In 1995, Quentin Tarantino had the world at his feet. He had just shared the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay (one of seven nominations) with Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary, and the film itself had secured the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes; both highlights in a sea of critical and commercial acclaim for a picture that had propelled the up-and-coming director into the mainstream.
The big question was: what next? Tarantino being Tarantino, he had free rein to devise his latest project without fear of studio interference, but even so his pitch must have raised a few eyebrows at the time. Hmm, an Elmore Leonard crime novel turned 1970s Blaxploitation homage starring a washed up lead actress? Yeah, why not…
And so, Jackie Brown was born. Adapted from Leonard’s classic page-turner Rum Punch, the major change Tarantino implemented was to switch the race of lead character Jackie from white to black, and her last name from Burke to Brown. Having long been a fan of Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974) star Pam Grier, Tarantino jumped at the opportunity to offer her the titular role. Cast alongside her was another faded lead, Robert Forster, cinematic legend Robert de Niro (in a role Sylvester Stallone claims he turned down), Batman himself, Michael Keaton, and Tarantino stalwart Samuel L. Jackson, who was hot property following his well-received turn as Jules in Pulp Fiction.
The result is one of the most complete films of the decade and, to date, Tarantino’s career. Rounding off an indirect trilogy of LA-based, dialogue-driven, ensemble-led features, Jackie Brown compliments both the bloodier Reservoir Dogs (1992) and the flashier Pulp Fiction by coming in as the more traditional, altogether understated member of the trio. The goal for each character is clear; to get their hands on some or all of the $500,000 in cash landing at LAX in the care of flight attendant Jacqueline Brown.
Save for the tricky climax, the plot is linear; a slow-burner with pinpoint pacing. The violence – and there are some brutal putdowns – occurs, for the most part, either off-screen or from a considerable distance away. Tarantino’s direction is frank yet subtle; matching the seedy tone of the story by hanging back to observe, before getting up close and personal it feels safe to do so, all while allowing the characters’ actions to dictate camera movement. As with his first two films, an inspired Tarantino-selected soundtrack elevates proceedings with its soul-heavy beats, firmly implanting the likes of Bobby Womack, The Brothers Johnson, The Meters, and The Delfonics in the minds of new fans everywhere.
What really makes Jackie Brown, however, is its performances and script. Grier is a tour de force as Jackie; a strong, self-aware female lead who may be down on her luck, but is certainly not as vulnerable as her male associates think. Even Ordell Robbie (Jackson), who knows her well, completely underestimates her during a botched assassination attempt, and the exchanges between the two crackle with natural ease thereafter, forever laced with dark humour in the face of knowing mistrust.
Jackson turns in one of the finest lead performances of his career, portraying Ordell as the devil with a pearly smile whose overconfidence will inevitably be his undoing. His brief, but memorable verbal spar with Chris Tucker’s Beaumont, prior to Ordell removing him from the picture, is pure black comedy at its best and one the highlights of the Tarantino’s writing early on.
I doubt I am alone in admitting I had little idea who Robert Forster was when I first snuck a viewing of Jackie Brown during my teenage years, but like those who witnessed his Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor soon after the film’s release, I was surprised at how easy it was to be drawn to the tired qualities of bail bondsman Max Cherry, an efficient enforcer of the law suffering from overriding loneliness. His awkward, organic relationship with Jackie is immensely satisfying in that Tarantino refuses to drop the invisible curtain that any couple in such a complicated situation would find between them, even leaving their fates to our imaginations as Max contemplates his decision to let Jackie go. Tarantino has rarely favoured romantic arcs in his own productions (Clarence and Alabama in Tony Scott’s magnificent True Romance (1993) and Mickey and Mallory in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) appear elsewhere in his writing), but here he absolutely nails it.
And then there is Robert bloody de Niro as Louis Gara, Ordell’s shady, somewhat bumbling criminal accomplice with a cracking ‘tache and a questionable taste in shirts. Spending most of the film cooped up in the apartment of Ordell’s mouthy, equally incapable surfer-gal-girlfriend Melanie (Bridget Fonda), the steady transformation of Louis from restrained sidekick to cold-blooded murderer due to the relentless suffering inflicted on him by Melanie’s sharp, unforgiving tongue is the definition of ominous humour. In between, the two share a moment of comedy gold in the form of an incredibly forward, incredibly brief quickie in the hallway. Hot on the heels of “Bring out the gimp”, it is another eye-widening, wholly unexpected Tarantino sex scene that sums up the sleazy nature of Jackie Brown’s events and characters.
As fresh now as it was 20 years ago, Jackie Brown will rarely be the first selection sought by a budding Tarantino fan, but it will forever be the director’s most mature picture to date, and certainly one of his best.