It’s funny how time can alter your perception of a film. When I first saw Jackie Brown I wasn’t prepared for it. Part of me was expecting more of what I saw in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, but what I got was something completely different. Jackie Brown is Quentin Tarantino’s most mature and sophisticated film by some distance, and remains so even to this day. In fact, it took a few viewings to fully appreciate just how good it actually is.
I don’t think that I’m alone in this, either. Only Death Proof has a lower rating on IMDB out of Tarantino’s films, so to some extent it still lacks the respect that many of his other films receive. But there’s an argument to be had that not only is Jackie Brown Tarantino’s most mature film, but also his best.
The violence in isn’t as free flowing and graphically depicted as it is in his earlier works, which I think surprised people at the time, but the fact that the violence is so sparse means that, when it occurs, its impact is really felt.
Unlike his previous two films, Jackie Brown was an adaptation of a novel rather than an original story. While considering what should follow Pulp Fiction, Tarantino and Roger Avery received an early copy of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch and fell in love with it. Tarantino considered adapting other Leonard novels instead, but returned to Rum Punch and made some changes to add his own twist.
The two most obvious changes surround the film’s lead, as Tarantino changed the name of the central character, and also changed her race from white to black. The casting of Pam Grier as Jackie Brown ties in to Tarantino’s love of Blaxploitation cinema, where Grier shone in a number of roles and became an icon of the genre.
Changing the title from Rum Punch to Jackie Brown makes the film fit in alongside the kind of films Grier appeared in during her heyday, where her character’s name would be the film’s title, such as Coffy, Foxy Brown, Sheba Baby and Friday Foster.
Of course, being a Tarantino film, it had to have his voice in there, as it was this aspect of his previous films that made them stand out. If that was taken away, it would cease to be a Tarantino film. Tarantino’s rather indulgent style, on the surface, is the complete opposite of Leonard’s deliberate and concise writing. Yet the way Tarantino adapted the novel for the screen was masterful, as both voices come through clearly, and it’s true to both of their styles.
The set up for Jackie Brown is a simple one: Pam Grier plays the titular character, who’s a middle-aged air hostess forced to work for a low-rent airline due to a past indiscretion. She supplements her low wage by carrying cash between Mexico and LA for gun runner Ordell (Samuel L Jackson).
When she’s caught by ATF agents with cash well in excess of the $10,000 you can carry undeclared, as well as a stash of cocaine, she faces a stretch in prison. Jackie can ill-afford to spend time inside, so makes a deal with the ATF to bring down Ordell. While working with the agents, she also comes up with a plan with her bail bonds man Max Cherry (Robert Forster), hired by Ordell, to give the ATF what they want, whilst they ensure that Jackie and Max keep his fortune.
The plot provides the backdrop for a film that is as much about personal relationships as it is gun smuggling and deception. These relationships are beautifully developed, particularly how Jackie and Max become fond of one another. It’s a mature exploration of how people in their middle years come together without the games that often accompany depictions of young love in cinema.
The cast is universally excellent here, and provides another fine example of Tarantino choosing the right actors for the right roles rather than simply casting the biggest names he can find.
A fine example of this is having Robert De Niro playing Louis, a character who, for a large part of the film, serves no narrative purpose whatsoever. But De Niro is excellent in the role, and it’s closer to him at his best than many of the films he has coasted through in recent times. Playing a man recently released after four years in prison, he has a permanent bewilderment about him, giving the impression that he’s lost the ability to function in the real world.
Jackson absolutely nails his performance as Ordell, which provides further evidence that Tarantino knows how best to use his talents. Rather than simply have him play a version of Jules out of Pulp Fiction, as many other directors have done over the years, Tarantino casts Jackson as an unhinged passive aggressive, who gives the impression of power but lacks the real understanding of how to operate at the level he’s reached.
It’s a very different performance from Jules. Sure, there are some of the Jackson fireworks we have all come to know, but rather than the cool and collected persona of his previous Tarantino character, there’s a manic quality to him that makes him incredibly menacing.
One of my favourite moments is the scene where he finds out he’s been ripped off, and discusses events with De Niro. The back and forth between the two is one of the film’s many highlights, and is strangely amusing.
When the scene reaches its conclusion, and Jackson delivers the line, “What the fuck happened to you, man? Shit, your ass used to be beautiful!” it floors me every time. It’s amazing the amount of sorrow and disappointment in Jackson’s voice as he delivers the line. Ordell is essentially blaming Louis for the fact that he had to kill him.
The great shame about Jackie Brown’s failure to achieve Pulp Fiction’s level of success is that it didn’t prompt more filmmakers to offer lead roles of quality to Pam Grier and Robert Forster. Sure, both have continued to work since, but the parts they’ve been given haven’t touched the greatness of those in Jackie Brown.
As I’ve grown older, Jackie Brown is the Tarantino film that I find most rewarding on repeat viewings. I don’t get the same feeling from it as I do from Pulp Fiction, but it’s a film that I find constantly rewarding and almost flawless in execution. It lacks many of the Tarantino trademarks that have typified his work. It’s a straightforward story told in a linear way, but features amazing dialogue, universally excellent performances, and one of the finest soundtracks to accompany any of his films.
I’d hesitate to say definitively that Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s best film, as it largely depends what you want to see from the director, but it’s his most mature piece of work by some distance. And it’s certainly worth revisiting if you, like me, didn’t take to it on first viewing.
You can read Glen’s look back at Pulp Fiction here.