Jackie Brown (1996) *** Burke Favorite ***
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Pam Grier, Robert Forster, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert DeNiro, Bridget Fonda and Michael Keaton
Lots of times you’ll hear industry types talk about the “pitch meeting”. This is the meeting in which the producer and/or writer and/or director discuss their ideas for a potential film with a studio executive, the studio boss or a team of execs. I wonder if my title for this entry was the “log line” used by Quentin Tarantino to “pitch” Jackie Brown to his studio execs, the Weinstein Bros. As you may have guessed, a “log line” is intended to grab a decision maker’s attention, to get them to kind of frown, rub their chin and say, “Really? Well that sounds pretty good. Tell me more…”
A Criminal Plot
Based on the novel Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard, which is well worth the read, Jackie Brown is a caper, a dramatic investigation into who’s going to end up with the $500,000 and how and why. While the storyline definitely follows the half million dollars, I think in a funny way, this story could alternatively be described as a criminal trying to retire and “spend the rest of my life spending”, as he says. The criminal is Ordell Robbie, played expertly with a sinister, creepy aura about him by Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson truly embodies Ordell Robbie to the point you don’t really recognize him. For me, that’s a thirty by thirty foot red flag of an impeccable performance, when no matter how many times you see the film, you’re unable to see the person as the actor. Jackson as Robbie is that kind of performance. He has not only stylish clothing (obviously a wink and a nod to some 70s styles) but also long straight hair that ends in the middle of his back, a braid of chin whiskers – and oftentimes gloves over his hands.
Robbie has been dealing illegal guns for many years. By now he has $500,000 in a bank account in Cabo and after he sells a few M-60s he’s acquired – some of his customers are “starting a neighborhood watch kinda thing” – he’ll have well over a million. So what’s the problem? Well, Ordell has employed Jackie Brown, an aging airline stewardess – played with more layers than you might expect by Pam Grier – who acts as a mule to bring his cash to and from Mexico. We check into the story when she’s picked up at the airport by ATF agents.
A Gallery of Characters
Jackie Brown is chock-full of colorful characters, which is one reason it’s such a classic to me. Robbie’s associates include Beaumont Livingston (Chris Tucker), a younger fellow who sometimes does gun deals with him, a cute little surfer girl named Melanie (Bridget Fonda), a newly re-acclimated and aging ex-con Louis (played subtly by Robert DeNiro) and a couple of other ladies that Ordell shacks up in residences around L.A. It’s quite a team Robbie’s got. The other characters are important, too, starting with an ATF agent played with a cocky swagger by Michael Keaton. There’s a bail bondsman named Max Cherry, played by 70s star Robert Forester, who is ruffled by absolutely nothing. You could say, “Hey Max? Your office is on fire and the only way out is through those flames, so…” He would sigh and respond, “Well, I’m sure they’ll admit us at the hospital if we get out.” And of course, there’s the title character Jackie Brown. She may look like a tired airline stewardess, but she’s also capable of pointing a .22 pistol at an attacker’s privates in self defense if need be.
Let’s get back to Ordell, the gun runner. How serious is he? Well, let’s take the instance of Beaumont Livingston, the younger “associate” of Ordell’s who is picked up on a weapon’s charge. One of Ordell’s strengths – and thus, a definite positive for the film as a whole – is that he understands people’s characteristics, their buttons and their breaking points. Ordell knows for a fact that Beaumont is not the type of person to do a lot of time in jail when he can make a deal for key information about a gun runner like Ordell. So, in a pivotal Act One scene shot mostly in one long shot, Ordell shoots Beaumont. Then, he shows his old partner Louis (DeNiro) Beaumont’s body. Right in the trunk of his car. In the middle of the street. He goes through this process simply to ensure that Louis understands he’d rather “let people go” from his employment than risk the half million he’s got in Mexico. Any questions?
I am convinced that part of the problem with the general audience’s reception of Jackie Brown was their expectations following Pulp Fiction. Don’t get me wrong, this was a successful film in that it made some money, had some award nominations and the like. But people didn’t flock to this like moths to a bright light. I think Tarantino had no chance with this release from the beginning considering his previous film had been Pulp Fiction. It’s the same thing a director like Coppola goes through with a fine little film like The Outsiders. I’m sure critics and audiences alike said, “Well, Jackie Brown was OK – but it’s no Pulp Fiction, that’s for sure!” Hey genius? Of COURSE it’s not Pulp Fiction! That’s why they titled it Jackie Brown! To support this point, I’ll say that when I ask people who have seen Jackie Brown recently what they thought of it, they’ll usually admit it was better than they remember. That’s because you weren’t expecting Pulp Fiction this time… I mean, how many of those does anyone really have in their career?