by Jay Seaver
The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA, just had a series where they paired each of Quentin Tarantino's movies with one of its influences, and "Jackie Brown" was one I wanted to see in particular, because I remember it being not such a big deal to me when it came out - just another movie. Fifteen years later, that's what makes it special - it is "just another movie", and in a career filled with formal trickery and genre homages, it's the one that shows what he can do without gimmicks.It's also the only time he's adapted a single novel, Elmore Leonard's Rum Punch. Despite now being the title character, Jackie (Pam Grier) is initially shuffled off to the side as the focus falls on Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), a small-time gun-runner whose associates - dismissive moll Melanie (Bridget Fonda), former cellmate Louis (Robert De Niro), and motor-mouthed dealer Beaumont (Chris Tucker) - aren't exactly impressive Indeed, he needs to use bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) to bail the latter out. It's when he also has Max bail out Jackie - the flight attendant who smuggles Ordell's money in and out of Mexico is less down on her luck than never up on it - that things get interesting: Max takes an immediate liking to her, and she sees an opportunity to not be the pawn that both Ordell and the Feds think she is.
"A triumph of the underdogs in its cast."
Robert Forster had better send Quentin Tarantino a very nice Christmas present and card every year, because it's not difficult to imagine a parallel universe where he's got the dopey sidekick role and Robert De Niro is the co-star of the movie, rather than vice versa. It likely wouldn't have been as good - when was the last time De Niro was able to convey the sort of low-key, lived-in sincerity as Forster? - but you can easily see a studio wanting that, just looking at their star power at the time and the number of lines in the script for each. Fortunately, it didn't go down that way (although I seem to recall that when it was still being called "Rum Punch", Sylvester Stallone was attached to one of those roles; that might have been interesting). Forster is the working-class heart of the movie, delivering the solid support both Jackie Brown the character and Jackie Brown the movie need to accomplish bigger things without ever seeming less important.
And it's kind of sad that Pam Grier didn't get the same sort of career boost Forster did - she's worked since then, sure, and maybe she's had better roles than I think because directors don't often think to cast someone like her in a role she can kill unless they're specifically making something for a black audience, which doesn't get in my face very often. It's sad because, for as much as this movie reminded people of how awesome the young blaxploitation star Pam Grier was, she was much more pin-up than actress then, which is not the case here. She's fantastic, an utter joy to watch as she brings Jackie from this low place to the point where the audience realizes that she is always the smartest person in the room - and gets some delight out of how she's discovering this.
She's not working alone, of course. Consider the film's opening scene, where she's standing still on an airport people-mover, then has to run to catch her flight. Most of the time, the action on-screen moves from left to right, mimicking how the Western world reads, but here, depending on how you look at it, either she's moving right-to-left or she's standing still and the world is moving. It goes on a while and the credits run during that scene, so the audience really notices the odd rhythm of it, but still maybe doesn't quite make the connection to later in the movie, just before when everybody is trying to con each other, when Jackie is again walking right to left, but striding purposefully. She's the same woman, and she's still moving against the tide, but her attitude has completely changed. It's a great example of the way Tarantino is playing this movie - laid-back, adopting Elmore Leonard's style in many ways, but with purpose. He gives himself enough time not to build Jackie, Max, Ordell, and company up as more than they are but to still make them individually interesting without giving them easy quirks, and the cleverness isn't in which movie he's quoting, but in how this one is playing out.
For as good a job as Tarantino, Grier, and Forster are doing, the film still has its problems. The big one is that this is an indulgently long movie, and the scenes that don't center on Jackie and/or Max seldom deserve their length. Sure, you need Ordell, but Samuel L. Jackson is almost too cool for the role, too energetic and witty for the part the character plays, and he certainly doesn't need De Niro's and Fonda's never-interesting characters around just so that the final shell game can have some more moving parts. Chris Tucker, believe it or not, has the most entertaining secondary character, and he's (smartly) gone before he can wear out his welcome. There's a hitch toward the end that could be smoothed out without losing the movie's calm, experienced rhythm.Now, maybe this is all wrong on the face of it - maybe both the virtues and faults of this movie are the result of Tarantino bolting a bunch of references onto "Rum Punch". Even if that's the case, though, "Jackie Brown" at least feels like it's less about itself than it is about its characters, and that's something one doesn't always get from Quentin Tarantino's work.
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originally posted: 06/15/13 13:25:44