"Jackie Brown" has always been something of a black sheep in writer-director Quentin Tarantino's catalog. It's not as startling as his debut, "Reservoir Dogs." It's not as iconic as "Pulp Fiction." It's not as endlessly cool and epic as the "Kill Bill" films. It's not as fun as his "Death Proof" segment from "Grindhouse." It's not as audacious as "Inglourious Basterds." Other than his section in the disastrous "Four Rooms," no Tarantino joint gets as little love as "Jackie Brown," And yet it's probably the movie of his I adore the most. Part of the reason is probably why everyone else overlooks it.
Released on Christmas Day 1997, "Jackie Brown" (which is out on Blu-ray today) was Tarantino's much-anticipated follow-up to "Pulp Fiction," the movie that essentially established him as a Major Filmmaker. Yes, "Four Rooms" had come out shortly after "Pulp Fiction," but that was just a lark and nobody really thought it was indicative of his actual talent. And while "Jackie Brown" was roundly praised, its positive reviews were generally tempered with an admission that, OK, fine, it's not as good as "Pulp Fiction." The consensus was that the movie was a bit slower and a little less focused than his previous features. A good movie but not a great one.
It's funny how Tarantino has seemingly responded to that criticism -- and how I've responded to those films. The "Kill Bill" movies, "Death Proof" and "Inglourious Basterds" have all been extremely accomplished, but I've found them to only be sporadically emotionally involving. They're film-geek movies that don't seem to have enough real life in them. That's what "Jackie Brown" has in abundance. I miss it in his movies.
Based on an Elmore Leonard novel, "Jackie Brown" concerns the plight of Jackie ('70s blaxploitation figure Pam Grier), a down-on-her-luck Southern California stewardess who makes extra money smuggling dough for a local criminal, Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). But through a series of complications, Jackie has to avoid being killed by Ordell, which involves her working with an ATF agent (Michael Keaton) and a kindly bail bondsman (Robert Forster). But despite a blossoming attraction between herself and the bondsman, Jackie really is on her own, trying to stay ahead of the law and the men out to kill her.
As much as Tarantino is praised for his sparkling, leisurely dialogue, "Jackie Brown" might be his most hanging-around movie, with characters coming in and out of focus, always talking and doing their own thing. Even the love affair between Grier and Forster is more theoretical than real, their conversations about getting older and living with their middle-aged resignations a substitute for the type of flirtatious banter you usually get in romantic films. It's not as if there isn't a story here, but rather than the revved-up intensity of Tarantino's earlier films, "Jackie Brown" slowly unveils Jackie's plan to escape with a bunch of money and her life. We don't always know what she's thinking, but there's no question she's thinking at all times, and much of the fun is seeing how it all plays out.
Tarantino has had a reputation for giving us strong female characters, but there's something deeply impressive about Grier's performance as this beaten-down stewardess. Tarantino was only 34 when "Jackie Brown" came out, but the film feels like it was made by a much older, wiser man. The movie's incredibly sympathetic and moving in its portrayal of this woman and the bail bondsman who would love her if only circumstances were different. Tarantino hadn't abandoned his reference-heavy style on "Jackie Brown," but there's a sweetness and melancholy that had never poked its head out before -- and, sadly, only rarely since. For as funny and violent as "Jackie Brown" is, it's the one Tarantino movie whose characters I still think about. Sure, they're not as memorable as the many other creations he's given us over the years, but I feel like I know these people. Tarantino went in another direction after this film, and many people (including a lot of critics) have been happy to follow him. But my heart belongs to "Jackie."