A fight attendant finds herself caught between a drug dealer and the police.
Quentin Tarantino, 1997
When she gets arrested for smuggling cocaine and cash from Mexico to the United States, flight attendant Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) finds herself caught between a rock and a hard place. The rock, violent dealer and Jackie’s boss Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), is a slick operator, ruthlessly protective of his money and more than willing to kill anyone who crosses him. The hard place, cops Ray (Michael Keaton) and Mark (Michael Bowen), are threatening to send Jackie away for a longer sentence than the charge would usually carry unless she snitches on Ordell. But when bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) is sent to pick up Jackie from jail, she finds in him an unexpected ally. She soon hatches a plan to make it out of her predicament, but Ordell’s lackies Melanie (Bridget Foster) and Louis (Robert DeNiro) throw a spanner in the works.
This is an underrated offering from Quentin Tarantino that focuses more on his lightning fast self-referential dialogue than it does on blood and action. It’s a fairly straight forward narrative, too, only diverging towards the end when Jackie’s plan is put into motion. The titular character doesn’t do any fighting at all. Instead the film’s about posturing and power play, the intersection of criminals and cops and the people who get caught in the crossfire. Jackie Brown is a woman in an unfair world who uses her wits and her attitude to navigate it, and Pam Grier does a fantastic job of making her badass, vulnerable, and likeable, so that you’re rooting for her even when she’s being less than innocent. In fact, the performances are good across the board; Grier’s leading man Robert Forster is a cool customer, Samuel Jackson shuts everything down every time he opens his mouth, and DeNiro and Bridget Foster milk their supporting characters for all they’re worth. There’s a genuine, easy chemistry between Grier and Forster, too. The movie has an almost laconic aesthetic, with funk and soul music underscoring the characters’ actions against a bright and colourful LA backdrop. The use of music is largely diegetic; for the most part, the characters are listening to the same music we are, which is a nice touch.
There are a couple of genuinely shocking twist moments in Jackie Brown, mostly coming from Robert DeNiro’s dull but anxious ex-con Louis. While the movie is less action-heavy than most of Tarantino’s other offerings, when it gets violent it goes for shock value rather than bloody massacre; these moments are all the more believable for their sudden brutality. Ordell is scary because there’s a constant threat of violence lurking just beneath his friendly veneer and horrible hair (seriously, it’s awful). There’s a nice slow build of tension that keeps the momentum going throughout the movie. It does get a little slow in places, and its 2+ hour runtime seems unnecessary; there are definitely scenes that could have been pared back a little. The cops also don’t play as well as they could; Michael Keaton does okay with what he’s given, but they could be a much more real threat with a little work. I had hoped for a little more Pam Grier kicking butt, but at the end of the day that’s not the kind of movie this is, and the kind of movie this is, is a pretty darn good one.
Jackie Brown on IMDb