R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: Jackie Brown

So Grindhouse is finally here and yes, it may have faired poorly at the box office, but not because of the three hour blast of a movie that was produced for mass consumption. From start to finish, I unabashedly loved Grindhouse, and while I’m not going to go into too much detail because I plan on writing a column about it very shortly, I think it’s a work of great passion by both directors and simply a kick ass time at the movies. Then again, I would expect nothing less from these two men who have always been lead by their love for particular genres and who have both strived to make proficient examples of these pictures every time they produce a movie.

Rodriguez’s forays into Action and Comic Book films have been very successful. His Mariachi Trilogy is renowned for its creativity and loads of energy, while his Spy Kids films are textbook examples of low budget ingenuity turning into great financial success. Then Sin City turned a dream project into a magnificent reality, as Frank Miller’s world came to life with the help of Rodriguez’s unabashed love for the subject matter.

Tarantino has also always worn his love for genres like a badge of honor. While Pulp Fiction remains his most “fetish-free” work, though certain elements have always shined through his pop culture laced dialogue and then there’s Bruce Willis’ samurai sword wielding rampage, all of his other works have all been strongly laced with Tarantino’s love for different forms of cinema. While some may argue that Tarantino simply rips off his heroes, I prefer to think he simply gets to the heart of the subject matter he’s emulating, and then is able to add his own spin.

For instance, many still do not know that Reservoir Dogs is actually a remake of the Hong Kong Crime film, City on Fire, only he discards much of the original film’s plot and instead focuses on the aftermath of a failed robbery attempt. Death Proof showed Tarantino tackling both the Slasher movie and the Car Chase flick with a mastery of skill, lulling us into a false sense of security, until he jolts us back with shocking violence and the best car chase I’ve seen in a decade. Both of his volumes of Kill Bill took elements from all sorts of places, including Samurai films, Spaghetti Westerns, Kung Fu flicks, and Anime, melding them all into one of the best examples of each of the genres, plus just being a terrific picture all on its own.

With Jackie Brown, Tarantino was able to take his love of exploitation cinema and use it in order to pull off a case of cinematic slight of hand. Bathed in the light of the Blaxploitation films he loved as a kid, Tarantino takes the look and music from the genre to make a personal epic about getting old and a wonderfully staged heist. What seemed to many to be a disappointment following the phenomenal success of Pulp Fiction now looks like the work of a mature and calculating film maker. Based on the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch, Jackie Brown is a complex and captivating piece, but one that is mostly very straightforward. Not as flashy or violent as its predecessor, Jackie Brown is an accomplished work that shows Tarantino at the top of his game.

Jackie Brown Starring Pam Grier, Robert Forster, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, and Bridget Fonda. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

There’s a twinge of nostalgia for films like Coffy and Black Caesar as the opening chords of Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street starts its funky beat and the genre’s greatest heroine, Pam Grier, floats across the screen. We even get titles reminiscent of that time, putting you in the mind set that you’ll see the fireworks that happened during Shaft and Foxy Brown. This is when Tarantino really has you, taking Grier’s Jackie Brown through an airport via unseen moving walkway, the camera caressing this actress the entire way. You can see Tarantino paying Grier back for a lifetime of enjoyment in this opening shot, lovingly shooting her, as we anticipate what will happen at the end of this trip.

Then unexpectedly, Tarantino completely goes away from Grier’s Jackie Brown for nearly half an hour. Instead we’re taken around to learn Elmore Leonard’s characters, setting up all the pieces that will eventually fall into this caper. While these characters may seem a bit outlandish at first, Tarantino and his actors seem to really find a verisimilitude that may make this the most believable and human film Tarantino has ever produced. There’s so much more going on underneath the surface with these characters than we’ve seen in any other Tarantino production, making Jackie Brown an endlessly fascinating work.

The theme of age comes up big throughout the picture, with each of the three main characters in this film dealing with it in some way or another. There is of course Grier’s Brown, a stewardess with a shaky past, holding on to the last job she can get as she enters middle age. While it looks as if life is trying to beat her down, we still see strength in her, and a struggle to be able to relive the more carefree days of her youth. She can feel time weighing down on her though, and her chances at happiness seem to be getting fewer and fewer.

Grier is simply perfect for this role, as if we’re getting to see one of the roles that made her famous reaching middle age. We see her get to mouth off in order to protect herself from those that would hurt her, and she’s a force to be reckoned with when she’s put in a corner. One of the biggest changes that Tarantino made when he adapted Leonard’s Novel was to change Jackie from a petite Caucasian to more voluptuous African American, but essentially the character is the same. The difference comes all from Grier, who brings a certain amount of her usual allure with her, but tones it down to a degree to present a woman just trying to hold on till something better comes along.

To even make ends meet, she has to be involved with a smalltime illegal gun dealer, named Ordell Robbie. Played by Samuel L. Jackson, Robbie is a man that wants to be the personification of evil, with his long hair and braided goatee making him look like Fu Manchu. He also talks big, trying to intimidate others or impress them with his connections and his air of invincibility. There’s also a deep vulnerability as Robbie has to surround himself with multiple girlfriends, even ones that don’t necessarily care for him.

Has anyone ever said Quentin Tarantino dialogue like Sam Jackson has? The man brings so much to this role, not the least of which is the way Jackson is able to roll Tarantino’s out of this mouth, my favorites being his monologues on how gangsters prefer .45’s to 9mm’s because of Chow Yun Fat’s hitman role in John Woo’s The Killer, as well as the immortal “AK-47. The very best there is. When you absolutely, positively got to kill every motherf*cker in the room, accept no substitutes.” While many may prefer Jules from Pulp Fiction as Jackson’s best role, I just think there’s more going on this character. There are moments where he seems to really want to push back the darkness in him, especially if he has to dispatch someone he cares about. It’s amazing to watch the actor work, as he goes from charming to cold blooded, the kill coming at any second.

It’s mostly Ordell that carries the first half of this movie, with Tarantino hardly showing Jackie Brown at all for the film’s first 30 minutes. We see Ordell’s many dealing, which brings him into contact with Robert Forster’s bail bondsman Max Cherry. While I’ve loved Forster’s work in the past, mostly in popcorn fare such as Alligator or Delta Force, nothing even comes close to his work here. We just see him so vividly, the bondsman tired of his lifestyle of running down criminals and fighting to keep his business afloat. We can feel his years, and how he hates running into people like Ordell Robbie, knowing the man is underhanded and trying to scam him in some way.

The scenes with Jackson and Forster are an interesting mix. Robbie’s sly wit and fast talking has to match wits with Cherry’s experience and steely outward persona. These scenes are a wonderful chance for Forster to display his very likable and laid back persona, letting Robbie’s off color remarks just roll off his back. It’s not until Cherry meets Jackie Brown that he let’s his guard down.

Having to bail Brown out after she is caught with money and drugs that are meant for Ordell, Cherry is immediately smitten, but Tarantino handles this subplot with kid gloves. What I didn’t expect when I first saw Jackie Brown was Tarantino doing a middle-aged love story. These are two people that find each other, but have baggage and don’t rush into anything. Really, this subplot is more implied than anything else, but it’s still very heartfelt. Of the two, I think that Forster is the one who really pulls these scenes off; as he drops hints of his affection through messages and different things he does, like buying a cassette of a Delfonics album he hears at Jackie’s apartment. He also bends rules for her, and eventually even comes in on Jackie’s scheme to rip off Ordell.

Tarantino manages to hold the entire proceedings together despite having a host of supporting characters, most notably Robert De Niro’s Louis Gara and Bridget Fonda’s Melanie Ralston. De Niro is expectedly brilliant, making a three time loser into an endearing character. Louis is a man just getting out of prison, and I’ve never seen a character that just seems so out of place with the characters around him. He’s constantly struggling to understand the world and the people around him, except for Ordell, who he follows blindly because he’s his only lifeline to these alien surroundings. There’s also something going on between Ordell and Louis which gives them real kinship, making some of their scenes gut wrenching when Louis just can’t conform.

Louis also can’t seem to get a handle on Melanie (Bridget Fonda), Ordell’s trophy girlfriend. Constantly trying to play him, Louis can’t stand that Melanie is always trying to rip Ordell off, even though she want Louis in on it. Fonda is likable and nearly the exact character from the book; a woman who has lived off men her whole life, but has always just used them to get what she wants.

The plot of this film unfolds slowly, with Tarantino mostly holding tight on his tendencies of playing with time and flashy camera work. There are some wonderful split screen moments as well as nicely placed flashbacks, but Tarantino doesn’t really play with the timeline until the actual heist goes down, showing the scene from different perspectives without warning, but brilliantly executed. I also like Tarantino’s use of violence here, not at all stylized like it was in Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs. The violence is always just very matter of fact, with one killing not even shown in close-up, with the director opting instead for an insanely long take and camera shot.

Jackie Brown was an amazing step for Tarantino, despite the complaints from various fans who just wanted another Pulp Fiction. In the nearly ten years since its release, it is a film that has continued to grow on me further, as I find the storytelling and acting some of the richest of any of the director’s films. With QT putting out more and more quality work, its nice to go back and see just how good these earlier pictures were, and Jackie Brown can be counted amongst the director’s best work.

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