The third film from the iconic Quentin Tarantino, Jackie Brown (1997), is now 25 years old this year! After Pulp Fiction (1994) validated Tarantino as one of the great American filmmakers at the Cannes Film Festival, the following project would prove to his fanbase that he is capable of being versatile in the terms of tone and subject matter. It’s important to point out that a lot of moviegoers back then (and today) still find Quentin’s work to be unnecessarily violent, narratively chaotic and too focused on long dialogues. Jackie Brown is the most linear and least violent film he made up to that point, which makes it a strong contender to be his most accessible film to modern audiences.
In 2022, I believed it important to shed a light on Jackie Brown, as I think it is one of the most underrated classics of the 1990s and a special unique project in the Tarantino filmography. In this article, I hope my arguments will persuade you to revisit or even watch this film for the first time, as it is Tarantino at his most humble, and we can appreciate it more for that.
I couldn’t possibly discuss Jackie Brown without going back to the time I was originally introduced to Tarantino while I was in high school. The year was 2007, and most of my movie buddies at the time were obsessed with the Grindhouse: Double Feature project, an hommage to B-movies of the 1970s, that included two movies from two different directors (and let’s not forget the collection of fake movie trailers before the show). No joke, this is perhaps one of the most violent and gory movie projects that was in theatres in 2007, so not really on everyone’s radar and certainly not destined for a trendy revival in the streaming age. The directors were long-time friends: Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino (following their work on From Dusk Till Dawn in 1996) and shared a similar interest in stylish ultraviolence. The Tarantino movie in the dual feature was Death Proof, where Kurt Russell plays a retired stuntman who kills young ladies for fun with his car, which is now famous among Tarantino fans for being one of his lesser films. As I very much enjoyed Grindhouse, I felt the need to discover Tarantino’s previous work upon many recommendations from my friends. Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill: Volume 1 were of course the first popular entries on my list, and Jackie Brown was the last one recommended to me (as it was not as popular amongst my friends). With an all-star cast, including the popular niche blaxploitation star Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Micheal Keaton, Bridget Fonda and the one and only Robert De Niro, Jackie Brown was THAT exception that proved to us that Tarantino is not all violence and “Western Spaghetti”, he also has heart. This is what this movie has plenty of: a beating heart and a human soul.
When I saw the Blu-Ray of Jackie Brown on discount sitting on a shelf, I couldn’t resist and opted to try it again to see if I could fully appreciate it.
The plot is straightforward and follows the illegal operation of a Los Angeles arms dealer, Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson, dynamite performance). Obsessed with keeping both himself and his money safe from the authorities, he will try to cut out loose ends in his network, meaning getting rid of his “employees” who are facing jail time and thus, potential plea deals which would put him behind bars. Jackie Brown (Pam Grier, as an excellent femme fatale), a full-time flight stewardess working for Cabo Airlines, will see clear behind Ordell’s plan and will seize the opportunity and try to steal half a million dollars from him in cash. To do so, she will work on an ingenious plot with a local bail bondsman, Max Cherry (Robert Forster, Oscar-nominated for his performance here), who happens to fall in love with Jackie. Of course, so much money in a bag grabs the attention of many interested parties around them, including Ordell’s old cellmate freshly out of prison (Robert De Niro), an L.A. beach beauty (Bridget Fonda) and the L.A.P.D. detective assigned to the case (Michael Keaton). Who will play who? Who will get that pile of money? The movie will tell you!
After a first viewing, I’ll be honest, I didn’t like it and I didn’t get it. I believed at the time that the movie was too chatty, the stakes were low and the action was lacking. I’m glad I was able to prove myself wrong…but 15 years later. One reason could be that Jackie Brown is the only movie in Tarantino’s filmography that’s an adaptation as opposed to an original idea, it’s based on a 1992 crime heist novel by Elmore Leonard named Rum Punch. In this case, the director probably felt obligated to stick to the story, the characters and their lines as much as possible, which gives us the impression that he experiments with his medium a lot less here. Although his fondness of music, editing style and colour palettes are faithful to what we have seen before in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, this movie is less focused on action and free violent puns. This, however surprising, is a good thing because it allows it to breathe for us to get attached to the rich characters, most especially the slow-burn romance between Jackie and Max Cherry. All in all, more attention to the characters and their individual goals also means a deep respect for them, making it easy to get attached.
It’s Tarantino’s Most Romantic Film!
Even though Tarantino is the writer of True Romance (1993), I think it’s no secret that the movies he directed are not synonymous with on-screen romance (with a minor exception in Django Unchained in 2012), and I guess that’s okay. However, Jackie Brown is once again the exception here. The romance front and center, while subtle, is one that is particularly elegant and profoundly human. When the duo of Jackie Brown and Max Cherry find themselves having an honest conversation (while listening to The Delfonics) about aging and their fat going in the wrong places of their bodies without feeling too bad, there is something cute that gets you. The character of Max Cherry is my favourite for being the moral and charismatic anchor in a bad bunch, just a regular guy with good values, but that chooses to be surrounded by criminals as a bond bailsman. A successful entrepreneur and a good man, he finds himself seduced by Jackie, even though they have nothing in common. Although she is not dumb, Jackie’s backstory gives us the impression that she is a poor and incompetent criminal with nothing to her name. For example, she goes to jail multiple times, loses her good name in front of major employers for career opportunities and only makes $16,000 per year+ benefits with a cheap Mexican airline. However, it’s hard to disagree that Jackie has a sex appeal that is hard to describe and hard to resist, and Max falls for it as we do.
It was a big gamble for Tarantino to make a B-movie actress like Grier front and center in such a loaded cast, but goddamn, it works!
The Acting Is As Good As In Pulp Fiction
Unpopular opinion for sure, but there are some serious performances here that are perhaps equal in quality to what we have seen in Pulp Fiction. Samuel L. Jackson is one of Tarantino’s favourite actors, having played in most of his films. The character of Ordell is basically the devil dressed as an arms dealer (not really, but gives that impression). A murderous psychopath who is also funny and sophisticated (just like Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick and Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate as Lucifer himself), Jackson is brilliant in the role and perhaps as good as he was in Pulp Fiction as the hitman Jules. He has numerous scenes in Jackie Brown and he steals all of them. Hard to overshadow a star like Robert De Niro, who is way more subtle in this film, but Jackson pulls it off brilliantly. You’ll feel bad about feeling good about two guys watching women in bikinis sell AK-47s on TV from now on, believe me. A special mention for Pam Grier, Bridget Fonda and Robert Forster, they are all excellent as well!
For the hardcore geeks, you’ll be interested to know that Jackie Brown is the movie where Jackson says his infamous “motherf**cker” the most times.
Accessible To A Bigger Audience
As mentioned before, if you find yourself not especially devoted to Quentin’s work for his love for violence and obsession with the golden era of cinema, this movie might bring you a fresh perspective. At a runtime of 2 hours and 34 minutes, Jackie Brown is an easy and fun watch that won’t force you to look away. It’s a character movie that is elegant, stylish and profound, and where the few murders that occur do not show an overabundance of blood and guts. Do not let the long chatty scenes discourage you, the complexity of the plot and the numerous double-crosses will keep you glued to your couch. You’ll have a big smile during the intro and the closing of the movie at the sound of Across 110th Street by Bobby Womack, with scenes framed like an hommage to The Graduate (1967).
Tarantino didn’t come up with the idea for Jackie Brown, but he showed us that he has respect for smooth romance and charisma, which is why I hope that he’ll try to integrate key elements of Jackie Brown in his rumored tenth and final film.
Final Thoughts & Ranking
I have to be honest here: Jackie Brown is not, in my opinion, Tarantino’s greatest movie, regardless of how well it ages. The main factor for that is precisely for the reasons why it is unique: it is not 100% true to his own style. So, I’ll rephrase my question with this: is Jackie Brown Tarantino’s most unique film? The answer would be an easy yes (although Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood is also a discussion starter). For that, it is a fantastic film by our standards and it deserves the attention it lacked for the last 25 years.
My ultimate Tarantino movies ranking (after many revisions)!
1. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
2. Pulp Fiction (1994)
3. Django Unchained (2012)
4. Once upon a time in…Hollywood (2019)
5. Kill Bill – Volume 1 (2003)
6. Jackie Brown (1997)
7. Death Proof (2007)
8. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
9. The Hateful Eight (2015)
10. Kill Bill – Volume 2 (2004)