As film fans we always hear how important the art of subtlety is. And just like the word ‘underrated’ it becomes almost a cliché thing to say. It’s almost predictable to say any film uses the art of subtlety if it’s not a major blockbuster. But let’s take a trip back to 1997 in my metaphorical DeLorean — a year that brought us some heavy hitters in the crime genre such as L.A. Confidential and Donnie Brasco. We saw superheroes make a return with Batman and Robin and Spawn. And we saw some interesting concepts in the sci-fi horror genre such as Cube and Event Horizon. 1997 was a mixed bag of excess and critical acclimation, spawning future cult favourites and an array of B-grade flicks disguising themselves as big-budget masterpieces that would fall incredibly short as far as reviews were concerned.
In the midst of all of this, a director is making his way through Hollywood and bringing something fresh, unique and classic to his films. Quentin Tarantino has never been shy about letting audiences know where his inspiration comes from. He manages to take a film from the past and bring it into the future and make it his own. His works are all love letters to a specific genre, characters archetypes that we all know, while melting that into strong arcs, themes and killer soundtracks. Jackie Brown was showcased to the world in December of 1997 and while it made a profit at the box office, it was unfortunately overshadowed by the biggest blockbuster of the year: Titanic. Sure, Titanic may have had all the bells and whistles when it came to film production, rising stars, and a notable and accomplished director. But Titanic had a theme song which was overplayed so much, it would have you begging to listen to Mariah Carey’s ‘All I want for Christmas’ on repeat instead. Titanic was overall an unstoppable conglomerate force, and still a favourite amongst film fans to this day.
However, Jackie Brown possesses something totally different. Tarantino treated us to seeing several icons from the ‘70s and ‘80s whose talent and integrity to their characters had a hell of a lot more weight than anything that Titanic ever did. This isn’t a toxic comparison by any means, but bigger, shinier, and more popular doesn’t always equal better.
Here we have Jackie (Pam Grier), a flight attendant for a budget airline who smuggles money in from Mexico for an arms dealer, Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). Upon bringing back some of his stash, she is intercepted at the airport and caught with a bag of cocaine. In the background of this, another one of Ordell’s associates, Beaumont Livingstone (Chris Tucker), has also been arrested. Ordell visits Max Cherry (Robert Forster), a bail bondsman, and puts up a $10,000 bail for Beaumont. Once released, Beaumont is murdered. Upon hearing that Jackie has been arrested, Ordell manages to move that bail money onto getting Jackie released — and that’s when our story really ramps up. Jackie is given a deal by the feds to bring Ordell in, in exchange for immunity keeping her job. All the while, she is also convincing Ordell she is working with him against the feds, to bring in his half a million from Mexico.
What is great about Jackie Brown is that the film has several subplots and they all connect and are interwoven with each other. Tarantino makes this seem so effortless in his directorial style, but a lot of filmmakers struggle to pull off something similar to this. When this is attempted in other films, and unfortunately it falls flat, it can be hard to watch these types of films in good faith. As film fans we have to be open-minded, but at times it can be hard to be this way, when we are disappointed often. But Tarantino does something differently; he focuses on the dialogue and the journey between each scene. I know that sounds cliché or something that every director should have in the back of their head when shifting gears with each arc. But Jackie Brown is in no hurry to get to the end; it takes it’s time. It pulls you in, and gets you not just invested into the characters, but the interaction between one another. We see a scene of Melanie (Bridget Fonda) and Louis (Robert De Niro) smoking cones in front of the TV, just chill as hell. But by the end these two characters dislike each other. And when shit hits the fan between these two, you are totally engrossed. The dialogue is so brilliantly written, that it will keep you invested way past the credits have rolled. Every sub-plot and character arc is tied up, besides the subtle romance between Jackie and Max; we will get to that later.
Jackie Brown is very much an ensemble piece. There are key players, yet every character no matter how small, makes an impact. Even Simone (Hattie Winston) when she’s doing her stay-at-home Supreme show for Louis. But it’s Pam Grier in the title role of Jackie who absolutely steals the show. There is no denying the talent of this woman. If you know of her past roles as Foxy Brown or Coffy, it almost feels as if Jackie is an older version of these characters. However Jackie now lives a somewhat normal life, when she isn’t trying to bring in money for Ordell, or pull off one more job so she can be free to live the life she wants to. Jackie isn’t someone who is a flawed human being, she just lost her way; which is why carrying through with this heist is so important. Jackie is streetwise, strong, resourceful and extremely realistic. Outside of tricking the feds as well as Ordell, there isn’t anything fake about her. She is authentic and true to herself and that is why she stands out as a strong female lead. I truly don’t think just anyone could have taken this role the way Pam did.
One of the most subtle yet effective arcs in the film is the oh so subtle romance between Jackie and Max. Is it love? I truly don’t believe they are in love. However by the end of the film, it is clear they are extremely fond of one another. From the first moment Max sees Jackie, he is captivated with her. Her presence is very profound especially on Max, hence why the song “Didn’t I (Blow your Mind This Time)” by The Delfonics, plays a prominent part in the film. And while Jackie gets Max’s attention, it is Max who is the force that to an extent keeps Jackie grounded. In a film with some unique characters, it’s Max who is the most controlled in such a chaotic environment; this is why their relationship works. What can be appreciated about their romance that isn’t quite a romance, is that it doesn’t have a typical happy ending. You don’t see Jackie and Max getting married, buying a house together; none of that conventional tripe, that has lost all meaning in film. Instead we are treated to a parting conversation where words of honesty and vulnerability are exchanged. Sure, it’s actually really sweet when Max and Jackie finally kiss, but it’s what happens after that really hits home. A phone call interrupts their tender moment, Max answers it, and Jackie quietly leaves. Max then tells the caller if they could call back in thirty minutes, and once he hangs up, he watches Jackie drive away. His reaction to the kiss and what just transpired combined with her leaving, speaks volumes. We will never know if Max fell in love with Jackie, and to be honest that really isn’t the point. What it comes down to is Jackie was someone who came into his life and blew his mind.
Another talent Tarantino has with his films, is choosing music that set the tone and feel of the film. In my humble opinion, Jackie Brown is the best soundtrack used in any of his films. We are treated to mostly soul songs on the album, but each song is so integral to the tone it is trying to convey. You cannot sit there and tell me the opening song “Across 110th Street” doesn’t just get you excited for the ride you are about to be taken on. Then you have the raw and low key funky “Strawberry Letter 23,” the extremely sexual yet sweet “Inside My Love,” the intoxicating “Natural High,” and of course the fierce “Street Life.” These songs are timeless and so beautifully crafted that they create a mood, that adds that extra weight to the overall story and the character’s relationships.
One of the age-old questions regarding Tarantino’s body of work, is which of his film stands above the rest? And I don’t know if you can really compare any of his films, as they all represent different genres and are all so unique regarding the overall tone of the film. But we can all have our favourites. My favourite has changed over the years. For the longest time I was tossing up between Inglorious Basterds and Kill Bill; mostly because I love World War II history and martial art films. However as I have gotten older, less idealistic and more salty, I gravitate more and more to Jackie Brown. The strength of this film isn’t relying heavily on over-the-top violence(which I do love) or iconic scenes that are emulated throughout different pop culture mediums. Instead the strength of this film is through the characterisation, and seeing relationships form, develop and flourish within an extremely creative and entertaining story. Jackie Brown doesn’t abruptly command your attention, it just turns down the pace a little, brings you along for the ride, but most of all, it lets you truly enjoy it.
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