Running time: 154 mins
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Robert DeNiro
Genre: Crime, Thriller
20 Years on the QT Vol. III sees a deviation from type as Quentin Tarantino openly adapts another writer’s work to present the world with another ensemble cast dealing in low level crime but does it work?
The short answer is yes. Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch is one of dozens of crime novels from the author that oozes cool and have proved to be cinematic triumphs when handled correctly. Jackie Burke is a 44-year old airline stewardess working her way down the peaking order and working for a small time gunrunner named Ordell Robbie. A quick renaming ceremony to nod to Grier’s Exploitation roots and some additional writing by Quentin Tarantino and we have his third cinematic offering Jackie Brown.
One of the best things about Jackie Brown is the writing. There’s no arguing that Tarantino is an excellent writer, he has demonstrated it with Reservoir Dogs and again in Pulp Fiction he even managed to make his segment in Four Rooms linguistically interesting (even though it was little more than a lazy rip-off from Hitchcock’s The Man From the South). His biggest problem is his inability to edit himself; all too often he manages to fall in love with his own voice which ultimately leads to self indulgent writing that sounded like self indulgent writing. A wise man once said “when I write something that sounds like writing I rewrite it” – it’s a piece of advice that QT could do with taking every once and a while. What helps Jackie Brown is that though Tarantino has managed to add his own “style” to the piece he’s confined within the narrative mapped out by Elmore Leonard and it’s something he should consider for future projects as the writing of Jackie Brown is the strongest of (what was then) a five year career.
Visually the film is rich; it has Tarantino’s casual style. This is before he forgot nuance and subtly and adds a great quality to the film. The best Elmore Leonard adaptations are those who are made by directors who understand the importance of cinematography. Looking at Jackie Brown, Get Shorty & Out of Sight will showcase this argument brilliantly especially when you line them up alongside works like Gold Coast, Be Cool & Touch (which are not). The casual and promiscuous camera has been discussed before in relation to Quentin Tarantino’s work but it has never been showcased better than Jackie Brown as it elevates the narrative above what is essentially, all too often, old people talking into an intelligent and tense thriller of genuine merit.
Pam Grier, like John Travolta before her, has had working with QT pinned as “the comeback”. The truth of the matter is that very few actors actually make a real comeback. Grier, like so many, never stopped working it was simply a case of so much of her oeuvre in the 1980’s and 90’s simply was not worth watching. She’s powerful though, granted it’s in a relaxed and at times aware way but it’s a thrill to see the Queen of Exploitation back on top and dominating not just the screen but her male counterparts. Samuel L. Jackson (as Ordell) is a solid piece of casting, though he’s not exactly as Leonard wrote him but that’s not even an issue. He has a certain quality on screen that is a mix between relaxed and coasting. He’s very good, not quite as good as Pulp Fiction, but they are two very different animals from the same stable. Robert Forster is a commanding performer as bail bond runner Max Cherry. He has a certain way about him that even though it’s wonderful and watchable it’s a very Robert Forster performance. Bridget Fonda is underused, Michael Keaton is a great casting idea and the reprisal of his Out of Sight character is a nice touch. Robert DeNiro is the thief of the film, his performance is intricate, multi-layered and the best he’s given in a number of years…many many years.
For my money Jackie Brown is the pinnacle of a young director’s career. Where his previous two outings have showcased Tarantino’s love of his writing and knowledge Jackie Brown showcases the director’s finest talent. He has an incredible eye and when he’s kept at a distance from the writing he’s able to construct a films with a narrative that is strong and well balanced.