Published on June 5th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
Jackie Brown 
Summary: Tarantino's most-overlooked film could have used a tighter edit but features surprising performances from its ensemble. A perfect soundtrack underscores this neo-exploitation flick.
R | 154 min.
Director: Quentin Tarantino | Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino (based on Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch)
Starring: Pam Grier, Robert Forster, Samuel L. Jackson
Studio: A Band Apart | Distribution: Miramax Films
It’s a tough job to follow a legend. The Magnificent Ambersons did it in 1942, so did The Conversation in 1974–in 1997, Jackie Brown added itself to that strong list.
Three years had passed since director Quentin Tarantino blew the lid off of popular cinema with Pulp Fiction. With the world waiting, wondering what original story he would dream up next, he did something he’s never done again in his career…an adaptation. Taken from Elmore Leonard’s slick paperback Rum Punch, this movie landed much more quietly than its predecessor. Taking Leonard’s plot of a 40-something airline stewardess who’s out to ripoff a gun-runner’s life savings–Tarantino changed the novel’s central character Jackie Burke from a white woman to black and renamed her Jackie Brown.
Throughout his stellar career, it’s been proven that Q.T. has an obsession with resurrecting two things: forgotten film careers and exploitation cinema. In his 1997 crime romp Jackie Brown, he gallantly attempts both. Similar to Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, this film features an ensemble cast of equal parts big-name talent and performers that will have you saying, “I thought they were dead!” Tarantino took a hell of a risk in casting two such actors not as side characters, but as his leads in Jackie Brown.
In the early-’70s, Pam Grier was as badass a heroine as had ever been seen on celluloid. In grindhouse flicks like Coffy and Foxy Brown, she was stacked, sexy, and tough as nails–often wielding a shotgun while wearing a skin-tight cocktail dress. However, in 1997 she wasn’t exactly a household name as her most notable recent work had come in a recurring role on TV’s Miami Vice. But if Grier was a forgotten star, Robert Forster was a never-had-been. The gamble pays off though, with both giving top-notch performances as an unlikely romantic pair.
The plot of this film is a bit complicated when you really break it down–but suffice to say, it’s a story about bad guys getting blindsided by a hardworking, lower class chick who realizes she has zero to lose and everything to gain. At nearly three hours in length, Jackie Brown feels over-stuffed at times. In Pulp Fiction, we loved the quirkiness of hearing two hit men talk about what the french like to “drown” their fries in, but in this film the plot is more straightforward so it feels like a waste of time when we spend fifteen minutes listening to Samuel L. Jackson lecture Robert De Niro on firearms.
What I love about this film, aside from the performances, is its energy level. Jackie Brown takes place in a run-down section of California with some deadbeat characters, but it’s one of the most vibrant movies of the ’90s. From the instant classic opening title sequence to a soundtrack of tunes rivaling Wattstax, Tarantino keeps your attention. He also uses this picture to show off his skill at creating tension, though. Thanks to its large number of long takes, there are sequences in Jackie Brown that make you feel breathless. One such shot that always stuns me is when the characters are executing their elaborate money-changing plan at a massive shopping mall and the camera follows Grief for what feels like eternity as she speeds through the complex, panic-stricken.
I mentioned supporting players like Jackson and De Niro but the rest of the cast keeps up–including a return to drama for Michael Keaton, a short stint from Chris Tucker, and the last time I can honestly remember seeing Bridget Fonda (or her legs) onscreen. Tarantino seems to make his actors comfortable, bringing out surprising performances over the years from the likes of Mike Myers (Inglourious Basterds), Kurt Russell (Death Proof), and Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill).
There are many reasons this film has been largely combed-over in the canon of Tarantino, none of which are a reflection of its quality. If you dig a colorful, winding crime story played out among actors at the top of their game–you could do much worse than Jackie Brown. As the woman herself would say, the outstanding performances are just a cherry on top, “Booyah!”