Jackie Brown (1997)

Review by Throwback

Personally, I consider the 70s to be the nadir of American culture. I concede that the 90s are probably a close second. However, just because the music, television, and literary worlds of that era were mostly horrible doesn’t make them utterly so. Quentin Tarantino attempted to remind us of the bright spots in 1997 with Jackie Brown (rated R), a paean to that decade’s blaxsploitation genre. I’ve never been a big fan of Tarantino. Reservoir Dogs was good. Pulp Fiction was highly overrated. The Kill Bills were homages to himself more than anything else. Jackie Brown is unique among these movies. There aren’t multiple flashbacks, time lapses, or self-contained story vignettes that inter-weave. Instead, you get a straight-forward story with a plot and action to tell that story. The question is whether the plot and action accomplish this in a successful manner.

Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is a flight attendant who doubles as a courier for a psycho gun-runner named Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson). Jackie gets picked up by the cops after Ordell murders one of his underlings, at which point she meets Max Cherry (Robert Forster), a bail bondsman who is enlisted to work her case. Naturally, Ordell is worried that Jackie will squeal on him, but she convinces him (at gunpoint) to let her live in order to help him smuggle half a million dollars in cash out of the country where he can enjoy retirement. The cast rapidly multiplies at this point, as new characters are enlisted to pull off the job. This is, of course, a sideshow since everyone involved is also scheming to make off with the cash themselves.

Most people I know hated this movie because they love Quentin Tarantino. After the first thirty minutes, folks realized that there hadn’t been any massacres or bizarre editing or time shifts. I’m convinced they made their minds up then. This is a shame because they missed out on the most polished and accessible work of Tarantino’s entire catalog. He doesn’t have to resort to gimmicks to sell the movie. He takes a great ensemble of actors, puts them in the right positions to tell a story, then keeps the narrative tight enough so that the audience doesn’t lose interest. You don’t have so much of the inane babbling that distinguishes his other works.  Why this effort went so completely unappreciated is a mystery to me. It’s not like the dialogue was poorly done. It was very natural and slick, not to mention very successful in conjuring up the spirits of the 70s’ blaxsploitation and heist films. It did all this without any of the over-the-top stuff seen in Pulp Fiction (the dance scene, for example).

I mentioned the cast already. The names alone are a pretty impressive list. In addition to those already named, you’ve got Bridget Fonda, Robert De Niro, Michael Keaton, and a minor role for Chris Tucker. Tarantino’s biggest accomplishment in all this was probably to keep Samuel L. Jackson from overwhelming everyone. Who would have thought that “sadistic arms dealer” would wind up being one of the most subdued roles of Jackson’s career (relatively speaking, of course)? Instead, the character focus is mostly on Jackie and Max and their relationship/attraction to one another. Most people will see Jackie Brown and probably recognize Forster but have no idea from where. He does a tremendous job in this movie and even got an Oscar nomination out of it.

Don’t expect to find a Catholic theme. There isn’t one. The whole story is about a bunch of people lying, conniving, and killing so that they can get rich and get one over on somebody else. Entertaining? Absolutely. Something that would be suitable for Parish Movie Night? Absolutely not, unless your parish is way outside the pale of what I’m used to seeing in a Catholic church.

The content warning may surprise some. There is very little violence. Again, this is why I think a lot of people didn’t like it. It doesn’t play out like standard Tarantino fare. However, the f-bombs rain from the sky. I actually don’t recall any instances of blasphemy. For those with racial sensitivities, the n-word is all over the place but lacking malicious overtones. There’s also one sex scene with minimal nudity but maximum activity.

This is Tarantino’s best work, precisely because he’s trying to make a good movie rather than a Tarantino movie. In fact, I’m willing to say that it’s one of the most underrated and overlooked movies of the last 15 years.

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