Five films later, Jackie Brown still occupies a unique place in the Quentin Tarantino oeuvre. Despite its Blaxploitation homages, it’s still his most recent film that can’t be qualified as exploitation, and it is his only feature aside from Reservoir Dogs in which the story feels not like an after-thought but as an irreplaceable part of the film. Here, neither character complexity nor story is put on the backburner in favor of glorified violence, the “cool” image, or an abundance of cinematic references. It’s hard to believe, as Blaxploitation icon Pam Grier stars as the titular character and Samuel L. Jackson plays a character even more cold-blooded and filthy than Pulp Fiction’s Jules, but Jackie Brown is a Tarantino film for people who don’t like Tarantino films, and yet it could not have been made by anyone else.
Based on Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch, Jackie Brown is, foundationally, a twist on the heist film. Jackie works as an airline stewardess who earns most of her money because frequent flights between Los Angeles and Mexico make her the perfect money to smuggle money for Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), a ruthless gun-dealer with killer instincts and lots of connections. Following a display of both, Jackie finds herself in trouble with the ATF for smuggling (and a drug charge she never could have expected) money, and Ordell already hot on her trail. But Jackie is the cleverest of everyone, and she concocts a scheme that will, hopefully, find her rich, out of trouble, and at no one’s mercy.
The heist is a great pleasure to watch unfold, as these characters are all smart enough to expect everyone else to be smart enough to screw them over, and they take a great number of precautions to try to prevent that. It’s never easy to tell who is on top. In order for us to see this, the story needs to unfold from many different points of view, and it does, but each one gives us a new piece of information both about the plot and about our characters, so pacing never becomes an issue. There is one major exception: We watch the key moment in the big plan unfold multiple times, each time from a different point of view, but the key pieces of information could just as easily have been conveyed in one take, cutting to different characters in different places. Similarly, a split-screen is employed just once earlier in the film to provide complementary pieces of information without extending time, and the same thing could easily have been done here; instead, we get the feeling that our hand is being held, as if we should get to see exactly where things go wrong, for whom, because of whom, in a film that has thus far prided itself on its intelligence. When the scene finally ends, things pick up once again, but it’s a useless padding of length, mostly in favor of black comedy, that adds nothing to our understanding of character or theme.
Even more than the heist, however, Jackie Brown offers a lot to extract about aging. Jackie is a 44 year old ex-convict making very little money and retirement benefits, and Max Cherry (Robert Forster), the bondsman that ties the story together and also provides its emotional core, is in his 50s with retirement on his mind. Even Ordell wants his $500,000 mostly so he can quit selling dealing altogether. Both Forster and Grier were far removed from lead performances when they did Jackie Brown, and the level of anxiety that was likely felt during production and the importance that they took on after the film’s success can be felt. These feel like two humans trying to make ends meet amidst a chaotic and unpredictable stretch of life.It’s this closeness to reality that separates Jackie Brown from other Tarantino films and even from so many other heist films; it’s a film about adults. Adults whom, despite run-ins with the law, have genuine motivation and have thoughts within the real world where so many of Tarantino’s other characters are overgrown children living firmly in the moment. Jackie Brown takes place firmly within the real world, and like the real world, it keeps expanding and contracting as characters have their freedom constricted and expanded. Characters mentioned early on become important later on or vice-versa, and while pop-culture conversation is minimized, less pertinent dialogue reveals divides along class lines and racial lines. These are not the foreground of Jackie Brown, but they underscore it, just like they underscore our world. They bring the film to life and inflict actions with greater purpose and makes things like the music we listen to extremely revealing about our characters. Only the ending, in which character is broken in order to provoke a pre-determined reaction, threatens to break the genuineness that runs through the film.
Unfortunately, Tarantino’s visuals are more hit-and-miss here. There are a number of impressive tracking shots in Ordell’s primary residence, and the first mall scene is so impressively directed that it makes us question everything we think we are learning from it. We get to see things simultaneously from the point of view of the involved characters and the characters watching, and it forces us to constantly question our certainty, making us an unwitting participant in the game that the character’s play. On the other hand, a later trip through the mall, done in one long take, fails to convey much and feels overdone more than anything else. The film is full of less extreme highs-and-lows, never daring enough to fully achieve either again, but a heavy-reliance on dialogue and humor largely masks a lack of visual flair. Still, this is a departure from the over-stylized, a welcome change of pace that is nonetheless one of the director’s most exciting adventures.