Friday, September 11, 2009

Jackie Brown

I've written before about my feelings regarding Quentin Tarantino, but for those too lazy to go back and read them (myself included), I'll try to provide a brief summation. I dug Pulp Fiction as much as the next guy. I respect QT for popularizing the fragmented narrative that we've been inundated with over the past 15 years, and I support the notion that Pulp Fiction is arguably one of the best representations of that type of film structure. That said, the man's personality and massive ego color my perception of his films. I'm aware that every filmmaker is influenced in countless ways from an infinite number of sources. Most directors make subtle homages to these influences, paying respect to those who have come before. Tarantino, as the last few films on his resume indicate, has a massive amount of respect for genre work. Exploitation, western, kung fu, you name it. The guy loves movies (he used to work in a video store), and I dig that. The thing I have a problem with is how blatant and cocky he is about his references. There's a great piece about QT at The Guardian the touches on the point I'm trying to make...

I just realized I don't even know the point I'm trying to make. Is it that QT lives in his own world and doesn't fall in line with the traditional filmmaking standards? That's not a bad thing! That's good! Is it that he hides behind the veil of these various genre movies instead of creating something original? No, because every one of his genre films can double as both an homage and an entry into that genre, crafted with a very particular voice and style. In the intro to Jackie Brown, he apologizes to audiences for having to wait five years for the DVD release. But immediately afterward, he revels in smugness; he says "I wanted to make you wait and appreciate it...I wanted you to salivate for it." I may not like how pretentious and self-indulgent he is (the man really loves to hear his own words, whether spoken through his own mouth or his actors), but his movies are much more entertaining than 80% of the garbage that gets churned out of Hollywood every year. Holy crap. Did I...? I think I just became a Tarantino fan.

Jackie Brown
Writer/Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson

Jackie Brown was released in 1997, and because until thirty seconds ago one of my personal traits used to be "not liking Tarantino," I never got around to (nor had interest in) seeing it. The story follows the titular character, a middle-aged African-American flight attendant who delivers gun money to a dealer, as she gets caught up in a whirlwind of murder, extortion, greed, double crosses, bail bondsmen, ATF agents, and five hundred thousand dollars hovering in the eye of the storm. The screenplay was based on the Elmore Leonard novel "Rum Punch," but QT adapted the story to fit the "blaxploitation" genre and retain its "who's going to end up with the money?" mystery in tact at the same time. (Leonard was an executive producer for the film.)

Aside from True Romance (which he wrote but didn't direct), I think the dialogue in Jackie Brown was the most enjoyable of Tarantino's films. Samuel L. Jackson and Chris Tucker have some great interactions in the beginning of the movie, highlighted by QT's signature long takes that really allow the actors to shine and I'm sure make him happy to hear his dialogue recited uninterrupted. Check out his segment of the directorial ensemble film Four Rooms for another prime example of what I'm talking about. There are also some great subtle (how un-QT-like) exchanges between Pam Grier and Robert Forster, who plays bail bondsmen Max Cherry. When Jackie asks Max if he wants some coffee, he says sure. "The milk went bad when I was in jail," she notices. He casually looks her up and down and responds "Black's fine." Awesome. Oh, if you're offended by the use of the "F" word and/or the "N" word, then by all means stay far away. I actually looked up how many times they drop the F bomb in this movie, and it's meager 145 pales in comparison with other things I've seen. It just seems so much more intense when Samuel L. Jackson is dropping bombs.

Admittedly, I'm not well-versed in blaxploitation films (the upcoming Black Dynamite looks pretty excellent), so I can't speak to how effective Jackie Brown fits into that particular mold of films. As a crime/heist movie, it works wonders. Practically every scene has Jackie meeting with a different person and making the audience believe that she is working with him/her to retrieve the money. I had no idea whether she was double-triple-or-quadruple crossing people until the finale, which plays out in an interesting off-set time style centering on main characters' POV's one at a time.

The acting is pretty magnificent from all the big players. Tarantino seems to have a way with revitalizing careers (Travolta, obvs), and Pam Grier was on the receiving end of his helping hand this time around. Grier gives a great performance here, especially considering she actually starred in many of the 70's films Jackie Brown simulates, but she tones down her acting to a very believable level. Samuel L. Jackson rises above the rest as the smooth-talking gun-runner Ordell Robbie, and Chris Tucker's brief appearance as Beaumont was a triumph for the casting director (coincidentally named "Jaki Brown." Hah!). Michael Keaton plays Ray Nicolette, an ATF agent trying to lock Ordell away for good; his commitment made me remember why I like Michael Keaton so much. His relatively small role was perfectly executed here, and the character humorously reappeared in Soderbergh's Out of Sight the next year. Soderbergh (director of the Ocean's trilogy) said that was the first time the same character has been portrayed by the same actor in two unrelated films (although both were based on the stories of Elmore Leonard). Robert De Niro plays a stoner named Lou, who I consider a spiritual continuation of his character from Michael Mann's masterwork Heat. Both characters are bank robbers, and his character in Jackie Brown just got out of a four year stretch in prison. I imagine this would be what would become of Neil McCauley if the final events of Heat were altered slightly.

The only bit of trivia that had me perplexed was Robert Forster's nomination for Best Supporting Actor in his role of bail bondsman Max Cherry. If anyone deserved a nomination for anything in this movie, it was Sam Jackson. Personally, I thought Forster's performance was one of the weaker aspects of the movie. Guess that highlights the differences between my thoughts and those of the Academy. From what I understand, Forster was a pretty popular actor at one point and fell away from acting, only to be brought back in this film. So maybe it was a kind of "honorary" nomination or something like that.

As is usually the case with Tarantino's films, the soundtrack is of paramount important to the final dynamic of the movie. He shoots and scores with Jackie Brown, opening a time machine back to the days of Motown and Marvin Gaye, the Delfonics and Diana Ross. If you dig that time in music history, you should appreciate the musical choices made here. There was no traditional score composed for the movie, which I found a bit odd but makes sense due to the repetition of many of the songs on the soundtrack throughout the film. Also consistent with the norms of QT's films is how great the entire production looked. But unlike some of the more over the top movies he's done in the past (Kill Bill Vol. 1), Jackie Brown has a subdued visual style that I appreciated. I noticed the director of photography's name go past in the opening credits and did a double-take: Guillermo Navarro. This guy is extremely versatile, shooting films such as Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn, Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy, Zathura, and Night at the Museum. Chalk this one up on his list of successes. A $12 million dollar budget is practically pennies in Hollywood these days (even back then it was pretty small), but having talented crew and a solid vision made Jackie Brown look way better than the budget might imply.

I think this review has benefited me more than any of you, because by typing out my thoughts I've corrected a misguided judgment that I erroneously maintained for years. Hopefully you got some enjoyment out of it, or at the very least it's convinced you to throw the movie into your rental queue. I'm off to re-think my decision to wait to see Inglorious Basterds until it hits DVD. Until next time...


Anonymous said...

Jackie Brown is the only QT movie I love. It's magnificent. I am glad you liked it. Pam Grier shoulda won an Oscar, and the song Across 110th street stayed with me for days until I was compelled to buy the soundtrack.

Jacob L

Joey Joe said...

i enjoyed sam jackson's attitude about getting his work done, then partying. an honorable dealer, that man.