Just like this week’s Mid-Week Mission, this will be a light recommendation to follow last week’s heavier entry (in the Theater’s case, last week was a criticism of the inconsistent philosophy of Slumdog Millionaire). And the film which I would like to recommend is Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.
Jackie Brown is certainly one of the two or three least viewed works in Tarantino’s catalogue, and it’s not hard to see why. Tarantino followed up two extremely violent dramas full of fast, aggressive dialogue with a slow-paced, traditionally structured heist movie. Jackie Brown centers on a stalwart stewardess and a cautious clerk, while relegating Robert De Niro and Samuel L. Jackson to roles as sleazy, unlikeable criminals. In short, the movie was not at all what the audience was expecting, and was soon over-shadowed by the grandeur and gratuitousness of Kill Bill. But this is a film every bit as entertaining as his others, and totally unique in his oeuvre for many reasons, explored below.
First, pop culture quotes notwithstanding, Jackie Brown is the only Tarantino-directed feature thus far with a script adapted from another work. So if you have ever wondered how Tarantino would handle a story which he had not tailor-made for his own style, then this is certainly already well worth a watch. Tarantino proves himself as a filmmaker above and beyond being just a careful writer, changing the style, tone, and pace of his film to match the characters and story.
Second, Jackie Brown is the only film in his repertoire that can be said to have (and focus on) subdued, highly subtle characters, with the arguable exception of True Romance (which was written, though not directed, by Tarantino). Pam Grier and Robert Forster put in nuanced, elegant performances as Jackie Brown and Max Cherry, strong yet vulnerable people connecting in a tough situation. The entire film is highly character-driven, and the supporting performances by Michael Keaton, Robert De Niro, and especially by Samuel L. Jackson as the character Ordell Robbie, contrast perfectly with the primary pair (much of this chemistry should likely be credited back to Elmore Leonard, the author behind the novel, Rum Punch, on which the movie is based). Even some of the characters who only appear briefly, such as those portrayed by Chris Tucker and Bridget Fonda, are effective.
Third, the violence of Jackie Brown is backgrounded rather than foregrounded, almost throughout. Now, to be sure, what this movie lacks in violence, it makes up for in drugs and sex, but even considering its most violent moments, this is by far Tarantino’s least bloody offering. So if you have ever thought that Tarantino uses violence as a crutch, or at least that he often overdoes it, this is a must watch.
Fourth, this is one of a very select few Tarantino movies without a performance from the man himself (disregarding a very, very minor vocal cameo). While I know that his performances have occasionally meshed well into his movies, and that all of them possess a certain charm, they can often be distracting from the world of the film. His decision to sit this one out leaves a movie whose 70s vibe is not impinged upon by Tarantino’s 90s presence.
And, setting aside its many unique aspects, Jackie Brown still boasts many of Tarantino’s greatest strengths: great integration of music into scenes, compelling character interactions, stellar shot composition, and memorable, tense moments.
Rather than his usual mixture of homages to great samurai films and great westerns of the past, Jackie Brown is a sensitive rendering of another aged genre: the seedy, semi-noir crime films of the 40s through the 70s. It is a slower burn than his other, more frenetic films, but it remains totally satisfying. I strongly urge fans of action films who can stand a slower pace to check this film out.
Tarantino’s Odd Film Out: