Quentin Tarantino did a very pleasant thing with his first follow-up 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 audacious than Pulp Fiction, but it's a more accomplished entertainment.
Ranging from slightly corrupt to evil-crooked, a number of characters orbit around a guns 'n' cash smuggling operation from Mexico to Los Angeles. "Cabo Air" stewardess Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is caught sneaking money and a small amount of cocaine into LAX by ATF agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton). But the Feds don't want her, they want her boss Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), a self-styled arms dealer. Ordell is wary about having his big payoff ruined by squealers, and so bails Jackie out with the intention of making dead sure she can't make a deal with the Feds. Straight arrow bail Bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) sees through Ordell's schemes at least part-way. He teams up with Jackie to fool both the ATF and Ordell. Complicating things is Louis Gara (Robert De Niro), a criminal associate of Ordell's with a limited set of responses to the world around him. And don't forget Melanie Ralston (Bridget Fonda), Ordell's 'surf bunny' girlfriend whose casual sass and spite make her equally undependable.
Jackie Brown may be the only Quentin Tarantino film that ignores his "trash pulp grindhouse" ethic to construct a fairly straightforward crime thriller based on colorful characters in a realistic setting. The Elmore Leonard source novel is more hardboiled than hip, and concentrates on desperate characters with thoughts of grabbing the brass ring, a half-million dollars that needs to be smuggled in from Mexico. The story has a lot in common with Leonard's Get Shorty -- both feature ambitious black criminals trying to smuggle contraband through Los Angeles International Airport.
Between Jackie Brown's choice collection of colorful characters run various strings of commitment, loyalty, fear, distrust, coercion, lust, and affection. There are no chases, no running gun battles, only a series of scams conducted under police surveillance. The cops are just another facet on a five-sided triangle, and they're intelligent, if a little predictable. The scheming, murderous Ordell Robbie wants his money, Jackie wants free of her life of crime, Max would like to retire and poor Louis falls back on his violent habits when placed under pressure. The key is Melanie, an amoral beach girl who doesn't respect anything. In an old fashioned movie, the federal agents would be the heroes. Here we're easily convinced that they'll double cross their informant Jackie the moment doing so proves useful. Jackie's response is to try to fool everyone around her, including the cops.
Quentin Tarantino bears an undying affection for early '70s blaxploitation movies and seems to have produced Jackie Brown for the specific purpose of showcasing his fave actress Pam Grier. It's strange that it takes a 'wild kid' director to remind Hollywood what a Movie Star is. Grier is terrific in the film. True, she's not Meryl Streep, but you wouldn't believe Meryl in this role. American International Pictures like Coffy 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 a badass m-f'er in the groin. Tarantino gives Grier the most respectable part in Jackie Brown. She's treated like Ava Gardner rounding the top of the hill -- still gorgeous in her late '40s but no longer fashion model material. Jackie 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 rarity 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. On the other hand, Odell Robbie surely sees himself as a businessman trying to collect his earnings. And everybody, just everybody, lets him down.
Murderous bosses can't hire the best help, and Jackson has two loose cannons in his employ that 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 is sublimated into a supporting role without disturbing the balance of the picture. As the federal cop, Michael Keaton has the true thankless part: 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. Jackson carries most of the fast-talking Tarantino-esque banter, leaving the rest of the cast to react and consider the various traps they've slipped into. The story is told straight, not counting a brief time-twist borrowed from Stanley Kubrick's The Killing. 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 and touching -- 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. Jackie Brown is much more mature than Quentin Tarantino's usual wise-guy epics, even if it isn't as eccentric-experimental.
Miramax's Blu-ray of Jackie Brown does this quirky crime epic justice, rewarding the viewer with a perfect director-approved HD transfer and a clean audio track. The Motown music cues are all naturally sourced in the film, coming from car stereos and Jackie's apartment phonograph. The main theme lifted from Bobby Womack's Across 110th Street serves as Jackie's personal theme.
The big stack of extras inlcudes most everything from the first release (see below). One discussion piece is new, a roundtable of critics (Scott Foundas, Tim Lucas) convened by Elvis Mitchell. The first comment notes that most of Jackie Brown's characters are middle-aged and looking to start over or get out of whatever they're doing. I'm told that this age issue was blamed for keeping the film from becoming a breakout success. Where's the audience for a movie about the problems of a bunch of over-the-hill fossils? I didn't notice the trivia game on the new menu. The insert pamphlet and poster contained on the old SD collector's edition are also not present.
Consumers griping about Blu-ray take note: the retail price of this release is $10 lower than the DVD special edition of nine years ago, when the dollar was worth considerably more.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Jackie Brown Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.