Jackie Brown (1997) ☆☆☆(3/4): Tarantino in leisure

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“Jackie Brown” occupies a rather odd place in Quentin Tarantino’s filmmaking career. Sandwiched between “Pulp Fiction” (1994) and “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” (2003), the movie may look mild and conventional in comparison, but it is still an enjoyable work equipped with smart storytelling and a number of stellar performances, and I am glad that I could get a chance to revisit it thanks to the recent re-release of Tarantino’s several films in South Korea.

During the opening scene clearly reminiscent of that famous opening scene of “The Graduate” (1967), we are introduced to Jackie Brown (Pam Grier), a 44-year-old flight attendant who turns out to be working for a local criminal figure named Ordell Robbit (Samuel L. Jackson). So far, she has delivered money well to Ordell while going back and forth between Mexico and LA during her worktime, but she is caught by federal agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) on one day, and the situation becomes worse when Nicolette later discovers something else besides money in an envelope supposed to be delivered to Ordell.

While pressured a lot by Nicolette, Jackie knows too well that she must be very careful under this circumstance. As a matter of fact, Ordell has already eliminated a small-time criminal who told Nicolette about Jackie for not going to jail, and she must think of any possible way for her survival before getting killed by Ordell, who is ready for protecting his money and business by any means necessary. Fortunately, she is a pretty smart woman who can outwit her opponents, and we soon see her embarking on a risky balancing act between Ordell and Nicolette.

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And then she finds an unlikely ally from Max Cherry (Robert Forster), a weary middle-aged bail bondsman who was hired by Ordell to pay the bail for her after her arrest. When he sees her coming out of a prison, Max finds himself quite infatuated with her, and he comes to get involved more with her than expected after their subsequent accidental encounter at a shopping mall. With a plan soon to be executed, she really needs Max’s help, and Max is willing to take some risk for a woman who brings unexpected excitement to his mundane life, though both he and she do not directly express the growing mutual affection between them.

Meanwhile, we also get to know Ordell’s two associates: Louis Gara (Robert De Niro) and Melanie Ralston (Bridget Fonda). Although she is one of Ordell’s girlfriends, Melanie does not mind seducing Louis, and that leads to a rather amusing moment between Louis and Ordell, who is actually not so surprised by what happened between Louis and Melanie. He does not trust Melanie much, but he still keeps her around him nonetheless because she is still a pretty attractive girlfriend to have and he is always aware of how treacherous she is.

Once it fully establishes its main characters, Tarantino’s screenplay, which is based on Elmore Leonard’s novel “Rum Punch”, leisurely rolls them along its straightforward plot, and its main pleasures come from how it effortlessly glides from one expected point to another while occasionally throwing some surprises to jolt us. Like its heroine, the movie does not seem to hold anything behind its back, but then we are caught off guard by several unexpected moments generated among its main characters, and we cannot help but be amused by how effectively they are delivered for our big laughs.

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While steadily sticking to his unusually restrained storytelling approach, Tarantino trusts us enough to let us process what is going on in the story for ourselves. There is a terrific wordless scene where we gradually gather necessary information along with a certain main character, and I admire how flawlessly the movie conveys to us everything we need to know. In case of a certain key sequence later in the story, it is presented more than once via several different viewpoints, but we never get confused as clearly discerning what will inevitably happen in the end, and everything consequently culminates to a climactic scene where one short line results in the neat resolution for everyone in the story.

Above all, the movie is packed with lots of personality to be savored. Like many of Leonard’s crime novels, “Rum Punch” is filled with vivid, strong characters whose verbal interactions are pretty entertaining to read, and Tarantino’s screenplay wisely remains faithful to Leonard’s novel while adding several notable changes and modifications to the novel. After all, Leonard’s territory is more or less than a comfort zone for Tarantino considering their common elements, and it can be said that Tarantino is simply having some leisure here in this film.

Tarantino also draws excellent performances from his various main cast members. While Samuel L. Jackson, who won the Best Actor award at the Berlin International Film Festival, surely gets a number of juicy moments as the most talkative character in the film, Pam Grier is equally fine as ably functioning as the center of the story, and so are the other notable cast members in the film including Michael Keaton, Robert De Niro, Bridget Fonda, Chris Tucker, and Robert Forster, who was deservedly Oscar-nominated for his seemingly plain but rich performance which always engages us with nuances and details to be appreciated behind his calm, no-nonsense façade.

Although it may not be as great as “Pulp Fiction” or “Inglourious Basterds” (2009), “Jackie Brown” has a fair share of fun and excitement on the whole, and its nice moments have grown on me after I watched it at a local movie theater at last night. In my humble opinion, it is too good to be regarded as a minor work in Tarantino’s filmmaking career, and I think you should give a chance to this relatively overlooked work someday.

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