1990s, 4/4, Crime, Quentin Tarantino, Review

Jackie Brown

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#5 in my Ranking of Quentin Tarantino movies.

My first viewing of Jackie Brown, years ago, confused me. I was expecting time jumps, and I kept asking myself when things were happening. I was trying to rearrange a movie that needed to rearranging.

I mention that uninteresting anecdote because it speaks to the interesting, slightly out of step, place Jackie Brown holds in Quentin Tarantino’s whole filmography. People threw the word “mature” a lot at Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood as though Tarantino had never calmed down before, but Jackie Brown is the work of a filmmaker in complete control of his craft and coolly telling a story. It’s a very mature work, and it’s only his third film.

A small-time gunrunner living in Los Angeles named Ordell Robbie is suddenly having a bit of a problem with his business. One of his employees, Beaumont, has been picked up for a gun charge which, combined with his parole, could lead to ten years in jail. Ordell understands Beaumont’s character, uses Max Cherry, a bail bondsman to get Beaumont out of jail, and then proceeds to kill him. Ordell’s instinct about Beaumont’s character was completely correct, though, for Beaumont had given up a slice of Ordell’s business by naming Jackie Brown as Ordell’s gopher.

Jackie is a middle-aged black woman who works for one of the worst airlines in America as a stewardess. She supplements her income by sneaking things in from Mexico for Ordell, mostly money. Because Beaumont gave her name, the ATF is ready to meet her when she lands in Los Angeles. Ordell gets her out of prison using Max Cherry again, and Max picks Jackie up from prison and is immediately smitten by her.

Jackie knows that Ordell will view her the same way that he viewing Beaumont, and she’s terrified, but she’s also smart. She knows that he’s going to come to kill her, but she also figures out a way to get herself out of the situation. She proposes a plan to him to get his stash of cash out of Mexico. He has limited options around this, so he accepts. She then plays both Ordell and the ATF against each other while she plans on keeping the money for herself.

What follows is a delightfully twisty game of cat and mouse as Jackie ropes in Max to help her deceive both the ATF and Ordell. The whole game is played with Tarantino’s classic ability to spin dialogue and his actors’ abilities to sell it. Chris Tucker, apparently, told Tarantino that he would usually just say whatever he wanted in place of scripted lines, but he was going to say Tarantino’s dialogue verbatim because he liked it so much. There are scenes, as in every Tarantino movie, of people just sitting around talking. This isn’t merely indulgence on Tarantino’s part, it’s important character work that gets the audience in deeper into the world. Melanie isn’t just some beach bimbo, she’s a well defined beach bimbo so that when she starts egging on Louis after the big trade off (for real this time), it makes perfect sense. We know the entirety of her relationship with Louis, so we understand that she’s the kind of person to egg him on and that Louis is also the kind of guy who’s got bottle up rage that could come out at any moment. It makes the moment that Louis shoots Melanie both more shocking and more expected and inevitable than it otherwise would have been.

The movie as a whole is that kind of low-key fun. The action of the film is around moving shopping bags under changing room doors. The handful of gunshots are shown with little blood and seem incidental to the action at hand. The characters are intelligent and talk to each other in ways that are both believable and move things forward at the same time.

It’s a steady burn of a movie, and a wonderful addition to Tarantino’s body of work.

Netflix Rating: 5/5

Quality Rating: 4/4

6 thoughts on “Jackie Brown”

  1. I really liked this film, but then again, I loved Rum Punch and all Elmore Leonard’s quirky characters, including Ordell, Luis and Melanie who made comebacks from his novel Switch. (Melanie was a lot smarter and trying to get Jackie in a plan to screw over Ordell.)

    Despite it being a Quentin Tarantino movie, I saw it in the theater because I’d heard he hadn’t messed with the dialogue or plot.

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    1. I’d read that Tarantino changed a good bit (the most obvious thing is Jackie’s race from white to black). He had changed so much that he was nervous about showing the script to Leonard, but Leonard loved it calling it the best adaptation of his material.

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      1. He had to excise subplots, like the bondsman’s marriage troubles and Luis being humiliated in front of Melanie by a gun dealer, which builds into his impulse to shoot her. Yeah, Jackie Burke was a blonde and wasn’t the central character that Jackie Brown was.

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    1. It’s very much unlike the rest of his filmography. You might expect that a movie of his that’s supposed to be inspired by blaxploitation would have been more over the top. I mean, Pam Grier doesn’t kick anyone in this thing.

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