Expectations were sky high after Quentin Tarantino stunned the film world with the double barrel greatness of ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and ‘Pulp Fiction.’
It’s one reason why his third directorial effort, the slow and soulful “Jackie Brown,” was met with indifference in some quarters.
The 1997 film, out this week on Blu-ray, deserves a second, longer look. Tarantino had more up his sleeve than simply reviving the stalled careers of Pam Grier and Robert Forster. ‘Jackie Brown’ is a tribute to patient, clear-eyed storytelling as much as it is a wet kiss to the blaxploitation era.
The luminous Pam Grier stars as Jackie Brown, a blue-collar flight attendant who makes extra cash by smuggling money for an arms dealer named Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson). When Jackie runs into ATF officials trying to bring Ordell down, she decides to cooperate with the law. But she also lets Ordell know precisely what the agents want her to do. And, if that weren’t enough to juggle, she’s gotten a weary bondsman (Forster) to do her bidding.
Based on Elmore Leonard’s novel ‘Rum Punch,’ ‘Jackie Brown’ purrs with a slow and steady engine built for distance. We get to know each of Tarantino’s characters without the director’s signature flourishes to distract us. That means spending down time Ordell’s stoner girlfriend (an uber-sexy Bridget Fonda) as well as his partner in crime (Robert De Niro in one of the quietest performances in his career).
Tarantino tends to let his gift for gab drain the tension from otherwise grand movie moments. Here, the dialogue serves the characters, the characters, in turn, serve the story at large. It’s a near perfect balance, and a sign that the still-young director possessed a serenity beyond his years. Then again, it’s easy to be at peace when you’ve got Jackson vibrating danger as the film’s villain.
Ordell might be the savviest crook in the director’s rogues gallery. You can practically hear his mind calculating a half-dozen angles before letting that slow, sly grin creep back onto his face.
Grier, strutting through the film as if her character had already read the next three pages of the script, stands toe to toe with Ordell. Her sexy sneer puts even the ATF agents (Michael Keaton, Michael Bowen) back on their heels no matter how much evidence they’ve stacked against her. Jackie’s relationship with the bondsman provides even more friction, a middle-aged flirtation between souls sick of their ordinary lives.
No Tarantino discussion is complete without addressing his musical selections. For ‘Jackie Brown,’ the director dips into his oldies songbook anew for tracks from The Delfonics, The Grass Roots and Bloodstone, among others. The choices aren’t obvious – Tarantino the DJ never goes that route – but they add to the sensual vibe behind Jackie’s master plan.
Tarantino films like ‘Kill Bill’ and ‘Pulp Fiction’ deliver far more razzle dazzle than anything found in ‘Jackie Brown,’ and the film lacks the kind of instant pop culture gold he mines almost without effort. But age has been more than kind to Tarantino’s third film. And seeing it today, when most movies bombard us with shaky cams and byzantine plot twists, makes its casual charms all the more rewarding.
The packed Blu-ray edition includes deleted and alternate scenes plus a collection of older material including an interview with Tarantino, the ‘Siskel & Ebert’ review of the film circa 1997, the ‘Chicks with Guns’ video featured in the film and movie trailers featuring both Grier and Forster.