Quentin Tarantino “does” blaxploitation conjures a certain post-modernist genre-kitsch image in the mind. Clearly, it conjures the same image for Tarantino too, as his latest film, Django Unchained, exists wholly in a postmodern blaxploitation-by-way-of-Western stew. Yet Jackie Brown, despite its would-be blaxploitation credentials, couldn’t be further from the playful violence and comic grit we might expect from both the genre and Tarantino. Maybe it’s just the not inconsiderable fact that this is the director’s only film to date that bears another source, in this case Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch. The fact is, Tarantino very much proves primarily invested in honoring his source material without transforming it in any notable way. It is Tarantino’s most humble film, and anyone who knows him would never dream of that descriptor anywhere near him. Either way, it just doesn’t feel like any other Quentin Tarantino movie, and for a guy who is easily stereotyped and put in a corner, it’s a pleasure to see him exploring, especially in 1997, perhaps the height of his critical darling days when he could seemingly do no wrong.
Jackie Brown is a curious beast. Its strength is its weakness, and the thing that would make it Tarantino’s best film also sees it float perilously close to his worst. The big and deserved hullabaloo around the film, and why many to this day consider it his greatest work in a dark-horse/ underdog sort of way, is that it is very much Tarantino’s most mature, careful, and “respectable” film. Gone is his nimble descent into genre-riffing and his complicated sense of self-contradiction, and gone is his cascading formal eye for mind-jacking his scripts and essaying them on screen as visual beasts that tell their stories in exciting, even jittery new ways. Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s least singular film, the one that most feels like it could have been made by another director, and a certain lack of passion is inherent in Tarantino’s direction. It’s not slumming, nor is it hackwork, but he is palpably less excited to be behind the camera here than when his own tried and true original screenplay is on the line.
Tarantino does write, at least, but he rests heavily to Leonard’s vision and doesn’t so much plummet head first into his own interpretation of the text as side-wind around it and double-back toward Leonard’s vision. Of all his works, it has the least to say about the nature of cinema and the fiction of the world around us, and that is, in all honesty, somewhat disappointing. The infectious, wily spirit that makes Tarantino Tarantino is only intermittently afoot here. Sometimes the director even seems to only be making a guest appearance behind the camera in his own film.
Still, if something is lost, much is gained in its place. Namely, Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s most mature film, and his most diplomatic. Obviously, this owes much to Leonard himself, very much a writer of gritty realism and sort-of an odd fit for Tarantino’s spirited descent into fantasy masquerading as realism. Leonard himself isn’t much for the prim-and-proper fallacies of prose; he prefers the simple and the direct, and this would seem to put him at odds with Tarantino, a writer who wields the world like his personal paintbrush and couldn’t care for realism if his life depended on it. But Leonard has a way about humans, and if his even-tempered qualities mute some of the dog in Tarantino, they also help him explore the more tranquil aspects of human beings he usually leaves on the cutting room floor. The end result is his most relaxed movie, his most mundane, yes, but it is a film about mundane people. And if the glove fits…
So where do we begin. Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is a middle-aged, single flight attendant struggling to make end’s meat who makes the anxious decision of smuggling money between Mexico and the US for gun runner Ordell Robbie (Samuel Jackson). When she is fingered for her actions, she works up a plan to help ATF agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) imprison bigger fish Robbie in her place. At the same time, she begins a casual friendship with her bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) and a plan to double-cross the feds and re-enter work with Robbie. Of course, unbeknownst to any of them except Cherry, she is triple-crossing them all with her own plan to steal a cache of money for herself and to flee the country, pursuing an exciting life for herself after having wallowed in loss and loneliness for too long.
Sounds like a mouthful huh? Well, yes and no, for that even-keeled nature ensures that the film retains a certain balance and sensible quality from beginning to end. It’s a lengthy film, but it moves with caution and necessary lethargy, not rushing forward but sitting back and waiting and crawling around us. It gives characters time to think and explore possibilities and engage with self-doubt and side conversations that feel inessential but establish a ground-level view of human character and the (then) modern LA. It is very much Tarantino’s most grounded work, and thus probably his least visually ecstatic (although the film, his one major dalliance with intermittently great Mexican cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, is no visual slouch either; rather, it opts for a down-home, restrained visual style to quietly marry the introspective film, as opposed to running away with it).
But the film has plenty of room for character, especially when it comes to Tarantino’s leading lady, privileged in the film’s visual economy as she is in the title. She transfixes the screen with subtle visual touches that rely on naturalism and old-Hollywood glamour to depict a woman of conviction, power, and a steady hand who can command the screen even when no one’s looking her way. Much of this has to do with Grier’s performance, perhaps her best ever, and this is from an actress who commanded the ’70s like few others. It is an alluring performance, anxious but restful and restrained in the best possible way. She imbues Jackie with a reflective quality without ever sacrificing the immediacy of her daily needs and the difficulty of her situation. For it is, if nothing else, a work that gives Grier her star to shine, and it is a character the film is very much in love with. The film wants to know her, to understand how she thinks, and to elevate her and her working-class plight with empathy and resourceful respect.
In particular, the way Tarantino depicts her growing relationship with Forster is a marvel of easy-going awkwardness and comfort that perfectly captures the sort of everyday middle-aged relationships we just don’t see in movies much. They don’t necessarily know how to speak to one another, and we can feel their discomfort under their breath, but we have a welcome full-bodied sense that these two have lived too long to fidget and worry over every interaction with the opposite sex anymore. They aren’t teenagers, and the film never treats them like they are. For a more comical counterpoint to the dissection of middle-aged lifestyle, Robert De Niro gives a schlubby, intentionally vague turn as one of Robbie’s old friends, generally doing his best to make the man out to be a pointless, mundane individual in a thoroughly satisfying way.
He is one of Jackie Brown’s many little pleasures, and if they are, in the grand scheme of film history, relatively little ones, they are not insignificant pleasures nonetheless, and the film has a peculiar calm energy about it anyway that really satisfies in unexpected ways. If it is Tarantino’s least singular motion picture, that at least makes it fascinating within his own filmography, and even if the Tarantino factor is a moot point, it’s still a thoughtful, composed, very-much textured work of empathetic characterization and storytelling. It won’t make auteurists happy by any means, but it is a near work of greatness, and that is all we as film-goers can ask for in the end. I wouldn’t want every one of his films to be Jackie Brown, but we should be glad we have it, and that it is as well-developed and well-measured as it is.