Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown remains his most underrated film. Released in 1997, Tarantino's third movie strays from the stylized violence and male bravado depicted in Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994). Jackie Brown features a strong black woman, with Pam Grier grounding the narrative through her affecting performance and undeniable chemistry with co-star Robert Forster. As a whole, Jackie Brown highlights Tarantino's growth as a filmmaker.
In Jackie Brown, Grier portrays a flight attendant who smuggles money from Mexico to the United States. Samuel L. Jackson co-stars as her underground boss Ordell, a no-nonsense gun runner who understands the larger game. When his employee Beaumont Livingston (Chris Tucker) gets arrested, Ordell immediately bails him out and kills him - a practical decision to protect the business. Meanwhile, Louis Gara (Robert De Niro) - just released from prison - moves in with Ordell and associate Melanie Ralston (Bridget Fonda). As police officers Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) and Mark Dargus (Michael Owen) attempt to end Ordell’s operation by pressuring Jackie, bail bondsman Max Cherry (Forster) becomes enamored with the struggling flight attendant. In the final act, Jackie strategically orchestrates a money swap set-up involving the police and Ordell.
Jackie Brown's ending is one that will stick with viewers for a long time. And while Tarantino’s new film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, will undoubtedly be a commercial and critical success, it will take quite a bit to match Jackie Brown’s heart and soul. Here’s why.
What Makes Jackie Brown So Effective
True romance drives Jackie Brown’s story. At first, Tarantino implies that his third feature will be more of the same, as the film opens with a profanity-laced monologue by Ordell. He’s a cool cat; a man seemingly living the California dream, with his buddy Louis now at his side. Structurally, Jackson plays The Stooge - a comic - while De Niro plays the straight man; the silent type. But Jackie Brown isn’t about glamorizing the California lifestyle. It’s about romance and regret, along with visions of a more happier future.
Jackie Brown is clearly an homage to '70s blaxploitation films. After all, Grier rose to fame with flicks like Foxy Brown (1973) and Coffy (1974). Two decades later, Grier displays her extraordinary on-screen charisma in Jackie Brown. And Tarantino wisely doesn’t sexualize the character. Instead, he focuses on Jackie’s true grit; the way she perseveres. From the moment Max sees Jackie from afar, he’s captivated. Max treats Jackie with respect, and vice versa, even after a first meeting that ends with the flight attendant stealing the bondsman’s gun. Given Max’s profession, he understands human behavior. This extends to the supporting characters as well. Jackie Brown is a smart film, mostly full of sharp personalities. Mostly.
In Jackie Brown, Forster delivers a subtle performance, one that ultimately earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. As Max, he speaks with a matter-of-fact cadence, and he’s absolutely love-struck every moment he’s with Jackie. Tarantino uses numerous close-up shots throughout Jackie Brown to underline Max’s point-of-view. In another Tarantino film, Forster might be the experienced professional who talks tough and lets everybody knows that he’s been around the block. But in Jackie Brown, Forster’s character speaks declaratively without puffing out his chest. Jackie recognizes Max’s authenticity. That sense of mutual respect is felt throughout.
As Jackie, Grier’s mannerisms alone make the character especially intriguing; the way she curls her lips, the energy she exudes. Plus, Grier naturally conveys the character’s vulnerability and skepticism. Jackie merely wants to get by, and she understands how to gently manipulate men in order to get what she wants. Jackie presents one image to the admiring police officer Nicolette, and another to Ordell. And that’s what makes Grier’s scenes with Forster so potent, as the performers endearingly play off one another. During their first real conversation, Tarantino stages the scene at Jackie’s home. It’s a literal conversation over coffee, authentic and true; a moment that pinpoints the magnetic nature of their relationship.
Jackie Brown Shows Quentin Tarantino's Evolution As A Filmmaker
With Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino didn’t play by the rules. He took an unorthodox structural approach and established his voice as a filmmaker. In Pulp Fiction, everything is bigger and better. More style; more violence. More clever dialogue and wink-of-the-eye moments. But with Jackie Brown, Tarantino slows down and takes his time. He prioritizes a specific vibe over in-your-face dialogue. To begin with, Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” plays over Grier’s introduction - Tarantino makes a statement with no dialogue whatsoever, all the while citing a famous blaxploitation-inspired film (Across 110th Street) and the genre itself (Grier). Womack’s song bookends Tarantino's movie, making it more than just a nod to the past, but rather somewhat of a musical motif. In addition, Jackie Brown includes music by The Delfonics. If Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction’s soundtracks are party-starters, then Jackie Brown is the late-night slow jam. Tarantino's musical choices inform his filmmaking decisions.
Jackie Brown’s extreme moments of violence aren’t stylized. Early on, Ordell puts Beaumont in a trunk, and a wide shot by cinematographer Guillermo Navarro reveals the character’s fate. All the viewer can see is Ordell. Later, Gara kills Melanie in a parking lot, a spontaneous moment that sets up his own murder. Once again, Tarantino shows restraint. He shoots from the back, and emphasizes that Ordell isn’t necessarily thrilled about what’s transpired; it’s another practical decision because Gara failed miserably. When the moment of truth comes for Ordell, he’s killed in the dark. No one's dancing to a pop song. Crucially, Jackie Brown isn’t an original Tarantino story, as the film is based on Elmore Leonard’s 1992 novel Rum Punch. Still, Tarantino could’ve easily used the Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction templates for a hyper and surreal adaptation. In other words, he compromises. Tarantino chooses the right moments to display his cinematic style. Overall, though, Jackie Brown succeeds because of its mood and tone, because of Grier and Forster’s performances. Tarantino lets the song play out; the record doesn’t skip.
After Jackie Brown Struggled, Tarantino Reverted Back To Type
Though Reservoir Dogs wasn’t a huge box office hit, it was a critical success and features a specific brand of filmmaking. In 1994, Tarantino landed a huge box office hit with Pulp Fiction, as the film made $213 million at the box office, far surpassing its $8 million budget. It became a pop culture sensation, with all the slick dialogue and memorable character moments. And then Tarantino made Jackie Brown, a $12 million adaption that’s essentially a love story featuring middle-aged performers. At the time of release, Jackie Brown was criticized for its use of racial slurs, most notably by filmmaker Spike Lee. And while Tarantino's third feature made nearly $75 million at the box office, it was seemingly a step back. In the '90s, another so-called “disappointment” could be problematic for one’s career, especially for a filmmaker like Tarantino who seemed to have major potential, at least in terms of what he could do with a big budget, and the stars he could attract.
And so, Tarantino reverted back to his trademark style. After Jackie Brown, six years passed until Kill Bill: Volume 1 released. Then, in 2004, Tarantino released Kill Bill: Volume 2. Both films killed at the box office and were produced relatively cheap for $30 million each, at least in comparison to future budgets. Unsurprisingly, the films are steeped in violence and revenge, with Uma Thurman starring as The Bride, aka Beatrix Kiddo, aka Black Mamba. Tarantino really went for it, and pleased loyal fans with his homage to the grindhouse and martial arts genres. In terms of filmmaking, however, Jackie Brown remains Tarantino’s most underrated film, largely because it subverts expectations and succeeds by contrasting a gritty southern California subplot with a universally, relatable love story. Jackie Brown is a special film; an outlier in Tarantino’s filmography.