativity.

While “Jackie Brown” is Tarantino’s best, just about every other one is tied for second. I’d say that “The Hateful Eight” and “Django Unchained” might drop to third, but the splendid work of Christoph Waltz might push “Django” up to that second-place tie. In my opinion, I found “Django” tedious (and it would have been a misery without Waltz) and really enjoyed “Inglourious Basterds.”

In the end, “Jackie Brown” is simply sensational … and you expect nothing less from Quentin.

Jackie Brown” was the 58th ranked film at U.S. theaters for movies released in 1997 with $39.6 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. In total, “Jackie Brown” brought in $72.6 million on a $12 million budget, according to Wiki. It was 24 spots behind the even more powerful and spectacular “L.A. Confidential” and its $64.6 million. The No. 1 film of the year was “Titanic” with $600.7 million, which was more than double that of the No. 2 film: “Men in Black” with $250.6 million. Here are the other films from 1997 that I’ve reviewed:

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Directly from IMDb.com: “When Pam Grier walked in to audition for Quentin Tarantino, ‘there were all my posters from twenty years ago, when I was just a piss and vinegar kid,’ she recalled. ‘And I said, “Did you put these up because I was coming over?” And he said, “No. I was gonna take them down because you were coming over!”’
  • Although he doesn’t know it (or care, for that matter), Jackson agrees with me and has been quoted as saying “Jackie Brown” is his favorite Tarantino flick.
  • Tarantino reportedly wrote “Jackie Brown” for Grier. She auditioned for a role in “Pulp Fiction,” but didn’t get it. Still, Quentin wanted her in one of his films. The same was reported for Forster as “Max Cherry,” who auditioned for “Reservoir Dogs” but was not chosen.
  • Fonda’s resume came to pause in 2003 when she was severely injured in a car crash. Although recovered, married and a mother, she hasn’t had an acting credit since 2002. She’s married to “Oingo Boingo” frontman and composer Danny Elfman and is the aunt by marriage of TV’s “Dharma & Greg’s” Jenna Elfman, who is married to Bohdi Elfman.
  • Jackie Brown” is Tarantino’s least violent film, with only nine shots fired (with the exception of a TV commercial showing weapons being fired).
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “The Casting Director’s name is Jaki Brown. “
  • There are too many small details (homages, actually) in many scenes such as the name of the lounge where Jackson and Grier meet or the name on one of the mailboxes at Fonda’s condo. Click here for more of them.

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014, 2019.
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