Skip to main content

Half a million dollars will always be missed.

Jackie Brown
(1997)

(SPOILERS) Commonly cited as the most underrated Tarantino film, Jackie Brown is usually simultaneously congratulated for being his most mature work, his picture that has heart (in that sense, it occupies a similar position to the Coen Brothers’ Fargo). This view has gained such traction, the picture is now, perversely, in danger of being overrated. Despite extruding a familiar pop-cultural dressing, this is where the director studiously proves he isn’t just a lot of flash and swagger, yet the result reveals a different set of weaknesses to those he has betrayed since.


You’d have thought, with the geek-fan casting of Pam Grier (Tarantino changed Jackie's surname from Burke, in order to invoke Foxy Brown) and Robert Forster, this would follow suit and turn into one long elaborate homage. But, as with Travolta in Pulp Fiction, his actor fetishes also show an incredibly good eye for unsung, or unfashionable, faces. Grier and Forster are the centre of the movie, and the entire reason Jackie Brown works as well as it does; it’s evidence of the director’s cachet at this point that he wasn’t merely casting has-been stars in lead roles, but never-really-were ones and getting carte blanche with it.


Grier wasn’t exactly known for her acting chops, while Forster had mostly inhabited B-movies during the ‘70s and ‘80s. There’s an alchemy here, though, as the two actors gel in a very natural, unpressured way, Tarantino shepherding a growing relationship rather than excitedly jumping up and down, eager to gabble on to the next scene. The director was in his mid-30s when this came out, and appears to have regressed in terms of his character work since. Certainly, nothing has exhibited the same deftness, insight and willingness to allow a relationship to evolve. These are two characters conscious of the pressures of time and age, albeit in different ways (Grier is playing a half decade younger, an air stewardess who at 44 can feel life passing her by, while Forster’s Max Cherry confesses only to a concern over his disappearing hair, but has clearly been marooned by habitual behaviour patterns).


The result is a bittersweet romance between a couple who express their mutual affection by collaborating on a plan to hoodwink both the ATF (Michael Keaton’s Ray Nicolette) and small-time arms dealer Ordell Robbie (Samuel L Jackson). Jackie has been smuggling money for the latter, and as a result is under pressure from Nicolette and Michael Bowen’s LAPD detective Mark Dargus to cooperate.


At every stage, Jackie is revealed as an outstanding schemestress, joining the ranks of other uber-confident Leonard protagonists (see also Get Shorty and Justified), manipulating the law and the criminal fraternity to her own ends, aided, advised and abetted by the impressed and devoted Max. Tarantino’s familiar stylistic devices and adjustments of timeframe interpose very naturally here: the initial trial-run bag switch, where a third participant is revealed, and the later beach towel bag switch played from three different perspectives.


Max, meanwhile, is the picture of level-headedness; he knows his job and takes unseemly altercations in his routine-worn stride. The interactions with the self-regarding Ordell are particularly enjoyable, Forster underplaying effectively to Jackson’s instinctive camera-hogging. Early on, there’s a fine scene where Ordell requests a second bond (this time for Jackie, having disposed of Chris Tucker’s Beaumont on the back of the first), and Max explains his indifference to Ordell’s activities (“Whatever you’re doing you seem to be getting away with it, so more power to you”) while spurning his “white guilt” trip (“Ordell, this isn’t a bar, you don’t have a tab”). Later, pre-showdown, the nonplussed bail bondsman is threatened by Ordell, exhibiting persuasively unimpressed steeliness.


Jackie and Max’s plan goes off with out a hitch, but the lack of happily-ever-after feels entirely appropriate. While they do finally kiss, he demurs the offer to accompany her to Spain. Max knows she doesn’t care for him as much as he does her (her invitation is almost an afterthought), added to which he admits to being a little scared of her (she’s supremely capable, legalities be damned). And, despite wanting to get out of the business, he’s too stuck in his ways; his mould is set. There’s more resonance here than in any of Tarantino’s other pictures put together, simply because he prefers Sturm und Drang over softly-softly emotional content.


It’s fortunate then, that the peripheral characters and incidents aren’t too distracting or overwhelming; they remain just that, peripherals. The downside is, this does mean you notice just how laboriously Tarantino is servicing them. Most of his pictures fly by, but while Jackie Brown never becomes inert, you definitely feel its two-and-a-half-hour running time.


The director scores with Bridget Fonda’s withering, bored, sarcastic stoner Melanie (“He moves his lips when he reads. What does that tell you?” she asks Louis regarding Ordell), meeting an untimely end after subjecting Robert De Niro’s Louis Gara to scorching derision one too many times (lost in the car park, she asks Gara “How did you ever rob a bank? Did you have to look for your car too?” It’s a hilarious, entirely deserved wind-up).


Keaton’s Nicolette, pulling double duties the following year in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, as the same character, marvellously delivers the ATF agent’s faux-naïve density, no match for Jackie’s plotting.


I’m less impressed by Ordell and Gara. Jackson and De NIro are suitably diligent, the former pulling off his latest ‘do with aplomb as a “ponytail wearing motherfucker”, the latter inhabiting possibly the least likable, dishevelled scumball of his career (I haven’t yet seen Dirty Grandpa). The problem is, as bad guys, we have no desire to spend time with them the way we do the very best Tarantino villains and anti-heroes. Ordell feels like a derivation of characters the director has already done, while Gara sucks all the energy out of the room (it’s ironic that Tarantino gets acting legend De Niro, then gives him one of the least prolific roles of his – then – career; apparently Stallone turned it down, and it’s easy to see why).


It’s also the Ordell side where the cracks of trad-Tarantino dialogue and geekiness show through, including the oft-selected but unrepresentative and rather irritating Ak47 scene (“The Killer had a 45”) and Fonda watching her dad on TV.  Other elements, such as the “Three minutes later” cue card for the perfunctory sex scene, actively work against the “respectable” card the director seems to be keen on playing. In contrast, when Jackie goes through her record collection and discusses CDs, it’s an actual conversation (even though we know it’s a Tarantino fave subject).


Characters talk about music more than movies here, from Ordell on his car stereo, instructing Gara not to adjust the levels, to his suspicion over Max playing the Delfonics (Max’s tribute to Jackie, which he keeps playing and playing; one wonders if Tarantino had been watching Chungking Express). Bobby Womack’s Across 110 Street is particularly well-used, bookending the picture first as an introductory anthem for Jackie, and then reprised to suggest an air of melancholy as life goes on regardless.


Despite it’s many estimable qualities, I don’t feel Jackie Brown is underrated; I’m definitely in the camp that sees it as a tad over-praised. It’s a long time since I last watched it all the way through, and I feel much the same as I did the first time. At points, it’s over-studied on its director’s part, suggesting he’s out to prove something to his critics by adapting a work of literature (Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch). Which he certainly does in terms of pulling off the lead characters, the reverent (read: slow) pace, and relative restraint of the content (curiously, for a director so enamoured by gore of late, this film’s deaths happen either out of frame or direct line of sight).


But the allowing of the thing to breathe leads to too much ambling. The third film by Quentin Tarantino lacks bite, the most unlikely charge one might level at his oeuvre. Ironically, given my biggest complaint regarding his post-Jackie output is that he over-indulges himself, and that the typical Tarantino elements here stand out like sore thumbs, Jackie Brown could have done with more integrated, with being more of his own thing. As it is, it pales in comparison to the next year’s Leonard picture, the vibrant, vital, deliriously-scored Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh hasn’t come close to a film that good since, alas).





Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Lieutenant, you run this station like chicken night in Turkey.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) (SPOILERS) You can’t read a review of Assault on Precinct 13 with stumbling over references to its indebtedness – mostly to Howard Hawks – and that was a preface for me when I first caught it on Season Three of BBC2’s Moviedrome (I later picked up the 4Front VHS). In Precinct 13 ’s case, it can feel almost like an attempt to undercut it, to suggest it isn’t quite that original, actually, because: look. On the other hand, John Carpenter was entirely upfront about his influences (not least Hawks), and that he originally envisaged it as an outright siege western (rather than an, you know, urban one). There are times when influences can truly bog a movie down, if it doesn’t have enough going for it in its own right. That’s never the case with Assault on Precinct 13 . Halloween may have sparked Carpenter’s fame and maximised his opportunities, but it’s this picture that really evidences his style, his potential and his masterful facility with music.

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984) If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights  may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box ’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisi

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef

How do you melt somebody’s lug wrench?

Starman (1984) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s unlikely SF romance. Unlikely, because the director has done nothing before or since suggesting an affinity for the romantic fairy tale, and yet he proves surprisingly attuned to Starman ’s general vibes. As do his stars and Jack Nitzsche, furnishing the score in a rare non-showing from the director-composer. Indeed, if there’s a bum note here, it’s the fairly ho-hum screenplay; the lustre of Starman isn’t exactly that of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it’s very nearly stitching together something special from resolutely average source material.

He must have eaten a whole rhino horn!

Fierce Creatures (1997) (SPOILERS) “ I wouldn’t have married Alyce Faye Eicheberger and I wouldn’t have made Fierce Creatures.” So said John Cleese , when industrial-sized, now-ex gourmand Michael Winner, of Winner’s Dinners , Death Wish II and You Must Be Joking! fame (one of those is a legitimate treasure, but only one) asked him what he would do differently if he could live his life again. One of the regrets identified in the response being Cleese’s one-time wife (one-time of two other one-time wives, with the present one mercifully, for John’s sake, ongoing) and the other being the much-anticipated Death Fish II , the sequel to monster hit A Fish Called Wanda. Wanda was a movie that proved all Cleese’s meticulous, focus-group-tested honing and analysis of comedy was justified. Fierce Creatures proved the reverse.

I dreamed about a guy in a dirty red and green sweater.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) (SPOILERS) I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street a little under a decade after its release, and I was distinctly underwhelmed five or so sequels and all the hype. Not that it didn’t have its moments, but there was an “It’ll do” quality that reflects most of the Wes Craven movies I’ve seen. Aside from the postmodern tease of A New Nightmare – like Last Action Hero , unfairly maligned – I’d never bothered with the rest of the series, in part because I’m just not that big a horror buff, but also because the rule that the first is usually the best in any series, irrespective of genre, tends to hold out more often than not. So now I’m finally getting round to them, and it seemed only fair to start by giving Freddy’s first another shot. My initial reaction holds true.

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

Ours is the richest banking house in Europe, and we’re still being kicked.

The House of Rothschild (1934) (SPOILERS) Fox’s Rothschild family propaganda pic does a pretty good job presenting the clan as poor, maligned, oppressed Jews who fought back in the only way available to them: making money, lots of lovely money! Indeed, it occurred to me watching The House of Rothschild , that for all its inclusion of a rotter of a Nazi stand-in (played by Boris Karloff), Hitler must have just loved the movie, as it’s essentially paying the family the compliment of being very very good at doing their very best to make money from everyone left, right and centre. It’s thus unsurprising to learn that a scene was used in the anti-Semitic (you might guess as much from the title) The Eternal Jew .

No, I ain’t a good man. I ain’t the worst either.

A Perfect World (1993) (SPOILERS) It’s easy to assume, retrospectively, that Clint’s career renaissance continued uninterrupted from Unforgiven to, pretty much, now, with his workhorse output ensuring he was never more than a movie away from another success. The nineties weren’t such a sure thing, though. Follow-up In the Line of Fire , a (by then) very rare actor-for-hire gig, made him seem like a new-found sexagenarian box office draw, having last mustered a dependably keen audience response as far back as 1986 and Heartbreak Ridge . But at home, at least, only The Bridges of Madison County – which he took over as director at a late stage, having already agreed to star – and the not-inexpensive Space Cowboys really scored before his real feted streak began with Mystic River. However, there was another movie in there that did strong business. Just not in the US: A Perfect World .