This is the third entry in my series of appreciating and exposing the criminally underrated and/or misunderstood masterpieces in film history.
Jackie Brown is the perfect Tarantino film for non-Tarantino fans. I guess it’s not that surprising that it also tends to be die-hard fans of the “Supreme DJ of Filmmakers” least favorite. While arguing about Tarantino’s place among some of the best directors in film history (Where I don’t think he belongs) with a friend who’s a fan of his, he compared Tarantino to a DJ who samples a bunch of older popular and obscure works and turns it into fresh, brand new art.
That’s why I call him the DJ of film. And that’s why a music purist like me who doesn’t have much love for the DJs has similar issues with Tarantino’s work, which is that he tends to only sample scenes from some of his favorite films (A lot of them so obscure they seem fresh to a new generation) instead of building his own stories while composing three-dimensional characters who can resemble real human beings instead of avatars to his self-proclaimed genius.
For example, I bet it’s possible to entirely remake Kill Bill by splicing together scenes from Hong Kong Kung-Fu films, Blaxploitation, Samurai films, Grindhouse fare from the 70s, Spaghetti Western and some Sam Peckinpah for good measure.
The more films one watches, the harder it gets to appreciate his work. It’s as if Toto is pulling the curtain and we see the real wizard behind it with all of his nifty tricks.
I believe this sentiment applies to almost all of Tarantino’s films, especially his later ones, except for Jackie Brown. That film contains not solely the only characters I can think of in a Tarantino film that lives and breathes on their own, instead of acting out as peons whose sole reason to exist is to spew out witty dialogue, they become actually interesting, engaging human being with real fears, insecurities and bold aspirations.
Maybe the fact that this is Tarantino’s only adaptation to date has a lot to do with this. Being a huge Elmore Leonard fan, maybe he decided to take a step back from his ego and let Leonard’s characters grow and breathe life into the story.
There’s a sort of calm and cool direction showcased by Tarantino that doesn’t exist in his other films, as if the complex heist plot is just there as an excuse to spend time with these wonderful characters. Even his use of songs, a trademark of his work, with more emphasis towards mellow R&B and soul, eases you into the film’s chill groove.
The Tarantino-esque touches still exist, of course, from Samuel L. Jackson’s John Woo-referencing dialogue about different types of guns, to jumping back and forth in time around the end of the second act. Jackson and Robert DeNiro’s gangster characters also smell of that all too familiar Tarantino-cool, even though they are depicted as older, weaker characters with flaws that become more apparent near the end.
It’s in the way it depicts the relationship between Pam Grier’s 44-year-old stewardess and Robert Forster’s 56-year-old bail bondsman where the movie really shines. The way the personal relationship organically develops between these two middle-aged people who are broken in their own different ways, through seasoned actors Grier and Forster’s mesmerizing performances, Jackie Brown becomes a joy to watch.
I could watch these two characters discuss what it means to get old while sipping coffee and listening to old soul records for hours. Some of the scenes between them carry the tenderness and attention to adult human interaction of, say, a John Cassavettes or Alexander Payne film.
In one of the special features on the Jackie Brown Blu-Ray, a critic makes the observation that this is the kind of film a seasoned director makes in his 50s, not a young firecracker who just defined youth pop culture with a movie like Pulp Fiction.
This is a film about disappointments and missed chances. Almost all of the cast is middle aged. Even the sexy surfer girl played by Bridget Fonda is at the tail end of looking young enough to still live off of richer men.
It’s a slower film relative to Tarantino’s other work. It’s just as long as Pulp Fiction, yet contains barely enough plot to fill one of the three stories from that film. Instead of rushing, Tarantino lets the characters come to life and before we know it, two-and-a-half hours or not, we are sucked in.
The violence is very minor as well. Everyone dies by one or two gunshots and the deaths mostly occur off-camera. It probably took a lot of restraint from Tarantino to scale back his exploitation cravings.
So when Jackie Brown came out, fans who expected another Pulp Fiction found it boring and meandering, and Tarantino responded some years later by giving them exactly what they want with Kill Bill. In a way, he went from 50 straight back to 12. With Inglorious Basterds, he barely reached his 20s. Django Unchained, Tarantino’s upcoming work also looks like just another vessel for him to keep jerking off on the silver screen. I guess we’ll always have Jackie Brown.