Jackie Brown: homage to 70s cult film heroine and nostalgia with a subtext about surviving in a brutal world not far beneath the surface

Quentin Tarantino, “Jackie Brown” (1997)

Of the early films directed by Quentin Tarantino that have achieved cult status, perhaps the jewel of them all is this ensemble piece based on Elmore Leonard’s crime thriller “Rum Punch”. “Jackie Brown” was intended as a homage to its star Pam Grier and the early 1970s blaxploitation films in which she played action heroine Foxy Brown. Throughout “Jackie Brown” there are many references to the period of the early to mid-70s, notably in the songs played during the movie, though the film itself is set some time during the mid-1980s. The film did not just resurrect Pam Grier’s career; it also revived Robert Forster’s film and television career, and both actors have enjoyed some success (if not very much publicity) since then.

When we first meet the eponymous Jackie (Grier), she is a 44-year-old flight stewardess working for a low budget Mexican airline pulling in a meagre wage that doesn’t quite pay the rent so to make ends meet she resorts to carrying contraband such as illegally obtained guns and cash for gun-runner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L Jackson) from Mexico to the US on the planes where she works. On one such trip though, Agent Nicolette (Michael Keaton) from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and police detective Dargus (Michael Bowen) have planted a small amount of cocaine in her bag to entrap her with the intent to turn her into an informant to help them arrest Ordell. Faced with jail time over her silence, Brown agrees to work with the feds. Ordell offers to pay her bail using bail money arranged with bail bondsman Max Cherry (Forster) originally to bail out another person who worked for Ordell but whom Ordell shot when that fellow was entrapped and forced to turn informant.

After tricking Ordell with a gun when he tries to kill her, Brown negotiates a deal with Ordell to pretend to work with the feds and smuggle $550,000 of his money from Mexico into the US to give him so he can retire. Brown agrees to work with Nicolette and Dargus in swapping Ordell’s cash in a bag identical to a bag supplied by Ordell’s unreliable accomplices, surfer chick Melanie (Bridget Fonda) and ex-con Louis Cardell (Robert de Niro). But Brown herself is planning to spring a surprise on both Ordell and the authorities by nicking $500,000 and bolting off with it. The only person who’s aware of what Brown aims to do is Cherry who has fallen in love with her.

Although the film is long and much of it is given over to intricate plot detailing, beginning with Ordell’s disposal of Brown’s predecessor Beaumont Livingston (Chris Tucker) which could have been dispensed with altogether or dealt with in flashback sequence, “Jackie Brown” holds well together: the intricate plot with its constant double-crossing forces viewers to pay close attention and generates tension that gradually builds to the climax. The plot strands keep the film focused yet allow subplot fragments to emerge, develop and finish, even if incompletely.

Thanks in part to an excellent cast, there is considerable character exposition for most of the main characters: Jackson gives Ordell surprising depth as a vicious criminal hiding behind a laidback demeanour; de Niro at his most understated gives a good sense of his role Louis as a mediocrity who can’t succeed even in crime; Fonda plays her stoned addict with a surprising snippy nature to perfection; and even Tucker in his tiny scene blows off Jackson with improvised dialogue. The standout performances of course are those of Grier whose character barely wings her way with bluster under immense pressure, and of Forster whose stoicism and caution hide a soul yearning for romance but in the end retreats to the comfort and security of convention. We get a sense of people whose potential is wasted either through no fault of their own or through indolence and thoughtless anger; of people living in difficult circumstances and coping as best as they can, though this means they break the law or engage in unethical activity; of two people who fall in love at a late stage in life but recognise that they can’t live together – even though they dislike their dead-end jobs – because one prefers stability and the other craves excitement and spontaneity. The sense of a rich context underlying most of the main characters, the worlds they move in and the potential clash of subcultures and values that might occur when they meet, is what gives the film its cracking energy.

Had Tarantino explored this context a bit more, and pushed much more the film’s underlying theme of little people doing what they can to survive in a brutal world in which hustling and self-interest become ends in themselves and the overriding social values that trump all others, “Jackie Brown” would be assured of a place among Hollywood crime thriller classics.