Lionsgate // 1997 // 154 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // October 17th, 2011
Six players on the trail of half a million in cash. There's only one question: who's playing who?
"Max, how do you feel about getting old?"
Jackie Brown (Pam Grier, Escape from L.A.) has been a flight attendant for 19 years and receives only a paltry $16,000 a year for her tireless efforts. To make a little money on the side, she occasionally makes some illegal cash deliveries for local gun runner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson, Pulp Fiction). Unfortunately, her latest delivery was intercepted by ATF Agents Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton, Beetlejuice) and Mark Dargus (Michael Bower, Kill Bill: Volume 1). To make matters even worse, this particularly delivery also included a couple ounces of cocaine Jackie was completely unaware of. After Ordell pays bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster, Firewall) to get Jackie out of prison, all parties involved -- including Ordell's pal Louis (Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver) and girlfriend Melanie (Bridget Fonda, A Simple Plan) -- begin plotting and scheming their way to a potential big payday. It's supposed to be a group effort, but quite a few players have plans to betray quite a few others. Who will survive this complicated merry-go-round?
When I tell people that Jackie Brown is my favorite Quentin Tarantino film, the reaction is frequently somewhat dismissive. Clearly, I'm just saying I like Jackie Brown because it's a less popular, slightly more high-minded Tarantino film; I'm obviously just trying to avoid the obvious, cliched truth that Pulp Fiction is his masterpiece. There's no question that Pulp Fiction is a dazzlingly original, enthralling flick, but my adoration for Jackie Brown is no cultural snobbery: this is the most emotionally involving of Tarantino's flicks, the maturest of his works, and a terrifically entertaining film.
The basic plot (taken from the pages of Elmore Leonard's novel Rum Punch) is reasonably clever and well-constructed, but nothing more spectacular than what we've seen in many well-oiled crime flicks. Like the best of Leonard's novels, Tarantino's pulp material is elevated by memorable dialogue, great characters and some surprising moments of wisdom and thoughtfulness. To date, it's the only Tarantino film which isn't entirely Quentin's own creation (reserve those snarky comments about the fact that all of his films are based on countless other films, please), and the adaptation process brought out the best in him. Tarantino focuses on drawing out and improving on the richness of the source material; he seems dramatically less intent on paying homage to the B-movies he loves and more concerned with really considering the characters. That isn't really a criticism of the kind of movies he makes (honestly, I like all of them to some degree), just an acknowledgement that Jackie Brown remains a potent demonstration of the incredible heights the man is capable of reaching.
Intriguingly, Jackie Brown was regarded by many as moderately underwhelming upon its initial release, as on the surface it's a much simpler, less flashy film than Pulp Fiction. While the latter is a stylish, madly ambitious slice of non-chronological fireworks, Jackie Brown is slower, calmer, less self-consciously stylized and (mostly) straightforward material. It takes a full hour just to set up the circumstances which lead the characters to start plotting their "sting" (an activity handled in similarly methodical fashion), but that's actually a virtue. It's such a pleasure to spend time with these people that we don't want the film to hurry up and push them towards their assorted fates. We want to chill with them and just listen to them conversate; their conversations are jam-packed with memorable lines and yet feel so joyously authentic -- there's no question that Tarantino is a man who has spent a great deal of time listening to the way people talk.
The man who does the most talking is Ordell, who has often been unfairly criticized as a carbon copy of Jules in Pulp Fiction (they're both played by Jackson, are commanding figures, and have no qualms about uttering the n-word with frequency). Ordell is not only a much colder character, but also a man who seems held back from the big time by his own arrogance. It's clear that he's a master manipulator: consider the famous early scene in which he so casually lures the ill-fated Beaumont (a never-better Chris Tucker, Rush Hour) to his doom (one of several sequences in the film that represents a perfect storm of great writing, acting and direction). However, consider what Ordell does afterwards: he decides to go show the body to Louis. He doesn't have any legitimate need to do this; he simply wants to show his friend what a hardcore dude he is. While this specific decision doesn't have any consequences, we suspect that it's that sort of careless behavior that has brought ATF agents looking into Ordell's activities in the first place.
The character who does the least talking is Louis, one of the least eloquent characters Tarantino has produced. De Niro's performance is a masterful, slow-burning portrait of repressed emotion that builds so quietly that you almost don't notice when it arrives at boiling rage. His plot arc concludes on a note which is startling in the moment and perfectly appropriate in retrospect; we've been on an inevitable journey to that moment without even realizing it. Bridget Fonda is so convincing as Melanie that we almost wonder if she really does nothing more than sit around and smoke pot all day in real life (Ordell: "That $#%&'s gotten rob you of your ambition." Melanie: "Not if your ambition is to get high and watch TV."). Michael Keaton does a lot of quiet things in his performance which one begins to appreciate after several viewings (one perfect moment: observe his eyes when he says, "Looks like $50,000 from here.").
However, the two performances I love the most are from the two actors who form the heart of the film: Pam Grier's turn as the title character and Robert Forster's work as Max Cherry. Grier's work combines the best of her famous B-movie traits (attitude, strength, intelligence and badass swagger) with deeply affecting shades of warmth and fragility. Grier's confidence is infectious, but she's so terrific in those fleeting moments when she shudders in fear, takes a drag on her cigarette and works up the resolve to keep going. Meanwhile, Robert Forster demonstrates that he was born to play Max Cherry. He's a world-weary, no-nonsense professional who brings a sense of quiet simplicity with him wherever he goes (in addition to his polo shirts and Len Deighton novels). Observing the way Forster handles his lovestruck feelings towards Jackie is one of the film's most exquisite pleasures; she awakens something within him which we expect has been dormant for quite some time. Max is cursed with the affliction of being both a romantic and a realist. The final scene between Forster and Grier brings me to tears every time I see it. It's one of those rare moments of cinematic perfection: every word, every pause, every facial expression, every cut and every shot is achingly right. I can only hope that we're lucky enough to see the Quentin Tarantino who directed that scene return someday.
Jackie Brown arrives on Blu-ray sporting a strong 1080p/1.85:1 transfer which the case boasts is director-approved. Jackie Brown isn't quite dazzling in hi-def, but it benefits a great deal from the transition to 1080p. It still has a slightly worn, very filmic look (enhanced by the consistent presence of very light grain) which suits it quite nicely. Detail is pretty sharp overall, though a handful of individual moments look a bit soft. Flesh tones are spot-on, blacks are impressively deep (observe the night driving scene with Jackson and Forster) and there doesn't appear to be any evidence of DNR. Audio is even stronger, with quite a few key moments packing a remarkable punch. For the most part, this is a simple, dialogue-driven track, but it springs to life in thrillingly vibrant fashion when it needs to. I'm primarily referring to some key soundtrack inclusions (Tarantino uses numerous vintage tunes in memorable fashion, particularly The Delfonics' "Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time" and Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street"), but some occasional moments of gunfire also manage to deliver quite a powerful audio experience.
Supplements are primarily ported over from the previous DVD release: the engaging documentaries "Jackie Brown: How it Went Down" and "A Look Back at Jackie Brown," some deleted/alternate scenes, a review from "Siskel & Ebert at the Movies," the full-length "Chicks with Guns" video, some archival MTV interviews with Tarantino, some stills galleries and a trivia track. However, there's also a worthwhile brand-new feature: a 43-minute retrospective called "Breaking Down Jackie Brown" featuring critics Elvis Mitchell, Scott Foundas, Stephanie Zacharek, Tim Lucas and Andy Klein. There's a lot of adoration all around, but of a much more valuable, thought-provoking, insightful sort than one might receive from back-slapping cast and crew interviews. It would be nice to see this approach taken more frequently with catalogue releases.
Jackie Brown remains Quentin Tarantino's greatest film, a movie that has only grown richer with age. This Blu-ray release is well worth an upgrade.
Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 154 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Trivia Track
* Deleted/Alternate Scenes
* Short Film
* TV Segments