In celebration of Quentin Tarantino’s recent birthday, we discuss why “Jackie Brown,” his follow-up to “Pulp Fiction,” is his most underrated feature.
Look at Jackie Brown talk. Look at the way she’s the fuel behind the conversation, a driving force one intellectual level above her verbal opponent. How, when in trouble, she doesn’t collapse under pressure — instead, she, cigarette in hand, talks from the side of her mouth with striking sass, at once condescending and commanding. How she can merely lift an eyebrow in sly disdain and scare the shit out of the person sitting across from her. She’s tough. She’s smart. She’s sexy. She’s … Jackie Brown.
To most, Pam Grier is an action heroine, a Coffy, a Foxy Brown, or a Friday Foster; she’s the queen of blaxploitation — hell, she is blaxploitation. But she’s a cult favorite, a black Angelina Jolie of an era forgotten by most. And after the subgenre ended in the late 1970s, things changed for the leading lady. Most movie executives had no idea what to do with her (too resilient to be tossed aside as a meager love interest, too arousing to convince as a matronly, sexless authority figure), so she spent the majority of the ‘80s and ‘90s philandering around in thankless supporting roles that could hardly capture her brassy appeal.
So hallelujah Quentin Tarantino noticed her past highs while working as a video store clerk before he became the boy wonder of the independent movie: giving her the role of a lifetime, Jackie Brown is the movie wherein Pam Grier was born to star. Not cheap, not badly written, not supported by a bundle of terrible actors, not hastily directed, she no longer is the best thing in a bad movie (a characteristic most of her best films kept in their chest pocket for everyone to see); she’s the best thing in a great movie, and by 1997, it was about time.
In Jackie Brown, Grier is as badass as Coffy ever was, but she’s also quite a bit wiser, a tough cookie all grown up. Jackie is 44 years old, a stewardess working for the worst airline in America, and makes a disappointing salary of $16,000 a year. She’s had trouble with the law before. But in her middle-age she’s become much more methodical about her criminality, preferring to keep things low-key enough to keep herself happy and the cops oblivious. Currently, she acts as a smuggler for Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), a corrupted arms dealer so closely monitored by the ATF that he’s forced to work with an odd assortment of runners for the sake of keeping business afloat.
Things turn sour one day when, en route to work, Jackie is stopped by a couple of ATF agents, who find Ordell’s dirty money and a few ounces of hard drugs in her handbag. She spends the next few days is prison, eventually finding bail through Max Cherry (Robert Forster), a worn-out bondsman. Following her release, the ATF presents her with two options: she can either (1) avoid jail time and direct them to one of Ordell’s schemes by acting as a courier once again or (2) go directly back to her jail cell and forget that they ever offered her such a deal. The scrappy Jackie chooses option one, but she’s never been one satisfied working alongside the law or following the orders of a street smart but academically winded guns dealer. So she comes up with her own plan: double-cross both parties (telling the heat she’s going to betray Ordell, telling Ordell she’s going to betray the heat), run away with $500,000, and buy a one-way ticket to Spain and start life anew, with lavishness.
Whereas all of Tarantino’s films deal with violence as part of the aesthetic, Jackie Brown trades pulp fervor for insanely sharp exchanges of dialogue, the only carnage occurring offscreen while the characters size each other up and entertain us with their canny games of one-upmanship. Much of his mainstream success depends on the ruthlessly funny intrigue of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, but look closely — while not so tongue-in-cheek, the cunning Jackie Brown quite possibly delivers his finest screenplay (adapted from Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch), so endlessly amusing that there are a number of moments that call for near inescapable applause. The climactic money exchange, conceived in the same style as 1956’s The Killing, is so ingeniously drawn that I found myself laughing in delight, not so much because of its humor but because of the disbelief it throws down at us.
Equally brilliant is the accomplished cast — with no obvious supporting characters, the performers are of equivalent importance in pushing the lustrous plot forward. Grier is a sensation as the titular character, a victorious combination of sexy and too damn tired; Jackson is as threatening as he is inexplicably winsome. Forster provides an amiable straight man who loves Jackie too much for his own good, De Niro is lucrative as Ordell’s dim-witted, raging partner-in-crime, and Bridget Fonda, who gives the most uproarious supporting performance (in a movie of unlimited uproarious supporting performances), is hilarious as Ordell’s pot-smoking, surfer-girl mistress.
It’s less grandiose than Tarantino’s other movies, but Jackie Brown is a masterpiece nonetheless, its screenplay dressed to kill and its leading lady ready to smack all the Julianne Moores and Sandra Bullocks out of the picture and provide us with a force to be reckoned with.