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Tarantino Week: Revisiting 'Jackie Brown' - We Are Movie Geeks

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Tarantino Week: Revisiting ‘Jackie Brown’

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When JACKIE BROWN was released twelve years ago expectations were off the charts. It had been three and a half long years since Quentin Tarantino had rocked the movie world with the one-two punch of RESERVOIR DOGS (1992) and PULP FICTION (1994). Since then he had laid relatively low, directing a segment of the anthology FOUR ROOMS, writing the vampire hybrid FROM DUSK TIL DAWN, and performing several forgettable “acting” roles (remember DESTINY TURNS ON THE RADIO? ……didn’t think so.) I remember my own expectations and anticipation for JACKIE BROWN when I first heard that Tarantino had cast ebony action icon Pam Grier in the lead. I assumed that he was going to take a crack at the Blaxploitation genre that he was a such a fan of and was honestly expecting afros, pimps, and bell-bottoms but, with the exception of it’s lead and some funky music from those films, it turned out to be nothing of the sort. Instead JACKIE BROWN, based on the 1993 novel “Rum Punch” by Elmore Leonard, was a slow-paced mature film that proved Quentin Tarantino was a real storyteller capable of adapting another writer’s work and creating a confident, seasoned narrative while maintaining his own voice as a director. They were Elmore Leonard’s characters, but they lived in Quentin Tarantino’s world. I think some viewers expecting more of the violence, pace, and tongue-in-cheek postmodernism of Tarantino’s first two films may have left theatres disappointed. There are only four deaths in the two and one half hours of JACKIE BROWN, all by gunshot, and take place more or less off-screen. The eager, in-your-face enthusiasm and energy of the director that defined RESERVOIR DOGS and even more so, PULP FICTION was subdued. The (mostly) straightforward chronology of JACKIE BROWN was a switch and there weren’t nearly as many offbeat conversations about pop culture this time around. Yet JACKIE BROWN is my favorite of Tarantino’s films, the one I’ve watched the most and twelve years on, it’s lost none of its breezy hipness and it’s the rare movie that gets more satisfying with repeated viewings.

The deliberate pace of JACKIE BROWN is established early as Tarantino’s script takes plenty of time establishing all of the characters. The plot, which switches the action from Leonard’s Miami to LA, is elaborate; black forty-ish stewardess Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) finds herself the pawn of several schemes as her sideline as a money courier for weapons dealer Ordell Robey (Samuel L. Jackson) gets her in trouble with federal agents (Michael Keaton and Michael Bowman) dedicated to bringing him down and in contact with aging Bail Bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) who fears for her personal safety. She responds by coming up with an elaborate counterattack of her own and plots with Max to deprive Ordell and his ex-con henchman Louis (Robert DeNiro) of half a million dollars of ill-gotten cash while convincing the feds that she is not a target worth pursuing. JACKIE BROWN is engrossing, character-driven drama and it is evidence to Tarantino’s skill as director and writer that the unfolding crime plot becomes important to an audience that cares about Jackie Brown because the dangers he has placed her into are so convincing.

Tarantino had the clout in 1997 to cast anyone he wanted for JACKIE BROWN and I’m sure most of Hollywood wanted to work with him, and he put together his usual imaginative ensemble of major players, 70’s comeback stars, and fresh blood. Pam Grier was the now-mature siren of blaxploitation, the star of many 70’s urban classics such as COFFY (1973), BLACK MAMMA WHITE MAMMA (1973), FOXY BROWN (1974) and BUCKTOWN (1975, all available on MGM’s “Soul Cinema” DVD series). With her distinctive mega-fro, Grier was a statuesque, articulate ass-kicker in these films and Tarantino was a huge fan and she’s mentioned in his scripts for both RESERVOIR DOGS and TRUE ROMANCE. He’d originally considered Grier for PULP FICTION in the role ultimately played by Roseanne Arquette (which would have made her the mate of Eric Stoltz, an actor I can see Pam Grier breaking in half with two fingers), and changed the lead character in Leonard’s novel from a blonde caucasian to an African-American in order to accommodate Grier (in the novel, her name is Jackie Burke. Tarantino renamed her Brown after her character from FOXY BROWN). Pam Grier was 48 when she starred in JACKIE BROWN (though her character claims to be 44) and she gives a strong world-weary performance and is tough and believable when standing up to Jackson’s Ordell. It’s been noted that JACKIE BROWN did not do for Grier’s career what PULP FICTION did for John Travolta but then, how many parts are there in Hollywood for black women pushing 50? Pam Grier did receive some choice roles after JACKIE BROWN and since 2004 has been costarring on TV’s “The L-Word”.
For the tough but sympathetic, bail bondsman Max Cherry ,Tarantino cast 56 year-old Robert Forster. Forster had briefly been a major player in Hollywood, acting alongside Brando and Liz Taylor in REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE (1967) and had the lead in the cult films THE STALKING MOON (1968), and MEDIUM COOL (1969) followed by the TV detective show “Banyon”. In the 80’s he was toiling in exploitation films like ALLIGATOR (1980) and DELTA FORCE (1985) and by 1997 Forster must have considered his best roles behind him and was working as an acting teacher. But Tarantino remembered him and, after considering Gene Hackman and John Saxon, gave Forster the part and he was an inspired choice. Forster plays the tricky role rarely changing his expression, a tough feat for any actor. Forster’s performance is the most believable in the film and it’s no surprise that, even in a movie with the likes of Robert DeNiro and Samuel L. Jackson, it was Forster who received the movie’s only Oscar nomination. The heart of JACKIE BROWN is the affection that grows between Max and Jackie. It’s a romance that never quite turns romantic (they became lovers in the novel) and their attraction is always implied, which makes it all the more interesting.

At first, Samuel L. Jackson’s confident Ordell seems a pony-tailed retread a of his Jules character from PULP FICTION, but Ordell is a much darker sociopath than Jules and he gets scarier as the story progresses. DeNiro’s dryly plays Louis as a sloppy underachiever with a hang dog expression but a fatally short fuse and to me his character just gets funnier every time I watch JACKIE BROWN.

Bridget Fonda is droll as Melanie Ralston, Ordell’s nymphet beach bunny girlfriend who contemptuously fixes his drinks and answers his phone. Ordell warns Melanie that watching TV and doing drugs all day will rob her of her ambition. “”Not if your ambition is to get high and watch TV”,” she quickly replies. Tarantino claims to have modeled Melanie after 70’s exploitation queen Candice Rialson, the sexy blonde star of drive-in classics such as CANDY STRIPE NURSES and MAMA’S DIRTY GIRLS (both 1974). In one scene in JACKIE BROWN Melanie is watching DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY on TV, a 1974 film that starred Fonda’s father Peter and was one of the films Tarantino claims inspired his later DEATHPROOF. Sid Haig, who co-starred in five of Pam Grier’s best 70’ s films, has a cameo as a judge in JACKIE BROWN and would achieve cult status as Captain Spaulding in Rob Zombie’s HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES (2003), and it’s sequel THE DEVILS REJECTS (2005).

Tarantino claims that in developing the script for JACKIE BROWN, he decided on most of the songs during the writing stage. He’s a firm believer that much of the personality a movie has is developed by the music that is going to be in it and he’s never hired a composer to score one of his films. His movies are filled with songs (mostly from the 60’s and 70’s) and musical cues lifted from other films reused creatively. JACKIE BROWN is filled with soul and funk music lifted from Blaxploitation film scores and some of it’s surprising highlights are “Longtime Woman” sung by Pam Grier when she starred in the 1971 women’s prison pic THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, and a cue from Manfred Hubler’s psychedelic score for Jess Franco’s VAMPYROS LESBOS (1971). Bobby Womack’s moving title song from the 1972 crime drama ACROSS 110th STREET plays over the opening and closing credits and a whole generation of film fans must now think of it as the theme from JACKIE BROWN (emotionally perfect, but technically 110th Street is an informal boundary line of Harlem and JACKIE BROWN is set in L.A.). Coincidentally, Pam Grier sang back-up for Bobby Womack before she began her career in film.

It would be six more years before Quentin Tarantino would return to feature film directing with KILL BILL VOL. 1, a bloody and stylish return to form. Both KILL BILLs and DEATHPROOF are great films but JACKIE BROWN, despite its straightforward plot and traditional delivery, remains my favorite Tarantino film. To me it’s the perfect mix of pulp fiction, Blaxploitation aesthetic, and film noir.

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