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.
5. What’s your favorite scene in Jackie Brown? I’ll tell you mine. It’s the one just after Max bails Jackie out of jail, when she heads home with his gun secretly in her bag, and Ordell shows up to figure out what she might have said to the police. This scene.
I like it for two reasons, mainly.
First, it’s so stressful and menacing and Samuel L. Jackson plays it less like a criminal that he does some sort of supernatural monster. He slinks around sipping his screwdriver, dimming lights and making small talk that comes across as ominous. Watching it at home, you’re pretty sure he’s not going to silence her like he did Chris Tucker’s Beaumont (the movie is called Jackie Brown, after all), but the dread builds all the same anyway.
The second reason is because it flips everything we know — thought we knew! — about Jackie and Ordell. To this point, Ordell has been a cold and sly killer, someone who shuts up co-conspirators before they have a chance to flip. He’s dangerous. Jackie, on the other hand, has been arrested and hauled into court and jail and has yet to get the upper hand on anyone. She’s obviously smart but still appears a little vulnerable. Then she pulls out Max’s gun and points it at Ordell’s jimmies and just like that everything changes. From that moment on, she’s in charge, even if not everyone figures it out right away. I mean, Ordell figured it out pretty quick. A gun pointed at your jimmies will do that.
6. This is the part of our chat where we discuss Samuel L. Jackson’s look in Jackie Brown.
It’s really just tremendous. Ponytail, Kangol worn in a number of different directions, thin braided beard, all of it. He’s so good in this movie. In fact, I think… no, I’m just going to say it. This is my favorite Samuel L. Jackson performance, even above Pulp Fiction. He seems to be having so much fun being so evil and it really shines through. There’s a sense of doom every time Ordell enters a room, even when he’s playing nice. I wonder how much of it is the beard, to be honest. I suppose we’ll never know. He looks almost like the villain in a cartoon, which I consider high praise.
7. Here’s a cool story, via the DVD extras, via this piece on the film from BirthMoviesDeath. Take it away, Pam Grier.
“When I walked in [to Tarantino’s office to read for Jackie Brown], there were all my posters from 20 years ago, when I was a little piss and vinegar kid, and I said ‘Did you put these up because I was coming over?’ and he said ‘No, I was going to take them down because you were coming over.’…He has been a big fan, he’s had posters in his office forever. He’s been collecting them. I didn’t know I was a cult figure. He informed me.”
This also feels like a good time to mention that Grier played the lead in Foxy Brown, the movie, and at one point in the film, Tarantino sets the action to a song by Foxy Brown, the rapper. A little on the nose? I don’t know, maybe, if you’re the type of person who is reasonably familiar with Pam Grier’s filmography and rappers from the 1990s. So, me. If you’re me. Hello. (Pam Grier, by the way, has lived quite a life.)
8. Couple quick notes involving Pam Grier’s performance in Jackie Brown. Let’s start with this scene.
That’s her hanging out alone in Max’s office, waiting for Ordell and practicing her “pretend everything is cool and then ‘FREEZE, SUCKER’” move with the gun hidden in the drawer. It’s a great little moment for a lot of reasons. It’s funny, sure, at a time in the movie when a little levity is appreciated, but it’s also a helpful window into that character. By this point, we’ve seen Jackie play everyone like a Delfonics cassette tape. She’s spent most of the movie in conversation with people and when she’s doing that she’s always ice cold and confident. But the moments when she’s alone — here, looking in the mirror in the dressing room as the bag switch goes down — show a little vulnerability, a reminder that she has a plan, yes, but a lot can go wrong at any step and she’s never done any of it before. It’s a nice touch that grounds the character a bit. Plus, it’s pretty cool to watch Pam Grier repeatedly pull a gun on no one.
The other thing I want to mention is the scene near the end where she’s talking to the agents again. This scene. It stresses me out so much.
Do you see it? Do you see what causes me stress every single time I watch this movie, to the point that I sometimes have to fast-forward through this scene so it doesn’t rattle around in my head for the rest of the movie? You don’t. Hmm.
FLICK THAT CIGARETTE, JACKIE
THAT ASH IS TOO LONG
LET ME FLICK IT IF YOU WON’T
IT’S GOING TO FALL ON YOUR JACKET
9. There’s a difference between favorite and best and I think it would do us all a lot of good to remember that sometimes. Is Jackie Brown Tarantino’s best movie? I don’t know. You could come in here with argument and spreadsheets about why Pulp Fiction is technically more impressive or how Inglorious Basterds is a more ambitious big swing worth applauding and all of that would be fine. We can always debate best and worst. Our Steven Hyden did that just recently with his rankings of Tarantino’s films. It’s a good list. I like it.
But if we’re talking favorite, then yeah, no contest, Jackie Brown is my favorite Tarantino movie. I’m sure part of it is the aforementioned Elmore Leonard style that bleeds through it from beginning to end. (I choose to believe Jackie takes the money to Harlan County and ends up becoming a foil for Raylan Givens in season 10 of the version of Justified that never ended.) It’s a fun and fast and twisty movie and it’s filled with people who are trying to screw each other. It’s such an enjoyable watch in the way not all of Tarantino’s movies are. I could watch it five times a year and I probably do. It’s one of the reasons I pitched this whole piece to my editor this week. I wanted to watch it again and I figured I could make it count as work. It’s not a scam on the level of stealing $500,000 from a gun runner with a bag switcheroo while also getting federal agents off your back before fleeing in a dead’s car, but I think it’s pretty close.
10. One last thing. The very end of the movie. This scene, in which Jackie is driving off to freedom.
The song that’s playing here is “Across 110th Street” by Bobby Womack. It’s also the song that opens the movie, in that long single shot of Jackie on the airport people-mover. When it plays that first time, it comes across like mood music. It’s a great song from a period of time the film is trying to evoke in its style. It’s just… there, a recognizable song that plays over the opening credits, like you’ve seen a million times in a million other movies.
But then it plays again at the end over that long single shot of Jackie’s face as she realizes everything worked out. And as she starts mouthing the lyrics to the song, you might start to really listen to them. And that’s when you might realize that Tarantino explained the whole damn movie before it even started, while the opening credits were rolling.
“Doing whatever I had to do to survive.”
“I’m not saying what I did was alright.”
“I knew there was a better way of life that I was just trying to find.”
“You don’t know what you’ll do until you’re put under pressure.”
“Trying to catch a woman that’s weak.”
It was all right in front of us the whole time. Jackie Brown was never going to lose.