Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Jackie Brown (1997)

Director: Quentin Tarantino                                 Writers: Quentin Tarantino & Elmore Leonard
Music Coordinator: Ann Kline                              Cinematography: Guillermo Navarro
Starring: Pam Grier, Robert Forster, Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro

Like many people, I would imagine, I had certain expectations when this film came out as to what it would be like. I naturally assumed this would be Quentin Tarantino’s take on the Blaxploitation films of the 70’s. Fortunately I had discovered, prior to watching, that it was actually based on one of the novels of the great crime writer, Elmore Leonard. As such, Jackie Brown is a very different film. Though Tarantino had optioned three Leonard novels prior to making Pulp Fiction, including Rum Punch on which this film was based, he had not necessarily decided it would be his next film. But with the success of the filmed adaptation of Leonard’s Get Shorty, which had come on the heels of Pulp Fiction’s success, he made the decision to go right into Jackie Brown.

The title is name of the main character in the story, played by Pam Grier, who had made a positive impression on Tarantino from her seventies films like Foxy Brown and Coffy. But unlike those films, in which she played a larger-than-life action hero, here she’s a middle-aged airline stewardess who has fallen to the bottom rung of her profession working for a small, Mexican airline. To augment her income she has agreed to smuggle money into the country for small-time arms dealer Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson is breaking in a new man, Robert De Niro, who has just been released from prison. First, however, Jackson has to deal with his former employee, Chris Tucker, by putting a couple of bullets into him in a vacant lot. When Grier is stopped by ATF agent Michael Keaton she has a choice to make, inform on Jackson and go the way of Tucker, or go to prison and lose what little life she has left.

Fortunately, she has a third option that comes in the form of bail bondsman Robert Forster. When he picks her up from jail after Jackson bails her out, he falls for her hard and winds up becoming her partner. Of course, the story is told in Tarantino’s inimitable style, with music from the late sixties and early seventies reminiscent of Grier’s early films. While Tarantino has been acknowledged by the Motion Picture Academy for his screenplays, the films themselves and his directing have been ignored. His actors usually fare better. Robert Forster was nominated for an Oscar which, as far as Forster’s career is concerned, seems almost as good as a win. Tarantino has a knack for finding actors who are perfect for the roles in his films, regardless of where they are in their career trajectory. Forster is a tremendous talent and it’s criminal that it took Tarantino to show producers and directors what audiences already knew.

As far as the artistic merits of the film go, it certainly isn’t on par with Pulp Fiction in terms of originality. In this case, Leonard’s story is more of a caper film and, mixed with Tarantino’s cinematic sensibilities it becomes something of a hybrid. It’s still incredibly entertaining, but lacks the all-out originality of Tarantino’s own scripts. That said, however, it’s clear that Leonard’s books in the hands of lesser filmmakers don’t fare as well and that in Tarantino’s hands the story had the greatest chance of success it could possibly have. In the end, these kinds of qualifications are just splitting hairs, but it’s hard not to given the magnificence of Tarantino’s later works. I’m a huge fan of Quentin Tarantino, and so I would not hesitate to recommend the film to anyone. Jackie Brown is a great film, a beautiful collaboration of crime novelist and crime auteur, and a pleasure to watch.

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