Underrated: Jackie Brown

 

 

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Quentin Tarantino is one of the most revered and discussed film directors of the past 30 years or so.  His work re-invigorated American movie-making in the 1990’s.  Critics and cinephiles constantly laud his films.  Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill 1 & 2, Inglorious Basterds, and Django Unchained are all considered masterworks made by a genius filmmaker.  One movie that doesn’t get mentioned much, though, is Jackie Brown.

Jackie Brown is the story of the title character, a poor flight attendant played by Pam Grier.  Jackie finds herself enmeshed in a web of criminal misdeeds involving gun dealer Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson), recently-released prisoner Louis (Robert De Niro), and surfer girl Melanie (Bridget Fonda).  She’s being watched and manipulated by g-man Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton).  To find a way out and make a bit of a profit, Jackie hatches a plot to screw over Ordell, with the help of bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster).

As far as Tarantino flicks go, this one is probably the most straight forward, which may be why it’s not as celebrated as Pulp Fiction, ect.  That’s a shame because Jackie Brown is a pretty great caper tale.  It’s got twists and turns.  It’s got great acting.  It’s got humor.  It’s got Tarantino’s manipulation of the timeline.  It’s got terrific dialogue.  It’s as Tarantino-y as any other Tarantino flick.

Consider the credit sequence.  Jackie makes her way through a airport to the gate where she’ll be working.  But, Tarantino makes it feel so much more epic.  He lays Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” over the scene, a perfect tune to comment on Jackie’s struggles to make a living.  Tarantino frames her in close-ups against colorful tile backgrounds.  Jackie is aging and a bit beaten down, but still beautiful and determined.  In that wordless sequence of Jackie walking to work, we learn everything we need to know about her.

One hallmark of Tarantino movies is great acting, and Jackie Brown is full of it.  Jackson is full of his trademark baravdo and had one or two moments where he comes off a bit scary.  Grier and Forster are the emotional heart of the movie, and they are tremendous together.  They are vulnerable, flirtacious, and genuinely look like they enjoy each other’s company.  Forster is particularly good, his weariness replaced be tenderness and anticipation as he gets to know Jackie.  My favorite performance in the movie comes from De Niro.  Here’s one of cinema’s iconic hardcore badasses, and he makes you believe he’s an incompetent boob.  That’s impressive.

We all know Tarantino is a master at writing dialogue, but it bears repeating.  His characters say stuff that pushes the plot forward, like any other movie characters, but they say it in the most interesting way.  That’s something that’s missing in almost all of mainstream blockbuster movie making.  Compare the dialogue between Ordell and Louis during the early scene where they discuss the gun business.  It’s full of references, wit, and energy.  It sounds the way I wish my conversations could sound and it’s light-years more interesting than a similar scene would be in a big Hollywood action flick.  And it’s not just that the dialogue’s good.  The dialogue also helps the actors by giving them something good to work with, something to dig into.  I’ve heard people bitch and moan about the acting in the Star Wars prequels, but I bet the acting would’ve been better had the dialogue been more interesting.

So, Jackie Brown doesn’t get brought up as much as Tarantino’s other movies, but it should be.  In fact, I rather watch Jackie Brown than Reservoir Dogs or Inglorious Basterds.  It may not be as “deep” or whatever as the other movies, but it’s got great actors saying great, interesting things with a great soundtrack playing in the background.  Plus, the “Chicks Who Love Guns” thing is hilarious.

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