Cool is certainly a component that must go into beloved director Quentin Tarantino’s thought process when he is writing his next hit feature film. But it has been an increasingly long time since we last witnessed such an event penned, produced and directed by the maestro himself that was actually all about being “cool”. Not cool in an impressive or awesome way, and certainly not cool in a sought of vain “Get Shorty” sequel manner but actual cool. Black cool. Pam Grier coooool. “Jackie Brown” is perhaps the finest example of Tarantino’s earlier storytelling approach, mixed in with a bit of that now classic “Pulp Fiction” funk and dialogue, topped off with probably one of the best casts for a film of its decade. And whilst admittedly not as superior as his 94 masterpiece or maybe even the more recent intervention of team Foxx & Waltz, Jackie Brown is still my favourite film from the director and yet interestingly also the only one to this day to be based off a pre-existing source material.
Pam Grier plays the titular character of Brown in one of the best performances of her career; an increasingly depressed, middle-aged black woman who works for the cheapest, corniest airliner in Mexico. Over the course of a highly complex narrative we learn of her past misdeeds, her associations with criminal personalities and her plan to take her life back into her hands, all at the expense of “the man” himself. The only problem is that she is often a money runner for an illegal arms dealer, Ordell, played gleefully by Samuel L. Jackson. Jackie eventually gets arrested whilst under the monitoring of the ATF, personified by the excellently irritating Agent Ray (Michael Keaton), who offers her a deal to testify against her dangerous associate or face jail. Whilst in jail for a minor offense, Jackie meets her new bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) who gets wise to Jackie’s plan to screw both parties and take all of Ordell’s money with the ATF none the wiser and her antagonistic former employer out of the picture. And let us not forget Ordell’s recently released inmate buddy Louis, (Robert De Niro) who accidentally becomes involved in a sexually-motivated heist of his own making with Ordell’s “bitch” Melanie (Bridget Fonda).
For a complicated narrative on this scale to be explained in such a short paragraph I think I managed rather well, but for the entirety of the film’s story to be explained fully multiple viewings are essential. First and foremost is the complexity of the Jackie character. We are introduced to a woman who is down on her luck and a constant victim of other people’s plans. It is only when the stakes in her life are raised by the actions of others do we begin to appreciate the ulterior motives she has developed over time. Likewise the relationship that grows between herself and Max Cherry is a constant game of will-they, won’t-they that takes a turn for reality in what is perhaps one of the best cinematic examples of the difficulties of love in the real world. More complexity is introduced when the ATF show up and plan to use Jackie in a sting operation against Ordell, who is planning his own scheme to avoid the grasp of the US government’s clutches. Characters bounce from left to right in an entertainingly stylistic manner where everyone is playing against the person standing next to them. What anchors the film from absolute random chaos is the performance of Jackie by Grier who exudes a cool, unwavering calm in the face of all the madness around her.
It is this element that is so endearing to the film, making it stand out as the finest performance from a female lead in any of Tarantino’s efforts. Grier is the dominatrix babe who uses her looks but more importantly her aged wisdom to get what she wants, and the many scenes she shares with Max are as realistic as one could expect from a crime caper. Indeed it is this touching bond the pair share that make Brown such a memorable favourite of mine, acting as the closest attempt to a love story ever made by the director. Max’s aged cynicism make him feel uncomfortable and confused when forced by Jackie’s direct, adventurous spirit into making a decision. In fact the ending is one of the most vivid examples you’ll have of yelling at the screen in the vain hope it will somehow change the outcome. But overall Quentin’s third cinematic caper is just as auteuristic as one has come to expect. The style of the cinematography, the slow pacing and intense dialogue that bathes each scene, the use of colourful and at the same time drab locations such as the world’s largest mall, as well as the quickly addictive 70’s soul soundtrack all come together to make a perfectly Tarantino-esque thrill ride. Its cast is spectacular, especially where Forster, Keaton and De Niro are concerned as supporting acts, and its adventurous spirit gives the feeling of an ecstatic feel good vibe right through to the end. It may be the most forgotten film of his career, perhaps in part due to the louder, more visceral entries of later years, but Jackie Brown is where Quentin got the balance spot on between violence, character and real life and maybe even grew a little wiser in his approach to portraying love.