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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Review: Jackie Brown (1997)

* * * *

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Robert De Niro

I love Jackie Brown. It became an instant favorite when I first saw it back in 1997 and has remained my favorite Quentin Tarantino movie. Despite that, it had been a couple of years since I'd actually sat down and watched it. Sometimes in a situation like that a movie ages better in your memory than it does in actuality, but in this case Jackie Brown remains as effective and perfectly pitched as was 16 years ago. Whether this is, in fact, Tarantino's best film is probably up for debate, but I think it's certainly his most mature and grounded film - which may or may not have something to do with the fact that it's the only adaptation he's directed.

Pam Grier stars as the eponymous character, a flight attendant who has been relegated to the worst airline in the business due to bust years earlier that made her persona non grata with the bigger airlines. She also has a sideline smuggling money into the US from Mexico for Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), a small-time gun runner based in Los Angeles. After one of Ordell's couriers is arrested (and then promptly killed by Ordell), Jackie is busted by AFT agent Ray Nicolet (Michael Keaton) and LAPD detective Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen), who lean on her in the hope that she'll turn evidence against Ordell. Jackie proves uncooperative but, in an effort to protect himself, Ordell arranges for her to be bailed out by Max Cherry (Robert Forster), the same bail bondsman who got the courier out, with the intention of permanently silencing her. What Ordell doesn't count on is that Max will develop an instant and protective interest in Jackie, or that Jackie will anticipate Ordell's visit and be prepared by having "borrowed" Max's gun.

Ordell and Jackie make a deal, which involves Jackie pretending to help the AFT while in actuality helping Ordell smuggle the rest of his money out of Mexico, and Ordell agreeing to pay Jackie off in the event that she ends up doing time for him. To pull it off, Jackie will take the money from the airport to the food court at a shopping mall where she'll surreptitiously trade bags with one of Ordell's women, who will then walk out with it - or, at least, will appear to for the sake of Nicolet and Dargus. According to her plan with Ordell, which involves smuggling $550,000 instead of just the $50,000 the authorities are expecting, a second woman will take the money, slipping out undetected while Nicolet and Dargus follow the first woman. According to Jackie's secret plan, she'll end up with the $500,000 that Nicolet and Dargus aren't expecting, and Max, despite his straight arrow persona and his misgivings about the amount of danger that Jackie is exposing herself to, will help her pull it off.

Though it runs at a robust 154 minutes, Jackie Brown is a tightly constructed film which successfully stacks layer upon layer of plot and incorporates a wide array of rich, complex characters. In addition to Jackie, Max and Ordell, all of whom I would include in a short list of Tarantino's best characters, there's also Ordell's friend, Louis (Robert De Niro), a career criminal who has lost his touch, Melanie (Bridget Fonda), Ordell's perpetually stoned girlfriend who bristles at being left out of Ordell's plot with Jackie, and Sheronda (Lisa Gay Hamilton), one of Ordell's other girlfriends. Sheronda appears only briefly in the film, but Hamilton's performance speaks volumes about her in that short window, creating a character out of little more than body language and carriage, and De Niro and Fonda also deliver perfect performances as characters who are completely unreliable for the tasks they've been assigned and whose mismatched forced partnership would be the film's comic relief if it didn't come to such a violent end. But it's Jackie, Ordell, and Max who provide the film with its weight and it's hard to believe that of the actors, only Forster received an Oscar nomination. Looking at the nominees for 1997, I'd argue that room could have be made in the Best Actress and Actor categories for Grier and Jackson. As Jackie, a woman in dire straights whose desperation never stops her from recognizing or seizing her last chance when she sees it, Grier brings a deft mix of confidence and fear to the role that underscores both how high the stakes are for the character and how she could prove slick enough to pull one over on both the authorities and Ordell. Jackson, meanwhile, delivers a typically intense performance as one of his most interesting characters, a man who is as intelligent as he is vicious and yet not quite as intelligent as he'd like to give himself credit for.

Adapted from the Elmore Leonard novel "Rum Punch," Jackie Brown is noticeably different from other Tarantino films while still bearing touches that mark it, distinctly, as a Tarantino picture. It has the Tarantino attitude and energy, but it's slightly more grounded than his other films. Where in other films anything goes - stylish bloodbaths abound, Hitler is assassinated, plantations are blown up - this story exists comfortably within the confines of believability, and while characters in the other films often skirt the line of being cartoonish (in a good way), these characters, despite a few flamboyant touches, are more anchored to reality. No filmmaker working today does over-the-top better than Tarantino, but with Jackie Brown he shows that he's equally capable of doing more buckled down, understated work. Jackie Brown may not possess the fan cult of Tarantino's other movies, but it definitely deserves that level of regard.

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