Everyone has their favorite Tarantino film. For some, this favorite remains a favorite for a long time. Sometimes it’s just a phase – you like one Tarantino for a short period of time and then after a while, you see that you are beginning to warm up to another film of his, it slowly grows on you and after watching it so many times, you eventually come to the conclusion that that’s your most favorite. I went through this phase myself. At one time, it was Pulp Fiction and then one day, out of the blue, I found myself liking Jackie Brown a lot. I finally came to the conclusion that it is his best film. Whenever I or someone else plays it, I feel a strong urge to watch the entire thing.
Now, I didn’t quite appreciate it when I saw it first. I don’t know why. I think the main reason was that I found it quite odd. I mean, every Tarantino film is odd but this was “odd”. What I mean is, I found it unusually different from a typical Tarantino film. This is the sort of film that directors usually make when they are much older and Tarantino made that transition so quickly and made it with the sensibility of someone in their 60s or 70s. He showed that he is capable of making “serious” films too. The point I’m trying to make – and I know I’m the only one who has said this – is that Jackie Brown is his most matured film. It’s like a Sidney Lumet film made by Tarantino.
So what exactly happened and why did Tarantino feel like doing a film like this – that too an adaptation of someone else’s work – after doing Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. I think Tarantino wanted to prove to others that he can make “different” films too. What is “different” for him? A slight deviation from the stuff that he usually does: Characters that sound like Tarantino characters speaking the “Tarantino language”, the surprise “bomb under the table” element that is a trademark of all his films, hyper-violent sequences etc.Tarantino is at his most relaxed here. He is not in a hurry. Now, I didn’t mean that it doesn’t look like Tarantino film. We still have the great soundtrack featuring an eclectic mix of yesteryear classics (comprising of the Delfonics, Bobby Womack etc.), the relaxed pace, well-written characters and phenomenal performances from all the actors. Like I’ve said before, this was a slight deviation.
What sets Jackie Brown apart from the rest of his films is that these characters are relatively more fully realized than any of his other characters. When you see Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Inglorious Basterds etc, you notice that the characters he has conjured up in are wild imagination are colorful, witty and memorable. But you don’t get a sense of their, uh, history.In Jackie Brown, we get that. We have the titular character – a strong, independent black woman who takes no shit from anyone. She is the most interesting Tarantino character I’ve seen. I wanted to know how she was before and what influenced her life choices, why she wants to go in a totally different direction now and why didn’t she think of this before? Where did she find the courage all of a sudden? Tarantino wrote Jackie as this wonderfully complex character. Perhaps the most complex character he had ever written.
And why is this so? Is this because he had access to a material that already existed? Hollywood has had a long romantic relationship with the books of Elmore Leonard which began in the late 50s. Back then, they were more interested in the westerns that he had written and not dark comedies like these. The most notable Elmore Leonard books to get the big screen treatment were Get Shorty. Then came Jackie Brown (adapted from Rum Punch) and later, Steven Soderbergh made Out of Sight. These are all good, immensely enjoyable films with darkly humorous storylines with hilarious situations and wildly comical characters. My favorite of the three is, obviously, Jackie Brown (played brilliantly by Pam Grier). In the book, the Jackie Brown character is actually a white woman called Jackie Burch and Tarantino made alterations to her and the story to make it seem more like a Blaxploitation films from the 70s, like Coffy and Foxy Brown.
If you’ve seen these films – and Pam Grier stars in all of them — you can see that Tarantino had even borrowed their background scores and inserted them here. Now, this is another factor by which we can recognize it as a Tarantino film. Okay, so getting back to the characters. What I’m saying is that Jackie Brown, Ordell Robbie, Max Cherry and Louis all feel like fully developed characters with, like I said before, a sense of history. Normally, we see in interviews where Tarantino is talking about how he had their entire backstory in his mind and that he had already pages written about it but didn’t include that in the final film and all that. But here, we are able to actually imagine these backstories and come up with our interpretations and theories. And the interactions between these characters — I don’t have words to describe how I feel about them. Tarantino did some of his best writing here.
We all know that Tarantino is a genius when it comes to conversations. He lets the characters breathe and take their own time. No one is in a hurry. And this characteristic of his writing stands out more in Jackie Brown than in any of his other films. Whatever tricks they have up their sleeves, they take their own time to reveal it. The characters in this sound more like real people and not like Tarantino characters. Sure, they are still witty and come up with smart lines but not much compared to, say, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Tarantino is not that interested in doing poetry here. These are real conversations and the relationship between Jackie and Max is, to me, the best thing Tarantino had ever written. My favorite scene is when they first have a proper conversation in a bar with a beautiful romantic track (Jermaine Jackson’s “My Touch of Madness”) playing in the background. There is great chemistry between these two.
This chemistry stays that way throughout the film and never loses its spark, not even once. And another thing Tarantino is great at is casting. Everyone knows that. The man’s imagination is really something. How did he think of Robert Forster for the role of Max? I mean, this is an actor who disappeared into near oblivion after getting noticed in cinematographer-turned-director Haskell Wexler’s 1969 film Medium Cool. Tarantino brought Forster back and showed the world what a terrific actor he really is. And this is another thing Tarantino is really good at — reviving actors’ careers. The same is the case with Pam Grier. She has been doing Blaxploitation films for a major part of her career and this is the first time she got to do a serious character that does not utter cheesy lines, shoot down bad guys with a shotgun or get into catfights with other women. You can see that Tarantino worships her a lot.
And Samuel Jackson’s performance, oh man, where to even begin? To me, this is Jackson’s greatest performance. I thought he was great in Pulp Fiction but I thought his role as Ordell Robbie was way better than Jules Winnfield. This is Jackson at his absolute best. Every scene he appears in is a joy to watch. And what an incredibly hilarious character he is! Take the scene where he is conversing with Jackie inside a pub and the shocked reaction he displays when she tells him that the cops already know about him and his plans, is priceless! Equally hilarious are his scenes toward the end with Forster and Robert De Niro. Speaking of De Niro, a lot of his fans didn’t like him in this. But, I’m one of the fans who thought De Niro was totally fabulous here. The usual intensity is there but it’s a much more understated performance compared to the roles he usually does. Every cast member is in fine form here, especially Michael Keaton and Bridget Fonda.
So my question is: Why did Tarantino stop making films like this? People have come up with different reasons. Film critic Mark Kermode shares my exact same view on Jackie Brown and he thinks that Tarantino went back to making films like Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds because Jackie Brown was a commercial failure. Isn’t this his most underrated film? Sure, the critics loved it but the general audience reception wasn’t as warm as were for Pulp Fiction, Inglorious Basterds or Django Unchained (Tarantino’s highest grossing film). I don’t know if this is why he went back to his comfort zone (if there was one). I never felt that Tarantino is after commercial gains. He seems to care more about the script than anything else. But Kermode certainly thinks otherwise.