There are two types of filmmakers – those who direct their own scripts and those who are able to take someone’s else work and make it into a movie of their own. Quentin Tarantino, mostly, had directed movies he’s only written the script for even though some would argue he really copies other movies. In 1997, he had already won an Oscar for his movie Pulp Fiction, which he would direct his third movie.
For the most part, the sudden popularity that had arisen in 1994 and 1995 was waning just as soon as he became a household name. He began 1996 by co-writing and co-starring in From Dusk Till Dawn, but Hollywood is about who’s the most popular. And Tarantino was finding himself taking a back seat to Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie as the popularity of their movie The Usual Suspects had audiences rewatching and rewinding their video tapes to see if they had missed something. And then, the Coen Brothers had released Fargo.
So in 1997, it was revealed Tarantino was doing an adpatation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch. He was also going to cast Pam Grier and Robert Forster, mostly famous actors from the 1970s whose stars had faded in lead roles. The main character in the book is a white woman name Jackie Burke, but this was changed. The movie was going to be called Jackie Brown. The cast was also going to include Samuel L. Jackson, Robert DeNiro, Michael Keaton and Bridget Fonda which sounded very impressive. Maybe Tarantino wasn’t a fluke.
The movie opened on Christmas Day 1997 to rave reviews and grossed about $75 million against a $12 million budget. Tarantino definitely wasn’t a fluke and the movie would complete what would be his unofficial Los Angeles Crime Trilogy. But this movie was different from Reservior Dogs or Fiction, both in tone and in style. The characters in the first two movies live like there’s no tomorrow. The characters in this movie live like they know their days are numbered.
Grier plays the titular character who is a flight attendant for an airline that makes direct flights from L.A. to Cabo San Lucas and back. She has a criminal history thanks to her ex-husband which limits her job options. She’s 44, living in a one-bedroom apartment and barely making enough to survive. But she’s been able to act as a carrier for Ordell Robbie (Jackson) who has become a successful firearms dealer on the black market. He keeps his money down in Cabo and Jackie transfers it because she can pass through customs as part of her job.
One day, she is approached in the parking lot of LAX by AFT Agent Ray Nicolette (Keaton) and Los Angeles Police Det. Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen). They’ve been tipped off by a petty criminal, Beaumont Livingston (Chris Tucker), about Jackie and Ordell. When they notice Jackie is carrying thousands of dollars in an envelope, they take her in for questioning, trying to pressure her into turning over Ordell. When they obtain consent to search her belongs, she’s obliges. However, they find she is also carrying cocaine which she didn’t know.
Regardless, she is arrested and booked into the jail. However, before she is, Nicolette tells her they heard of her from Beaumont, but Beaumont is dead, having been shot. When he was arrested on a weapons charge, Beaumont was bailed out by Ordell who got a bailbondsman, Max Cherry (Forster), to write it so it would look official. Later, when Beaumont was at home, Ordell talked him into accompanying him to Koreatown to sell some weapons. But instead, Ordell got him to hide in the trunk and Ordell only drove a block away to a vacant lot where he shot Beaumont dead.
Realizing Jackie could also turn on him, Ordell gets Max to write another bond for Jackie so he can follow her home from jail and kill her just as he did Beaumont. The only problem is Max, who is well into his 50s, initially becomes smitten with Jackie and offers her a ride and then offers to buy her a drink. But she is quick to grab Max’s revolver from the glove compartment when he’s not looking because she knows Ordell will pay her a visit.
And just like Jackie anticipated, Ordell tries to kill her but she is quick to defend herself. She talks him into setting up a deal to smuggle his money out of Cabo now the authorities will be on to him. This part of the movie is the sketchiest. I never really believed Jackie could convince Ordell so easily to smuggle the money out. But she has an ulterior motive, she will turn Ordell into Nicolette and Dargus but lie about how much money Ordell is smuggling so she can steal the rest.
On a chance meeting at the Del Amo Mall, she talks with Max who was walking through after watching a movie at the theater. And Ordell notices this but he is so far away he can’t hear what they’re talking about. Max came by Jackie’s apartment the morning after he got her out to get his revolver and they talked some over coffee. Max is getting more and more interested in Jackie. He tells her when they talk at the mall, he’s decided to give up being a bail bondsman after he waited the whole night to catch someone who skipped bail but they never showed up.
Sensing a connection, Jackie convinces Max to be her partner in crime. At the same time, Ordell has an old crime associate, Louis Gara (DeNiro), work with him on how to get the money because he can’t be seen with or anywhere near the drop off. Jackie and Ordell agree to do the exchange at the mall. But Melanie Ralston (Fonda), who is one of Ordell’s women, is trying to convince Louis to double-cross Ordell. Louis is not too bright like Ordell.
But, as always, there’s a lot of problems arising. I don’t want to say what they are because Tarantino devises a nice plot and he presents the big exhance from three different perspectives. He is able to make a sequence that runs a lot longer than what some filmmakers would attempt into one of the most thrilling moments of the movies at the time. Tarantino also reigns in some of the style that had become all too common with indie crime movies like this in the 1990s. Even though the casting of Griert is an ode to blaxploitation, this isn’t a blaxploitation movie. This is probably his least violent movie.
The characters in the movie are older and wiser. They’re also the ones who realize that they don’t have time for much of anything else. Ordell is a gunrunner because he can get enough money to retire on. But Jackie and Max have gotten locked into professions they no longer like but do only going through the motions. Hotshots like Nicolette and Dargus are still looking for the big bust that will make their career even better. I like that there is one scene of Nicolette walking through a police station with a leather jacket on holding a bicycle helmet. He wants people to know that this is who he is. He wears white T-shirts that are a little too tight and chews gum.
On the flip side, Louis and Melanie are mostly pot smokers who don’t have much determination. Louis is still friendly with Ordell not to really want to double-cross him, but Melanie feels she should even though Ordell pays her rent and expenses. Melanie lives in Hermosa Beach on the beach which is shown a lot in the background but she spends most of her time watching TV and smoking pot.
I would say this is Tarantino’s first movie, if not his only movie, where the characters seem to exist in the real world. His previous movies and the ones since all seem to exist in their own realm. A lot of people have drawn comparisons and some characters in one movie are connected to another character in another. John Travolta plays Vincent Vega in Fiction. His brother, Vic Vega (Michael Madsen) is in Dogs. There’s Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubenek) in True Romance who is the son of Donny Donowitz, aka The Bear Jew, in Inglourious Basterds.
Tarantino, like Kevin Smith, was one of the first filmmakers to experiment with the shared universe before it became a thing in the last 15 years. But here, the characters don’t seem to have the same connection to his other movies. In 1998, Out of Sight would be released directed by Steven Soderbergh. Danny DeVito’s production company Jersey Films produced both movies. Nicolette appears in one scene and he is shown in a news broadcast. Leonard, himself, like many writers, often had characters appearing in a shared universe.
Forster got an Best Supporting Oscar nomination for his role. His scenes with Grier are some of the movie’s highlights. Grier herself shines once again after doing TV work and lower budge movies during the 1980s. Considering one of her previous roles was playing the very controversial (and very dated) role as a transgendered woman in John Carpenter’s Escape From L.A. The whole cast does a great job. It’s a shame Fonda no longer acts due to some chronic back pain problems. Jackson, of course, commands every scene he’s in. It’s no wonder he’s become one of the most prolific and successful actors of all time.
After this, Tarantino would take several years off and decied to act more. (His acting is considered one of the worst things about him.) He appear on the stage and had a hilarious cameo as a blind crazy street preacher in Little Nicky. Then, he made the Kill Bill movies and never took as much time off until recently where he has said he’s semi-retired after doing Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. While I like most of the movies since Kill Bill (with the exception of Death Proof), Jackie Brown was the last of his movies that made you excited for every scene or line of dialogue.
Take the scene where Ordell tries to talk Beaumont into getting into the trunk. Beaumont doesn’t want to do it and we can agree with him. The scene isn’t too short but it’s not too long. And many people have questioned the ending but I think it’s appropriate. Jackie Brown remains his best.
What do you think? Please comment.