There are two distinct opening scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s overlooked film Jackie Brown. The first is the opening credits sequence, a pseudo-homage to The Graduate, albeit more upbeat and colorful to introduce the tone and protagonist (played by Pam Grier) of this very different film. It’s a gorgeous, energetic, and precisely-edited sequence that reminds you that yes, Tarantino knows how to direct a movie.
The second opening has Samuel L. Jackson as Ordell Robbie and Robert de Niro as Louis Gara, two aging criminals fading into mediocrity, as they watch a VHS tape of “Chick Who Love Guns.” It’s absurd, silly, and for lack of a better term, lame. For all of the accusations towards Pulp Fiction and the like for “glorifying” criminal life, Jackie Brown does the opposite, and for that, I love it.
I can’t speak for the Elmore Leonard book that Jackie Brown is based on, a crime novel called Rum Punch, but this film feels like a sequel to a crime movie that doesn’t exist. Getting old is the main theme, which is the antithesis of what moviegoers watch such a movie for. Jackie, Ordell, and Louis are barely clinging on to their old lifestyles. On the other side is similarly aging bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forester, who received an Oscar nomination for this role), tired of his life herding these criminals around, yet wanting a taste of that lavish criminal life.
“Are you afraid of getting old?” Jackie asks Max in an early scene. Later on, Louis can’t even stand a hit of a bong, coughing and saying, “I’m just getting old,” not long before a clumsy sex scene with Ordell’s living companion Melanie (Bridget Fonda, in a role as a stoner confined to a couch). It could be interpreted as a brief attempt to reclaim youth, one that contrasts with an intimate moment between Jackie and Max at the very end.
This is a low-key heist movie, one where each character gets involved for simple reasons that Tarantino stretches and fleshes out over the course of the film’s long running time. Jackie Brown is simply looking for a way out, a return to normalcy—at her age, with her social status, and in her economic situation, smuggling money is not a sustainable lifestyle for her. Louis Gara, in probably De Niro’s most restrained role, is a reluctant participant, often mumbling and demonstrating that he is easily impressed (or indifferent) by Ordell Robbie’s grandstanding.
Ordell is the only character in denial that all of these players are past their prime. He runs a gun running operation with pride and apparent deftness, but as Melanie points out, it is all a facade. All of his actions are with the intention to impress—he apparently just repeats statistics about weapons he overhears from others, and isn’t as knowledgable as he makes himself out to be. At this point, Ordell is falling for his own illusion.
The word “restraint” just keeps coming back to me every time I think about this film. We as audience members are so used to the “movie universes” of Inglourious Basterds and Death Proof that we forget what happens when Tarantino is back in the real world. It becomes less about familiar cinematic imagery, less about recycling favorite tropes, and more about characters bouncing off of each other.
There is nothing efficient about Tarantino’s storytelling in Jackie Brown—so many details are described in five minutes when it could have taken just one minute. Despite this, I would still call this method “effective.” Think back to the killing of Beaumont Livingston, a crony of Ordell played by a pre-Rush Hour Chris Tucker. Without telling us explicitly, we know what Ordell’s intentions are in visiting a recently bailed out Beaumont, yet the film takes us on an extended journey from point A to point B.
Beaumont is not a “doing time-type” of person, Ordell says, so his intentions are fatal. Yet the film spends several minutes focusing on Ordell’s deception, his elaborate scenario of a job in Koreatown, just for the purpose of getting Beaumont in the trunk of his car. “Strawberry Letter 23” by The Brothers Johnson plays on Ordell’s stereo as he prepares for the dirty work. He drives his car in the distance, but the camera unexpectedly pans and points to the distance—the car engine and music stops, and as Ordell opens the trunk, we hear Tucker’s continuous babbling rudely interrupted by point-blank gunshots. Ordell gets back in the car, starts the engine, and the stereo resumes “Strawberry Letter 23.”
Not a single drop of blood is shown, and yet I might argue that this is perhaps Tarantino’s finest death scene.
There is nothing uncharacteristic about the way Tarantino directs Jackie Brown—he is just less “showy” about it. The violence is still present, and it still plays an important role. This time, however, it is just fewer and far in between, somehow making moments of carnage even more shocking. It’s hard to bat an eye at the Crazy 88s sequence in Kill Bill anymore, or the massacre at Candyland in Django Unchained, yet it is difficult to stomach an unhinged Louis Gara shooting Melanie in cold blood at a parking lot.
Similarly, Tarantino’s penchant for non-linear storytelling is back, though only during the key climactic sequence in the Del Amo Mall. We watch as Jackie’s plan to outsmart all other parties unravels multiple times, all from different perspectives. There is nothing quite visually impressive about this elaborate heist, other than Jackie’s skillfulness in crafting this precise plan—but now that these characters are fully fleshed out and alive by Tarantino’s dense screenplay, viewers still gain satisfaction from the plan’s success.
I remember people criticizing Django Unchained for King Schultz’s overly elaborate plan to bring back Django’s wife Broomhilda, and I see shades of that “overly elaborate” and unnecessary planning in Jackie Brown. None of this is for the money in play, but rather all about the game. Maybe it’s about the characters getting what they want, but deep down, all they want to do is outsmart each other. Cleverness is the primary capital of Tarantino’s cinematic world.
There’s something so touching about the final intimate scene between Jackie and Max—two old souls having just shared a unique experience parting ways, the latter still unable to escape his tangent position to the criminal world. While at their age this pair is not the “conventional” movie couple, their brief kiss carries so much weight, and that question Jackie asked earlier in the film about getting old no longer matters.
Jackie Brown is perhaps one of, if not the most successful protagonist that Tarantino has crafted. Her desires and motivations are clear, and her thought process is shown in full. And best of all, she feels real—modern day Tarantino would probably lean more into the blaxploitation that Pam Grier inhabited in films like Foxy Brown, turning this film into more of a shoot-em-up. In the end, Jackie isn’t even the one to gun down Ordell, instead manipulating Agent Ray Nicolette (played by a wonderfully expressive Michael Keaton) into doing the dirty work.
She is a bad-ass character in her own right, and not in the way typical movie characters are. Saying to “subvert tropes and cliches and expectations” is itself a cliche in 2019, but for 1997, this felt something truly special coming from Tarantino. I would imagine that this wasn’t the movie that people were expecting after Pulp Fiction, and perhaps that’s why the shift to ultra-violence with 2003 and 2004’s Kill Bill occurred.
Modern Quentin Tarantino still shows shades of his elaborate games of wit in his recent movies, but I yearn for the return to reality and a break from the fantasy film worlds. With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood having a premise that parallels real events, I am eager to see what that brings. But with time running out until his declared retirement, I wish for nothing more than for Quentin Tarantino to return to the form that showed us how good of a filmmaker he was in the first place.