Reframe: Jackie Brown

Of all the films Quentin Tarantino has made, Jackie Brown is probably the least Tarantino of them all. But that isn’t to say it doesn’t have his fingerprints on it. The story of the title character, a flight attendant (the incomparable Pam Grier) caught between a bail bondsman (a never better Robert Forster), and Samuel L. Jackson’s gun runner, has many of the hallmarks of a Tarantino film. The sharp and salty dialogue. The playful use of flashbacks and forwards, the funky vibe, and of course, all the violence and swearing one has come to expect from one of his joints.

Still, it’s different than everything else he’s done. All of Tarantino’s other films (whether you like them or not) are turned up to 11. Whereas Jackie Brown sits at about an 8. Much of this can be attributed to the source material, Rum Punch, written by the great Detroit crime novelist Elmore Leonard. While Tarantino makes some liberal changes, such as making Jackie a black woman and playing up Pam Grier’s blaxploitation era history (to great effect, it must be said), and convoluting the story well beyond the novel, this is easily the most mature movie Tarantino has ever made. It’s also the only true adaptation of his career.

While on some level, Tarantino films all feel like adaptations of a sort – one often gets the feeling that Tarantino does cover versions of films he saw late at night after closing up the video store, stopping by the 7-Eleven on the way home for a two-liter and a Tombstone, and then planting himself in front of the telly while a Fred Williamson film plays on the other side of midnight. It’s like he wants to remake films he enjoyed but thought could have been better with more talent in front of and behind the camera.

This penchant became more pronounced after Jackie. Kill Bill was his chopsocky film(s). Basterds was his Dirty Dozen. Django was his spaghetti western crossed with Mandingo slave epic. Hateful 8 was a cousin to Django with an Agatha Christie 10 Little Indians motif. Okay, a very vulgar and violent Agatha Christie motif.

I may not make a lot of friends saying it, but Jackie Brown to me was the last time Tarantino showed genuine growth as a filmmaker. The fact that all the leads were middle-aged might have helped too. There’s a sobriety to Jackie Brown that I’ve never felt on any other Tarantino work. A true lived-in world weariness evinced exceptionally well by Grier and Forster. Both of them are aware they are closer to the end than the beginning. Therefore, they make choices they would perhaps not have considered when they were young and invincible.

The almost romance between Forster and Grier is one of the better you will see not only in a crime thriller, but in any movie. They like each other. Sure, they find one another attractive, but more than anything, they like talking to someone who understands them. There’s a lovely scene after Forster leaves Grier’s apartment and goes to the mall to buy a cassette version of the record she was playing while he was there. You get the feeling it has been a long time since he’s bought any music. As his eyes scan over and he plucks out the Delfonics tape he’s looking for, it’s a profound moment. After many years of going about his business professionally, taking on the mundane tasks of his profession – complete with the occasional pain-in-the ass criminal element, he’s reminded that there is beauty in the world. And for the first time in a very long time, he wants a piece of it. Jackie opened that up in him, and that cassette tape represents something in him he hasn’t felt in a long time. Longing.

Which is something I can’t quite recall seeing in a Tarantino film before that, or since. It was genuinely emotional. Not just cool and ironic. It felt apart from the often thrilling, but hermetically sealed world of his other films.

This was also the time just before all (okay, almost all) Samuel L. Jackson performances started to feel the same. Take a look (if you must) at his recent work in Tarzan or Skull Island. Two period films where Jackson seems to have been dropped into from above on day one of the shoot and just hits the Jules button. Well, the PG-13 Jules button.

Here, he’s an absolute livewire. The part of a local criminal who’s on the radar, but smart enough to always stay a step ahead, and whose outward charm masks a ruthlessness that comes forth faster than his face changes expression when he decides someone – even if they are a part of his crew – needs to get got, fit him perfectly. There’s a scene with he and his baked and gone to seed partner (played by a wonderfully minimalist Robert DeNiro) where after a caper has gone bad, he just stops in the van and thinks. Tarantino trains his camera on him for an unusual length of time as Jackson’s Ordell Robbie works through all the machinations until he finds that the culprit is sitting across from him. It’s really something.

The film is a veritable potpourri of riches. Like having Michael Keaton’s wicked grin and sharp eyebrows personifying DEA agent Ray Nicollette – Steven Soderbergh liked the idea so much he brought Keaton back in the same role for his Elmore Leonard film, Out of Sight, just one year later.

Chris Tucker has what amounts to a cameo, and I swear to the sweet baby Jesus, it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen him do.

And then there’s the criminally underrated and deeply missed Bridget Fonda as one of Robbie’s girlfriends, Melanie. His “fine little surfer girl,” who when Ordell points out to her that laying around and getting high all day is going to rob her of her ambition, she replies with the best line in the movie:

“Not if your ambition is to get high and watch TV.”

How this performance isn’t in the stoner pantheon with Brad Pitt in True Romance and James Franco in Pineapple Express is a complete mystery to me. How Bridget Fonda never became a bigger deal is even more of a conundrum.

The film peaks with several clever bait and switches and double crosses that are the kind of thing Tarantino excels at like few others. But then it closes with a lovely, muted, almost coda-like sequence between Grier and Forster. One character must move on. The other decides they must stay put. A kiss is shared with more bittersweet ache than you might think Tarantino is capable of. Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street begins to play. Forster goes out of focus. A car hits the road. It’s a thing of beauty. Perfect even.

Tarantino has never had trouble coming up with colorful characters. He’s never had an issue coming up with unique dialogue. No one would ever say his films are not beautifully shot and overall singular in nature. For all the copycats running about since Pulp Fiction came along and changed the face of cinema, few can hold a candle to what he does.

It’s just that I think he is capable of more. He knows how to send the crowd out of the theatre on a fizzy high, but with rare exception, it’s a rarity that I walk away from his movies caring about the characters he has showcased. Oh sure, they are memorable and oh so quotable, but the overly self-aware nature of most of his work I find distancing. What I find most frustrating is he’s capable of doing that without giving up that what makes him so unique.

I know. Because I’ve seen him do it. 21 years ago, now. It was called Jackie Brown. As time has passed, I am now convinced it is his best movie. Not his most important. That will always be Pulp Fiction. But when I think of the movie of his I most like to watch, talk about, and consider, it’s Jackie.

I miss that Tarantino. Or rather that glimpse of who Tarantino might have been.

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