Watch this as soon as you can…
Coming second in a tournament will always appear disappointing if you have already won the same competition; likewise, creating an impressive piece of cinema will always be considered a disappoint if you are making a follow-up to what is widely, and rightfully, considered to be one of the best films of all time. This was Tarantino’s challenge in the late 90s as he was filming Jackie Brown, his first film after Pulp Fiction. For many, he failed to escape the shadow of his greatest work with his 1997 film about an air hostess (played by Pam Grier) who smuggles gun money from Mexico into the USA for the criminal Ordell Robbie (played by frequent Tarantino collaborator Samuel L. Jackson). Whilst this film may be different from Pulp Fiction, it is still a Tarantino classic in its own right, with plenty to impress.
From the outset, Tarantino seems to have deliberately embarked on a project that would differ from Pulp Fiction. For one, Jackie Brown is his first film adapted from a novel, Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch. He is not using an original screenplay here, and the hip ironic tone of his first two movies is replaced with a less chaotic narrative with a more gracious tone. His third film is also paying homage to a very different kind of genre, the 1970s blaxpoitation film, rather than early 20th century pulp crime magazines. Further, one of the most noticeable things about Tarantino’s third feature length film is how it is straight forward in structure. The chronology is mostly linear, apart from the final act, which could be a direct response to the fact Pulp Fiction is one of the most famous non-chronological narratives of all time. You could argue that this makes Jackie Brown less inventive, not as interesting, and far more conventional. However, the mostly linear chronology works well . The best thing about Tarantino’s films is how they are told. You can never imagine them being structured in any other way. Telling Jackie Brown more or less chronologically, differing from Pulp Fiction profoundly, allows for the slow release of information that keeps the audience hooked throughout.
Despite being different from his previous work, this film is still quintessentially Tarantino. There are still elements of non-linear chronology. In the final act, Jackie Brown is involved in an illegal exchange of a large sum of money. Whilst this may seem straight forward enough, one must consider the intelligence and scheming of the eponymous character. Earlier in the film, she is caught smuggling and is given an ultimatum: snitch on Ordell, a crime punishable by death, or go to prison. She, along with bail bondsman and admirer (Forster), hatches a scam to play both the cops and Ordell against each other. To capture the scheme, Tarantino depicts it three times, from the perspectives of three different sets of characters. The final act thus runs like a yo-yo, constantly moving backwards and forwards in time to reveal more and more information about what Jackie is doing. It makes a simple exchange far more complex and interesting; it arrests your attention for longer and never feels tedious. Non-linear chronology is one of Tarantino’s hallmarks, and he does employ it here to superb effect.
Other hallmarks of Tarantino can also be found here. There is a split-screen sequence that smoothly transitions into the film without feeling out of place or jolting. There is remarkable crane shot used to depict Ordell’s deceit as he does not drive Beaumont to a gun trade; rather, he drives him to the middle of nowhere to murder him. The tracking shots of Jackie Brown, framed so that we only see the side of her as she walks have the typical Tarantino magic you cannot look away from. The songs playing in the background, like the rest of the soundtrack, are also chosen with perfect accuracy. You could not imagine any other song working. Tarantino has an impressive ear, and eye, for cinema. His impeccable skill in casting is also present in his third movie. Pam Grier nails the smart, stylish and cunning character of Jackie Brown. Samuel L. Jackson is intimidating as the movie’s antagonist. Robert De Niro is clueless and lethargic as Louis, and always a joy to watch, even when he is not saying or doing anything of note. There may be less blood-baths and violence, and the film may be one of Tarantino’s longer pieces, but it is also oozing with many of the tropes that make Tarantino such a remarkable filmmaker.
Tarantino, as always, has directed a film that is technically impressive, remarkably told, and thoroughly entertaining. Despite the pressure of following one of the greatest films of all time, he further cements himself as one of the most important filmmakers alive today, and has created a film that soars high in its own right.