The year is 1997. Quentin Tarantino is fresh off Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs and he is hothothot. He can make any movie he wants, follow any flight of fancy his rapidly-beating heart takes him on. He could probably get a gritty Air Bud sequel financed if he really wanted to. What he wants to do, however, rather than develop another original idea, is adapt Elmore Leonard’s crime novel Rum Punch for the big screen. He makes two pretty substantial changes, though. First, he changes the main character’s last name from Burke to Brown. Second, he changes her ethnicity from white to black. Doing so allows him to cast the actress he desperately wants for the lead and turn the whole thing into a fun and fast homage to the blaxploitation films of the 1970s, something Leonard probably never imagined but ended up loving. The legendary writer later referred to the resulting work as one of the best screenplays he’d ever read. To date, the film marks the only time Tarantino has adapted another work for his films. It worked out pretty well.
The time has come to talk about Jackie Brown.
1. Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is a flight attendant who finds herself facing charges for intent to distribute cocaine after federal authorities find drugs in an envelope she’s carrying. They want her boss, gun runner and fascinating beard-haver Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), who has been using Jackie to smuggle $500,000 into America from Mexico $50,000 at a time. What follows is about two hours of subterfuge and doublecrosses, complete with shopping bag switcheroos and Kangol hats galore and a rapidly increasing body count. Just from a general story perspective, before we get to any of the rest of it (and we will get to a lot of it), that’s an excellent place to start.
2. Also worth noting: The cast of Jackie Brown is pretty incredible. Grier and Jackson do a lot of the heavy lifting but there’s also a great performance by Robert Forster as bail bondsman and sweetheart Max Cherry, one of the many men who fall under Jackie’s spell during the movie. Michael Keaton is in there too as Ray Nicolette, a fast-talking federal agent who has just about the most Leather Jacket Energy you’ll ever see captured on film. Chris Tucker appears briefly and gives it the full Chris Tucker. Bridget Fonda pops up as a chatty stoner beach bum who chats her way into a bullet. It’s quite a ride.
You know what’s wild about Jackie Brown? I’ve seen the movie at least 10 times and I still sometimes forget that Robert De Niro is in it, too. In a pretty important role! It’s not his fault or the movie’s fault. This one’s on me. I get all wrapped up in the Jackie/Max/Ordell ruse and I totally blank on his recently released bank-robbing felon character until I see him sitting on the couch doing foot things with Bridget Fonda. Then I remember. “Ahhh, right, Robert De Niro is in the movie,” I’ll say, like a doofus. He is, though. You can go see for yourself if you don’t believe me. Maybe skip the foot stuff, though. Or don’t. I’m not here to shame anyone.
3. The important thing to remember about the cast and characters is that Jackie Brown ends up getting one over on all of them. She plays Michael Keaton by pretending to cooperate and she plays Ordell by pretending not to cooperate and she even plays Max a little by never giving him quite the full story as he helps her complete her plan. Their relationship culminates in a great scene right near the end. Max figures out what happened. Jackie half-apologizes and offers him a chunk of Ordell’s money. He refuses. (Max is a sweetheart.) And as she’s about to go on her way to wherever Jackie Brown wants to end up, with a tick under $500,000 on her, there’s this.
It’s a cool moment because this is where we, the audience, realize just how fully she’s been in control throughout the movie. Everything played out according to plan, every chess piece was manipulated into place and then deployed at the right moment, and the only one who walked away happy was Jackie. It’s a heck of a come-up from where we met her, as a stewardess making $16,000 a year (plus benefits) and looking at a few years in prison on a drug charge.
4. The dialogue in Jackie Brown is great. I could start listing specific lines but I’m afraid I’d never stop. It’s one of those movies where everyone is very smooth and everyone always has the perfect thing to say, right away, right there in the moment. The zingers zing, the comebacks come back fast, all of it. Some of the credit for that goes to Tarantino, one of the best dialogue writers of our time. A lot of the credit goes to Elmore Leonard for the source material. Elmore Leonard rules.
It’s probably not a coincidence that I love this movie. I love almost all Elmore Leonard adaptations. (Almost. Sorry, Be Cool.) His work has inspired some of the most intoxicating and rewatchable projects out there, starting with this, then moving to Get Shorty (Travolta in Get Shorty > Travolta in Pulp Fiction), then Out of Sight (probably my favorite Leonard adaption), and then skipping to television for Justified (one of my favorite shows of the last decade). His work plays so well on the screen. The bad guys are all slick and the good guys/girls are all cool and they circle each other like cobras until one or both of them get shot. You could do worse.