Quentin Tarantino did a very pleasant thing with his first followup to his smash success Pulp Fiction - he didn't repeat himself. This time, he took a novel by Elmore Leonard and adapted it as a star vehicle for Pam Grier, the blaxploitation queen of the '70s. Jackie Brown is less flashy and less ambitious than Pulp Fiction, but equals it in substance, character, and thrills.
After Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino didn't really have to prove anything, but instead of trying to top himself he made a crime thriller with a totally different agenda. After four hot original screenplays, Tarantino adapted an Elmore Leonard novel about smugglers tangling with the law. There are actual cops in Jackie Brown, something that didn't exist in the skewed universe of Pulp Fiction, and in the place of existential poetry we're given a story more hardboiled than hip. Structurally, it has a lot in common with Leonard's Get Shorty - both feature ambitious black criminals trying to smuggle contraband through Los Angeles International Airport.
Jackie Brown is a collection of great characters interacting in a first-rate 'detective fiction' kind of yarn. Between the players run innumberable strings of commitment, loyalty, fear, distrust, coersion, lust, and affection. There are no chases, no running gun battles, only a series of scam conducted under police surveillance. The cops are just another facet on a five-sided triangle, and they're intelligent, if a little predictable.
Quentin Tarantino, a champion of early '70s blaxploitation movies, seems to have produced Jackie Brown to showcase fave actress Pam Grier. It's strange that it takes a 'wild kid' director to remind Hollywood what a Star is. Grier is terrific in the film. True, she's not Meryl Streep, but you wouldn't believe Meryl in this role, and we do Ms. Grier. A.I.P. Pictures like Coffey were coarse and ragged, with just enough time for the statuesque Grier to take her top off, say a few clumsy lines about offing the Honkeys, and shoot some bad-ass m-f'ers in the groin. In Jackie Brown, Tarantino gives her the most respectful part in the show. Grier is treated like Ava Gardner rounding the top of the hill - still gorgeous in her late 40's, but no longer fashion model material. Brown keeps her clothes on, and doesn't sleep with anyone. She doesn't shoot a gun or shout sassy black power slogans. She's a real character in a real movie.
Robert Forster is extremely sympathetic as a bail bondsman with ethics, who trusts Jackie out of love. Their relationship is a rare one in movies of this type - neither is interested in a future of virtuous poverty - but they connect and trust one another from the start. Samuel L. Jackson creates a truly dangerous operator just bright enough to trap himself with his own greed. The way he conceives of every relationship as a con, and every associate as expendable, makes for a nicely authentic portrait of a sociopath.
Naturally, murderous bosses don't get the best help, and Jackson has two loose cannons in his employ who guarantee unpredictability. Bridget Fonda is perfect as the girlfriend who doesn't care about anything except her personal comfort, who skates on her looks for her soft life on the beach. That Jackson thinks he can trust her for more than ten seconds, is a wonder. Robert de Niro is a burned-out crook incapable of looking or acting like anything else, or really giving a damn either. One nice thing about Jackie Brown is that a powerhouse like de Niro can be sublimated into a supporting role like this, without disturbing the balance of the picture. As the federal cop, Michael Keaton has the true thankless role: the police have to be fooled during the course of the film without coming off as stupid, and Keaton does his bit.
Jackie Brown is all about relationships and dialogue, here less flashy but just as compelling. The story is straighter (not counting a simple heist time-twist borrowed from The Killing) and more conventional, but the characters have more low-key grit. Jackie's anxiety about losing her job and starting over at her age is real. Max Cherry's desire to get away from bail bond work is sincere in a touching way - when's the last time you saw a movie character skip out on work to go to a movie? The drug glazed, who-gives-a-s*** attitudes over at Ordell Robbie's pad are more than convincing. Leonard and Tarantino tie the plot threads up in one very complicated knot, and find a very satisfactory conclusion. Jackie Brown is much more mature than Quentin Tarantino's wiseguy persona lets on.
Miramax has given Jackie Brown deluxe treatment the equal of their Pulp Fiction package, with a pile of extras. The packaging is beautifully designed, but shows Tarantino's hand when the feature disc pops off to reveal a portrait of himself with Pam. First off is a nice mini-poster in the blaxploitation style. There's a trivia subtitle track that explains everything from the Bande a part logo to the source film for the title track, Across 110th Street. There's a full docu, and a full interview with QT, and he participates heavily in the rest of the features as well. The MTV bites are a contest promotional spot centered on Tarantino, and several interviews with the animated director and his stars.
The aspect ratio listed on the box is 2:35, but what we get on the disc is a full 1:78 16:9. The transfer and audio are impeccable.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Jackie Brown rates: