Response was, um, muted to Quentin Tarantino’s eagerly awaited follow-up to his galvanizing 1994 megasmash Pulp Fiction.
Film-goers expecting the jackhammer pacing, fragmented storyline and audacious attitude of that fabled urban adventure were frankly bewildered by this slow-burning drama with its world weary middle-aged characters and linear narrative.
I saw the film originally during its theatrical run and savored it again on DVD.
More than ten years later I watched it for a third time on Netflix and I gotta say the film has aged remarkably well.
Pam Grier is the title character, a desperate stewardess (excuse me, flight attendant) caught in a squeeze play between an ambitious FBI agent (Ray Nicolet, played by a wired Michael Keaton) and a casually homicidal drug dealer (Ordell Robbie, played with lip-smacking relish by the one and only Samuel L. Jackson). Turns out, Ms. Brown has ambitious plans of her own. But to carry them out, she’ll need the help of her new best friend, veteran bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster)
Part of the reason the film works so well is the casting.
Robert Forster won raves in 1969’s Medium Cool, only to end up toiling in Z-movie hell. Ms. Grier spent some hard years following her 1970s heyday as a blaxploitation queen. Both performers could relate to the idea of two middle-aged loners shooting for a second chance. This film represented an opportunity to jumpstart their stalled careers and they made the most of it.
Forster earned an Oscar nomination. Ms. Grier was nominated for a Golden Globe and if you have read her autobiography Foxy: My Life in 3 Acts you know she is damn proud of the honor. I mean, it must have been sweet to finally win some recognition for her acting abilities. And if you pick up her book (and you really should – it’s a gripping and brutally honest account of her struggles as an African-American and as a woman ) you will also know that she has always taken her craft seriously (even though she has too often been hired for her striking physical presence rather than her talent.)
It took a geekozoid auteur like Mr. Tarantino to see her true potential and write a role specifically for her. Adapting his script from Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, in which one of the characters, Jackie Burke, is a white, blonde stew living in Florida, QT changed the character to an African-American stewardess living in L.A. and renamed her Jackie Brown (a homage to Ms. Grier’s iconic 1974 hit Foxy Brown).
The changes bring a whole new flavor and character to the story while managing to retain the unique spirit and wit of Mr. Leonard’s pungent prose. The author, who has seen his share of bad films adapted from his excellent novels (I’ve read just about all of them, including Rum Punch) tells Jeff Hudson in a 2004 interview in The Guardian Jackie Brown is one of his favorite adaptations. “Quentin called me just before he went into production and he said, ‘I’ve been afraid to call you for the last year’,” Leonard recalls. “And I said, ‘Why? Because you changed the title and you cast a black woman in the lead?’ And he said, ‘Yeah’. And I said, ‘Well, you’re the film-maker, go ahead. We saved it for you’.” For more of the interview click on the link below:
If you ask me. Ms. Grier should have received a nod from the Academy as well. After all, Mr. Forster shares most of the scenes in his (well-deserved) Oscar-nominated performance with our heroine.
You only have to look at the memorable scene (mentioned in a previous post) in which the camera lingers on her face as conflicting emotions play across her classic ebony features. The intriguing mix of strength, vulnerability, sadness and survival instincts that fuel her character could also define Ms. Grier as well. (Like I said, read her book.)
The casting in supporting roles also works wonders. Bridget Fonda may have latched onto the role of her lifetime as Melanie, an aging beach bunny who has the looks but not the cool of a classic surfer girl. And you gotta love the great Robert De Niro as Robbie’s former cellmate, Louis Gara. He may have been a Young Turk of the yard when Ordell knew him but prison time and substance abuse have slowed him down. Way down.
Jackie Brown has a gritty urban vibe all its own: savvy performances from a dream cast, that patented Tarentino/Leonard wit and a soulful soundtrack (I have always been a sucker for the melted-chocolate harmonies of The Delfonics).
PS Even though Jackie Brown is arguably atypical of Mr. Tarantino’s work, past and present, there are still some subtle (and not so subtle) winks at popular culture.
For example, in the scene in which Louis is watching TV while Melanie dozes on the sofa, the movie playing on the screen is a notorious 1974 Peter Fonda turkey called Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry.
The judge in Jackie’s courtroom scene is none other than Sid Haig, who frequently played a sleazebag in early Pam Grier flicks like The Big Bird Cage and Coffy.
The lettering in the opening credits is a direct nod to the lettering style often used in Seventies blaxploitation films