When you choose to watch a Quentin Tarantino film, you expect to be in for a rough ride since you know it’ll be nowhere near family-friendly. 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. 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 especially Robert Forster. Enjoy!
(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
A few films are fortunate enough to have individual roles so powerful as to have the actor seethe through the part like smoke coming off dry ice. Russell Crowe simply oozes menace and violence in “L.A. Confidential” (click here for my review) and Samuel L. Jackson in Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” is simply evil oozing across the screen. So, today I’m looking at “Jackie Brown.”
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 the difficult part. It’s direct: 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 crook 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 here.
In turn, she has to work things for herself while staying alive. On the periphery is a bail bondsman, a beach girlfriend of the crook, his ex-con partner and an assortment of women he uses in his nefarious schemes. Just about everyone suffers from violence, greed and personal foibles played out in condos, bars and police offices with its central location that all-American of locales: the shopping mall.
Jackson is the ultimate bad guy here as he plays “Ordell Robbie” (he even conveniently spells it during the film), the 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), all the more so since he can be affable, friendly and even fun. Jackson has also been in “Deep Blue Sea,” as “Mace Windu” in the final three (actually volumes I, II and III) of “Star Wars” and the neat sci-fi thriller “Jumper.”
The title character “Jackie Brown” is played by 1970s black cinema icon Pam Grier, who does an Oscar-worthy of performance here. She can be vulnerable, tough, scheming and, in her own way, just as tough and cold-blooded as Jackson. 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 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 “Miami Vice.”
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, who was nominated for but did not win an Oscar for “Jackie Brown,” does the role of his career here. Tarantino specifically wanted Forster here and it helped the actor out of a career slump. He has also been in “Me, Myself & Irene,” “Mulholland Drive” and “Diamond Men” as well as a roles on several dozen TV shows.
You just don’t get any better than this supporting cast:
- Two-time Oscar winner Robert (“Raging Bull” and “Meet the Parents”) De Niro plays Jackson’s sidekick “Louis Garza.” De Niro is just out of prison and begins working with Jackson when the crook has to kill a previous employee who posed a threat. De Niro is great as the dense, 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).
- Bridget Fonda, who is the daughter of Peter Fonda and granddaughter of Hollywood legend Henry Fonda, plays the vacuous and potential 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.”
- Michael “ Mr. 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 conclusion. Keaton was also in “Gung Ho,” played the manic “Beetlejuice” and “Batman.” He was, along with Henry Winkler, in Ron Howard’s superb but little-remembered “Night Shift” as an ambulance worker who uses his job to become a pimp.
The exception to the excellence of the supporting cast is Chris Tucker, the lesser-talented 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. He’s also been in “The Fifth Element” and the audience is fortunate he departs the film early.
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 and all are in the principal cast.
“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.
Assorted cast notes (via IMDb.com):
- 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).
- 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.
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