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Quentin Tarantino's films revisited: Jackie Brown (1997)


In anticipation of Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, we're recapping all his previous films.

Following last week's recap of Pulp Fiction, we're taking a closer look at Tarantino's critically acclaimed Blaxploitation homage Jackie Brown, starring Pam Grier and Samuel L. Jackson.

What is the story of Jackie Brown?

Air stewardess Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is in trouble. She supplements her income by smuggling money from Mexico into the USA for ruthless gun-runner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), but she's then intercepted by agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton). Not only does she have Ordell's money on her, she is also carrying cocaine in her purse she didn't know she had. They cut a deal with Jackie: help arrest Ordell in exchange for her freedom.

With Jackie talking to the authorities, the paranoid Ordell begins to suspect she'll inform, and he works with bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) to have her released, and later killed. So to protect her own life, Jackie negotiates a deal with Ordell: she will pretend to help the authorities while smuggling in $550,000 of Ordell's money, enough to allow him to retire. But in reality, she has no intention of allowing Ordell to get his hands on the money. At the same time, Jackie finds herself attracted to the world-weary Cherry, who is caught in the middle of the zig-zagging trail of double and triple crosses.

How did Jackie Brown get made?

In 1997, Quentin Tarantino was officially Hollywood's reigning new auteur director, following the generation-defining success of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. The latter in particular acted as a wake-up call for Hollywood's latent independent film industry, inspiring a multitude of maverick young directors to take up arms and experiment with non-linear, blackly comic and violent stories.

Right from the early days of Reservoir Dogs, it was apparent that Tarantino's preferred post-modernist approach involved him synthesising a multitude of movie-making influences. Tarantino's encyclopaedic knowledge of B-movie and trash cinema, ranging from from grubby crime thrillers to gore-splattered kung fu epics, resulted in the emergence of an exciting new voice in contemporary film-making.

As Tarantino indulged his vast knowledge of cinema from his position behind the camera, viewers also, vicariously, experienced the same pleasure. Unlike many directors of the time, Tarantino flattered the knowledgeable moviegoing audience in assuming they could keep up with his myriad of pop culture references, both overt (dissecting Madonna's 'Like a Virgin' in Reservoir Dogs) and covert (Uma Thurman sketching a square out of thin air a la the French New Wave in Pulp Fiction).

Here was a film-maker unashamedly demonstrating his cineaste credentials, in the process discovering a receptive, early-nineties audience of twenty-to-thirty somethings who were only too keen to use the canvas of his movies to reflect on, and bolster, their own knowledge. Little wonder that Reservoir Dogs proved an enormous hit at the Sundance Film Festival, that hotbed of indie film credibility, and even less wonder that the richly textured Pulp Fiction took in excess of $200 million worldwide against an $8 million budget.

The entire history of cinema, ranging from celebrated foreign language gems to reprehensible sleaze, is an active, breathing character that courses through all of Tarantino's movies. But if Reservoir Dogs embraced and subverted the tropes of the heist movie, and Pulp Fiction was an outrageous commentary on the very essence of transgressive entertainment, Jackie Brown saw Tarantino swerve into an entirely different genre altogether.

The director now set his sights on the Blaxploitation genre, that relic of the 1970s long believed to be dead and buried. These were movies that prioritised liberating and often violent stories for black film-makers and performers, the most famous example of which was cop thriller Shaft. One only need to think of Isaac Hayes's timeless theme tune to immediately conjure images of Richard Roundtree's poised, charismatic central performance.

However, Roundtree wasn't the only emblem of the Blaxploitation industry. One of its most famous exports was actor Pam Grier, who shot to fame off the back of gritty, vengeance-fuelled stories like Coffy, Foxy Brown and The Big Bird Cage. Relatively unknown to today's audiences, Grier was one of the defining actors of the 1970s, carving a path through the patriarchy and establishing herself as a feminist force to be reckoned with.

By the mid-90s, Grier's career was a shadow of its former self. However, Tarantino's adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel Rum Punch, later known as Jackie Brown, would revitalise her career, prompting an extensive Grier retrospective that helped cast her genre-defining movies in a brand new light.

Although Tarantino has denied Jackie Brown is a Blaxploitation movie (indeed, the movie's sleek visual style and witty Elmore Leonard dialogue strikes a different, somewhat more formalised tone), Grier's screen persona is inseparable from her Blaxploitation iconography. As with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, the nuances and history of an entire genre are bound up within the confines of a relatively high-minded, complex crime story – it just so happens that this time, it's the star who carries the weight of said history. Interestingly, Grier was considered for the role of Jody, on-screen wife of Eric Stoltz's Lance in Pulp Fiction, but Tarantino decided she would be an unconvincing fit for a relatively passive character.

Indeed, it's the gravitas of Grier's performance, not to mention the nature of Leonard's source material, that makes Jackie Brown arguably Tarantino's most grown-up and mature work so far. Add in the presence of Robert Forster, like Grier another actor who had been out of the spotlight for decades, and this is a Tarantino movie that has more on its mind than salacious shock, instead exploring what happens when someone tires of the criminal lifestyle and seeks the path of redemption. (For that reason, consider this the natural extension of the climactic diner conversation between Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction.)

Jackie Brown is also unusual in Tarantino's oeuvre in that it's his only film based on a pre-existing source. When it came to adapting Rum Punch (to which he remained steadfastly loyal), Tarantino changed the ethnicity of the central character and changed her name, initially reluctant to share the changes with Leonard himself. Upon seeing the script, the author declared it to be possibly the best screenplay he'd ever read, as well as the best of the 26 adaptations of his novels and short stories.

The cast soon expanded to include Tarantino favourite Jackson, on fire as the charismatic and threatening Ordell, a superb and atypically subdued Robert De Niro as dull-witted crim Louis, and a brassy Bridget Fonda as hanger-on Melanie. It remains one of the finest and most diverse ensembles of any Tarantino movie, although the tender heart of the story belongs to Grier and Forster.

What songs are on the Jackie Brown soundtrack?

One of Jackie Brown's most celebrated sequences is the opening, as Jackie herself glides through the airport in a profile shot. The unbroken take is set to Bobby Womack's soul classic 'Across 110th Street', which cements Tarantino's Blaxploitation-riffing credentials both in terms of its tone, and also its history (the song is titled after the 1972 film of the same name, itself a riff on Blaxploitation cinema). The shot was in fact designed as a loving homage to the opening sequence of 1967 classic The Graduate, as a disillusioned young Dustin Hoffman glides through an airport.

The remainder of the Jackie Brown soundtrack is just as enjoyable – in fact, it remains one of Tarantino's strongest compilations. As is usual, he decided on most of the songs while writing the screenplay, and the seamless transition between music and dialogue remains one of Jackie Brown's most luxuriant pleasures. From The Supremes' 'Baby Love' to Bill Withers' 'Who Is He', 'Tennessee Stud' by Johnny Cash to 'Inside My Love' by Minnie Riperton, the soundtrack is designed to cast a singular, nostalgic mood, drawing on a repertoire of soul and country hits drawn from Grier and Forster's generation. Through the music, Tarantino conveys the wisdom and achingly cool style of this grown-up love story.

What are some classic quotes from Jackie Brown?

Ordell: "When you absolutely, positively got to kill every last motherf****r in the room, accept no substitutes."

Ordell: "You shot Melanie?"

Ordell: "You can't trust Melanie, but you can trust Melanie to be Melanie."

Max: "I'll bet, besides maybe an afro, you look exactly how you did at 29."

Max: "Now you want me to speculate on what you do. My guess is you're in the drug business, except the money's moving the wrong way. Whatever you're into, you seem to be getting away with it, so more power to you."

Jackie: "Shut your raggedy-ass up, and sit the f**k down!" 

How was Jackie Brown received?

Following up Pulp Fiction was always going to be an impossible task – a movie that brash, that willing to break the rules was always going to cast a shadow for a very long time afterwards. So for that reason, the relatively more contemplative, subdued Jackie Brown seemed to catch people off guard. This wasn't a movie interested in shock value – instead, it focused on developing complex, nuanced characters (no doubt guided by the presence of Elmore Leonard's source novel), so the response to the movie at the time was relatively subdued.

That's not to say the movie got bad reviews (although controversy reigned over the script's repeated use of racial slurs). On the contrary, it received glowing responses from the likes of the late, great film critic Roger Ebert, who raved: "Tarantino leaves the hardest questions for last, hides his moves, conceals his strategies in plain view, and gives his characters dialogue that is alive, authentic and spontaneous".

The movie received Golden Globe nominations for both Grier and Jackson, and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Forster, although it lost out in all categories. Compared to Pulp Fiction, the movie's box office takings were relatively slim, $74 million against a budget of $12 million. However, the movie's reputation has only increased in time: earlier this year, Samuel L. Jackson named Ordell as one of his favourite characters. And for many, Jackie Brown still stands as Tarantino's most accomplished movie to date.

A six year gap would then follow, before the release of Tarantino's gleefully-anarchic, two-part, rip-roaring rampage of revenge, Kill Bill...

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is released on 14th August, so tweet us @Cineworld with your favourite Tarantino movies.