Jackie Brown (2002) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Elmore Leonard is the modern master of the twisty, sleazy psychological noir, and Jackie Brown is Quentin Tarantino's take on Leonard's novel Rum Punch.

Tarantino's previous films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, had been adolescent fantasies, like the stories that lent their name to Pulp Fiction.  For those of you unfamiliar with what "pulp fiction" really is, it was the whole oeuvre of cheap sensationalist paperback books and magazines that were the pre-war equivalent of television. Some of them were regular monthly editions, some of them were one-time issues. The boys of my dad's generation read the pulps and listened to radio dramas, much as I read comic books and watched TV.  Same psychology, earlier technology. Although it was not a medium suitable to distribute Jane Austen novels, the pulps produced some of America's best adventure stories, sports fiction, detective fiction, sword and sorcery, horror tales, Westerns, and other popular entertainments. 

The pulps cost five cents or ten cents, and had such names as Argosy, Detective Weekly, Dime Mystery Magazine, Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, Saucy Stories, and Western Round-Up. These stories generally existed in a white male world, in which women and foreigners were one-dimensional characters to be defeated or seduced. The Native Americans were savages, the Asians were sadistic and inscrutable, and the women were objects or evil or both. It was a boy's club, years before there was a notion of political incorrectness, and all non-white non-males were subject to savage nicknames. 

To be fair, there were also a few pulps with love stories marketed at girls, but they comprised a minor sub-genre, much like the few droplets of love story comics in the ocean of super-heroes. 

NUDITY REPORT

In the full screen VHS version, Bridget Fonda's butt is seen after sex with DeNiro. In the widescreen DVD, only the very top of her crack can be seen.

The  format could boast of regular contributors like H.P. Lovecraft (horror) Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian), Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan), Erle Stanley Gardner (Perry Mason), Dashiell Hammett (Sam Spade), Max Brand (Westerns and Dr. Kildare), Sax Rohmer (Fu Manchu), and C.S. Forester (Horatio Hornblower). Occasional contributors included such distinguished names as Tennessee Williams, Paul Gallico, Philip Wylie, and Ray Bradbury. If Elmore Leonard had lived in an earlier time, he would have written for the pulps alongside Dashiell Hammett, his spiritual ancestor.

Despite his own tendency to make lurid, unrealistic, smart-ass movies, Tarantino surprised (and, in fact, disappointed) many people by making Jackie Brown a film for grown-ups. Oh, sure, he throws in plenty of outrageous dialogue and situations, and some of the unexpected casual violence he is famous for, but the great triumph of Jackie Brown is its depth and realism. In Tarantino's previous films, none of the characters or situations bear any resemblance to reality. They exist in a fantasy universe. They are drummed up as larger-than-life entertainments for our pleasure. The characters and situations in Jackie Brown are different. You can actually imagine that Jackie, the prematurely washed-up stewardess; Ray, the honest Fed; and Max Cherry, the world-weary bail bondsman, are real people doing what they have to do. As in real life, we can see two characters forming an attachment, but they don't jump in bed, the guy is shy and intimidated, and neither of them is sure the whole thing makes sense. The philosophical undercurrent of the film is the fear of aging, of losing control of life, of being without a future, of feeling that life is mere routine, or that all the good moments lay behind in time.

To me, that makes the film special. Tarantino's earlier movies are movies about movie characters. This one is a movie about people.

It also has a complex and interesting plot. Jackie, although 44 and smart, works as an underpaid flight attendant for the world's worst airline because a criminal conviction in the past makes her virtually unemployable. She supplements her income by smuggling in laundered cash from Mexico for an arms dealer. Spurred on by a tip, the Feds catch her and force her to co-operate. She then conceives of an incredibly complex scam in which she makes the feds think she's co-operating with them by doing what the arms dealer wants her to do, while she simultaneously convinces the arms dealer that she's co-operating with him by doing what the feds want her to do. Both sides believe her, because she hides only tiny details from each side, but those tiny details are enough for her to work her own scam. The bail bondsman is a guy who has seen it all and knows how it all works, so he helps her with the details. Or maybe he's being scammed as well. You'll have to watch it to find out.

Tarantino demonstrated a real genius for extracting perfect performances from unexpected sources. Pam Grier was always drop-dead gorgeous and the epitome of cool, but she was never skillful with a line. Here, however, she rings nary a false note. She wasn't alone. If you had wanted to place a bet in 1995 on Robert Forster getting an Oscar nomination, I suppose you might have gotten 1000-1 from the British bookies. Two years later, thanks to Tarantino, he had one and, more important, deserved it. His Max Cherry is a completely credible character, and quite sympathetic - that's not common in a Tarantino movie. Think back on it. Has there ever been a character you liked in another Tarantino film? Not likely. The people are sometimes interesting, but always slimebags. In this film, you like Pam and Forster, and you even warm to Michael Keaton as the callous, no-nonsense, but ultimately trustworthy federal agent.

DVD info from Amazon.

2-disc set
Chick with Guns Video
Siskel & Ebert "At the Movies" - "Jackie Brown" Review
Deleted and Alternate Scenes
"Jackie Brown" on MTV
A Look Back At "Jackie Brown" - Interview with Quentin Tarantino
Still Galleries
Reviews & Articles
Widescreen anamorphic format, 1.85:1

 

In addition to those characters, you have the king of "film as jazz", Samuel L himself, playing his usual brilliant riffs as the swaggering, blustering, arrogant, sarcastic, arms dealer who is not quite as "bad" and not quite as smart as he thinks he is.

All in all, you have to think that a movie in which Robert DeNiro is the worst thing in the film really can't be too bad at all.

TUNA'S THOUGHTS

Jackie Brown (1997) is the DVD release of the month, and I am happy to report that it was worth waiting almost 5 years for. The two disks in the Collector's Edition feature a pristine transfer, and one entire DVD of extra features, including the script, interviews with nearly everyone, MTV spots, trailers, production stills, deleted scenes, and more.

This was Quentin Tarantino's follow-up to Pulp Fiction, which was probably the biggest influence on film of the last decade, and, in some ways, repeats the formula, mixing brutal violence, dark comedy, great character development, and amazing dialogue. Tarantino chose a cast equal to the task. He based the script on the novel Rum Punch, which featured a white woman, but when Quentin thought about the role, which required a woman in her 40's who looked ten years younger, and had the strength and confidence to show everyone she was not afraid and could hold her own, Pam Grier was the name he came up with. He is a huge fan of 60s and 70s film, and also had Pam read for a part in Pulp Fiction, which he decided she was too strong for.

Pam plays an airline stewardess who has been bringing in cash from Mexico for gun dealer Samuel Jackson. A Federal ATF agent catches her with cash, and some coke. She is bailed out by bondsman Robert Forster, and the two of them form a love interest.  Pam has a criminal record, and must work for a tiny airline for $16,000 per year and a shit retirement, because none of the majors will hire her. After the arrest, she stands to lose even that job. The feds offer her a deal, if she will hand over her contacts. The story becomes all about a half million dollars  that Jackson has in Mexico. Pam plays ATF, Jackson and Fonda, and nearly everyone else, hoping to solve her legal problems, get rid of Jackson, and get away with the money.

Robert De Niro plays a newly released con and old cellmate of Jackson, who is staying with him and might be a partner in the gun dealing. Bridget Fonda plays a doper surfer chick who is one of Jackson's girls. She comes off at first as a dumb blonde, but actually knows everything that is going on around her, and is a super bitch. Michael Keaton plays the ATF agent.

 Like Tarantino, I am a big fan of 70's exploitation films, including blacksploitaton films, and also of Pam Grier, so this was my kind of film.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three stars. Ebert 4/4, Berardinelli 3/4, filmcritic.com 3.5/5

  • Robert Forster was nominated for an Oscar. Samual Jackson and Pam Grier were nominated for Golden Globes

The People Vote ...

  • with their dollars: made for a modest $12 million dollars, it grossed $39 million in the USA (1600 screens), $33 million elsewhere.

 

IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a B. Excellent popcorn film to begin with. Normally that would add up to C+, but this film has more: realistic characters, emotional depth, and people you like - people you actually root for. That makes it much better than just a summer action flick. (Tuna: B)

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