Jackie Brown (1997) dir. Quentin Tarantino writ. Tarantino (from the novel Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard) cine. Guillermo Navarro star. Pam Grier (Jackie Brown), Samuel L. Jackson (Ordell Robbie), Robert de Niro (Louis), Bridget Fonda (Melanie) (Surfer Girl), Michael Keaton (Dect. Ray Nicolet), Robert Forster (Max Cherry)
It's a truism that any film scripted from a novel is better than those that aren't in terms of depth. Elmore Leonard writes novels of character and setting while Quentin Tarantino writes scripts of attitude and sensation. In theory, this should be a good production combo as a typical Leonard hero is an aging pragmatist fighting it out with a bunch of hoods heavy on attitude, low on intellect.
The hero this time is a woman, Jackie Brown (Grier), a Hispanic black who is fighting the odds as a low-paid stewardess ($16 thou a year) with a record (dope) on a nothing airline doing the surf 'n' turf run between L.A. and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Like many minority women trying to escape the birth-curse of victimhood and citizenship without real social security, she's forced into crime as the only means of survival. As is typical of such Leonard characters, she's a sympathetic figure because of her gutsy street-smarts and female vulnerability, a faded beauty on the threshold of middle-age and deepening loneliness.
Her sexuality is sustained through the eyes of the alter-hero, Max Cherry, the bail bondsman who becomes her accomplice in crime if not in love everlasting. Max is also middle-aged and single, a straight-shooter whose life on the edge of crime hasn't eroded his spirit with cynicism but given him a secular pragmaticism familiar from American films of yore ie. the soft-talking leader of the waggon train or the team. A loner whose isolation is a matter of integrity, not lovelessness.
In essence, Max and Jackie are typical of many Americans in the nineties, facing the wounding march towards old age unmarried, without meaningful friends or family. The problem is more acute for Jackie.
Jackie: I ain't going back to jail... how do you feel about getting old, Max?
Max: I never think about it.
Jackie: Different for a woman. I always feel like I'm starting over.
Jackie's problem is that she got busted bringing in some crime money from Mexio plus a few grams of coke for Ordell Robbie (Jackson), a black homicidal gun dealer who lives in a beach front condo with a white chick, "Surfer Girl" (Fonda), who now perceives her as a threat to his business. The cops are clearly onto him, as a minor runner is arrested with some guns and they have been stalking Jackie Brown.
Jackson's performance as the "bad ass nigga" Ordell Robbie is superb. First we see him relaxing with a recently paroled associate called Louis (de Niro) watching a video, Chicks With Guns, wherein a parade of shapely bimbos demonstrate the fire power of a variety of automatics, from the Tech 9 (the most popular in America) through to the infamous AK-47.
Ordell: AK-47, absolutely, positively the best there is... when you got to kill every motherfuck in the room, accept no substitutes... that's the Chinese model, I git 'em for 850.
Typical of the black voodoo male, Ordell orders his woman to fix his drinks, answer his phone... and she does so contemptuously, although it's more because it's an inconvenience to her hash smoking than an affront to her pride. She thinks Ordell is full of shit, doesn't know anything about guns, is faking it.
Melanie: (to Louis) He's not too bright... he moves his lips when he breathes... he's a fuckup.
She doesn't know it yet but in fact she's describing Louis.
As an unlikely "white trophy" girlfriend and respondent of Ordell's black jive sexism, she lives in sort of coma, shaped by the hippy past (she drives a VW bus, listens to psychedelic music) and the multicultural present, doomed by her inability to see crime and criminals as more than a sexual fantasy... and to keep her jeering mouth shut. Towards the end, when she's shot in the parking lot by Louis, you recognize the problem as her lack of judgement, not his lack of control.
However, Ordell is soon revealed as a nasty piece of work. In a real time scene typical of many that allow dialogue rather than action to move the story, he visits Max Cherry, posts bond for Beaumont, his recently arrested "employee". There's nothing altruistic in this, as he follows up with a visit to Beaumont, deceives him into climbing into the trunk of an Oldsmobile sedan, drives to a waste lot behind a gas depot, shoots him. He drives to a whore's house, collects Louis, opens the trunk, shows him the body.
Louis: Who's that?
Ordell: That's Beaumont, an employee I had to let go... a clear cut case of him or me... and there ain't no motha fuckin' way it was gonna be me. Now, Louis, if you're gonna come in on this deal you better be prepared to go all the way....
By now you're thinking, is this fellow Louis also two bricks short of a load? A man of few words, with basic appetites, primitive like the two bracelet tattoos on his left wrist. Left alone with Surfer Girl, he's soon smoking hash and screwing her -- not by his own desire and manipulation but by hers. Sex is just like junk food -- he unzips, takes her from behind as if the missionary position would be too personal, too removed from the hit and run reality of life with no fixed address except the penitentiary. He drifts like a mental patient on lithium, his tranquility a false lagoon concealing the soul of a failed criminal. He too is on the broken path of middle-age.
Later, in the Cockatoo Inn, Louis admits he had sex with Surfer Girl.
Ordell: Ah hope you felt appropriately guilty afterwards. (they laugh) She tryin' to play your ass against mine.
The closest to human sympathy and regret Ordell comes is when he shoots Louis after the money exchange scam:
Ordell: What tha fuck happened to you, man? Your ass used to be beautiful.
Then he finishes with him another bullet.
It seems improbable, but Max Cherry falls in love with Jackie Brown at first sight. Maybe it isn't love. Maybe it's like a Fata Morgana, a mirage driven by a middle-age crisis, a desire to be in love but only a trick of distance and the light. He sees her emerge from the shadows, leaving the jail, immediately hits on her, takes her for a drink. She steals his gun and uses it to outwit Ordell who tries to strangle her, solve problem number two. Jackie is too smart, too hip, for the transparent charm that Ordell dispenses like a pimp. Her survivalism is typical Elmore Leonard, who never allows Evil the final hand in his universe.
Jackie devises a plan to get free of Ordell, the cops, her lousy job and the slavery of being poor and 44. She will get Ordell's Cabo money for him as part of a sting operation with the cops. With Max Cherry's help, she intends to outwit them all, keep the half mil and -- like all movie desperadoes with a dream -- go somewhere nice and warm. The complexity of the exchange is handled extremely well and Tarantino demonstrates undeniable talent in the way he structures the narrative at this point.
The action is at a mall in Torrance, involves a switcharama routine with two identical shopping bags. With so many characters and a tradition of real time sequencing the challenge is to make the action comprehensible as well as maintaining tension. Using several cleverly inserted flashbacks within the mall frame, Tarantino manages to reveal the scam and advance the action without compromising story, character or naturalism. In all, it's an excellent example of recovered narrative from several P.O.Vs, using a technique of withheld information and revelation by circumstance.
An old Leonard trick (and one which Tarantino has also used) is to measure characters against their preference in music, invariably nostalgic baggage from their youth. Jackie listens to the Delfonics, while Surfer Girl (Melanie) listens to acid pop. Ordell apparently digs Johnny Cash which, with Max's conversion to the Delfonics, completes the cross-cultural fantasy of both hero and villain.
So much of American film is rooted in the convention of second-time around hustlers trying to get easy money that you expect cliched expositions of violence and casual death as part of the gun-drama fantasy genre. Certainly Tarantino has been guilty of the guns-are-hip obsession. In Leonard's novels, guns are matter of fact, tools used to play the game. There's nothing mystical in Leonard, although Tarantino gets closer to it through sheer ignorance, degenerate stereotyping, the world according to what he saw and read as a kid. But with the solid sociology of Leonard's well-researched novel as a foundation, Tarantino has managed to maximize his true talent as a pop culture dramatist and imagist.
© LR 9/98
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