Jackie Brown Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1997

Jackie Brown

AK-47... when you absolutely have got to kill every motherfucker in the room. Accept no substitutes.

Author Elmore Leonard is certainly getting around these days, with more of his books making it to the screen these days than Stephen King or John Grisham. The novelist that got his start in writing back in 1935 when he was in the fifth grade and made his big breakthrough forty years later with the best-selling novel "Glitz", has recently had a number of his novels adapted for film, including "Get Shorty" by Barry Sonnenfeld, and "Touch" by Paul Schrader, with more on the way. "Jackie Brown" is the latest Leonard adaptation, based on 1995's best-selling "Rum Punch", a novel with quirky characters, double-crosses, and off-kilter humor-- perfectly matched for the cinematic stylings of Hollywood badboy director Quentin Tarantino.

JB is your basic caper movie with cops and criminals playing each other over a bag of money. The title character, Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is a forty-four year old airline stewardess with a crappy job on a third-rate Mexican airline. To make ends meet, she acts as a courier for the silver-tongued yet callous Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), bringing in the proceeds of his illegal arms sales from Mexico. However, on one such money-run, she is picked up at LAX airport by cop Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen) and ATF agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton).

Looking at the prospect of having to do time with being unable to hold onto her low-paying job upon parole, she cuts a deal to help the two law enforcement officers nail Ordell. Ordell, who will do anything to protect the $500,000 that he has sitting in a Mexican bank account, pays for Jackie's bail, with the full intention of having her killed before she can finger him. However, before the sly arms dealer can cap her, Jackie turns the tables and 'convinces' Ordell to go along with a complicated scheme that will allow him to bring his half-million into the country while allowing Jackie to fulfill her obligations to the Feds.

Along for the ride are Max Cherry (Robert Forster), a haggard bail bondsman secured by Ordell who is smitten by the sassy stewardess and has a sincere interest in her well-being; the low-key Louis Gara (Robert De Niro), a recently-paroled bank robber who is a long-time and loyal associate of Ordell; and Melanie (Bridget Fonda), a stoned surfer girl who lives with Ordell but is scheming to rip him off big-time. By the end of the two-and-a-half hour foray into the criminal underworld, a lot of money is going to change hands, loyalties will be put to the test by temptation, and a whole lot of people are going to wind up dead.

JB has all the trademarks of Quentin Tarantino's edgy style, though there is a distinct sense of maturity in this third directorial outing. The well-defined characters, unusual narrative techniques, and interesting-yet-meaningless dialogue will silence those pundits that have termed Tarantino as a talentless hack during his three-year absence from the director's chair. However, whereas the "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction" were rife with pop culture references and memorable exchanges, they are fewer and far-between in this latest outing, magnifying Tarantino's trademark laggard pacing. The 'violence-is-funny' shtick has also been toned down, with most of the killing done off-screen. JB also discards the non-linear narrative of Tarantino's previous films for a more conventional one. However, he does play with story structure with a money exchange sequence at a shopping mall that is shown three times, from three different perspectives, each one revealing a small piece of the complicated caper-- the highlight of the entire film. Finally, the use of a retro-soundtrack is also prominent here, though this time it serves more as auricular wallpaper than as a means of underscoring the on-screen action.

One aspect of Tarantino's films has been to cast has-been actors into prominent roles. He cast Lawrence Tierney and Eddie Bunker in "Reservoir Dogs" and John Travolta in "Pulp Fiction". This time around, Tarantino pays homage to the Blaxploitation era of Seventies cinema with the casting of "Foxy Brown" Pam Grier and Robert Forster, who were last seen together in 1996's Blaxploitation revival effort of "Original Gangstas". These two actors manage to steal some of the limelight from Jackson's wickedly malevolent Ordell with subdued performances that add some emotional backbone to an otherwise agitated travelogue, in the form of an unlikely romance between two world-weary people seeking an opportunity to start again. The rest of the cast varies from mildly interesting to unmemorable, with no real standout performances, save for De Niro's transformation from quiet boob to heartless killer.

Those who expect "Jackie Brown" to be another "Pulp Fiction" will be disappointed. Though there are the occasional moments of brilliance and levity, and the plot convolutions will keep you guessing, the interesting-but-meaningless banter is not as interesting and even more meaningless this time around, as Tarantino attempts to indulge his auteurism at the expense of pacing. The resolution of the film's only emotional undercurrent, the relationship between Max and Jackie, is a let-down, and it must compete throughout the film with the more outrageous yet less interesting on-screen antics of the other characters. "Jackie Brown" has more of a story but lacks the pure entertainment value compared to "Pulp Fiction", and while it doesn't have the emotional impact of his best work "Reservoir Dogs", the toned-down violence may make it more palatable to attract a larger following. It's not Tarantino's best work, but it does show that he's not just some flash in the pan.

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