Film: Jackie Brown (1997)
The Principals: Director: Quentin Tarantino. Pam Grier, Robert Forster, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert DeNiro, Michael Keaton, Bridget Fonda, Sid Haig.
The Premise: Jackie Brown is a 44 year old flight attendant who has never been able to quite get her life together. Max Cherry is a 55 year old bail bondsman unhappy with where his life has brought him. Together they have a chance at $500,000, but to get it they have to double cross gun runner Ordell Robbie and the ATF.
Is It Good: It could be argued that Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s best film. It’s certainly his most mature, but for my money the incredible cinemaphilia of Inglorious Basterds makes that film QT’s best. Brown came out after Tarantino was beginning to look like a one trick pony, and it proved that the writer/director had a lot of depth to him.
In Jackie Brown Tarantino isn’t relying on pop culture hipsterism (although it’s still there – the casting of Pam Grier says a lot to the discerning film fanatic) or crazy time structure (although non-linear storytelling makes its appearance in the third act) but rather on a good story and, more importantly, great characters. Max and Jackie are skillfully sketched, and the rest of the world – taken from Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch - is vivid and colorful. The story itself is deceptively simple, and the twists and turns are small and personal but no less thrilling.
There’s so much to love in Jackie Brown, but many viewers at the time were put off by the way it felt quite different from Tarantino’s previous two films. The movie got a bad rap, but the smart viewers understood that not only was the movie great, it was a milestone in the director’s career.
Is It Worth A Look: It’s worth looking at again and again. Every time I revisit Jackie Brown I savor something different. This last time it was Robert DeNiro; Louis Gara is probably the last truly great DeNiro performance. What’s amazing about DeNiro in this film is how much time he spends making you forget that he’s dangerous. For most of the running time Louis is a clown, a dope, a complete moron. He gets so high he can’t hang up a phone. DeNiro has a befuddled and bemused look that disarms us completely… which makes his last act turn to violence so shocking. But because there is no actor better at portraying roiling violence deep inside of himself, that turn is also completely believable. The look that he gives Bridget Fonda in the department store is fatally menacing… but also totally hilarious. It’s a marvelous feat on DeNiro’s part, and a nice capper to a strong career (we can pretend like most of the last fifteen years simply didn’t happen).
Random Anecdotes: Michael Keaton reprises the role of Ray Nicolette in Out of Sight. Couldn’t the character show up on Justified, which I understand takes place in the Elmore Leonardverse as well? I recently rewatched this as part of the Alamo Drafthouse’s Rolling Roadshow tour and Quentin Tarantino was sitting a couple of rows ahead of me. He laughed and applauded more than anyone else at the screening. He went really wild for Sid Haig’s cameo as Jackie Brown’s sentencing judge.