Three Reasons to Watch: Jackie Brown
Every week, we pick a key film from the Curzon Home Cinema collection. This week, as Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood rages through cinemas, we take a look at Quentin Tarantino’s cool crime adaptation.
Jackie Brown opens with one of the greatest songs of the 1970s: Bobby Womack’s ‘Across 110thStreet’. Named after the street that traverses Manhattan, from Riverside Drive in the west, cutting along the north side of Central Park to one block south of Jefferson Park on the east, but more importantly the dividing line that marks the beginning of Harlem, Womack’s song was the theme to the eponymous 1972 crime drama.
So why would a song about a New York neighbourhood play as the opening track of a film set in and around Los Angeles county? The answer lies in the genre. Womack’s soundtrack to the film – and the main theme in particular – has become one of the defining sounds of Blaxploitation cinema, the group of films that appeared in the 1970s whose main protagonists were African American and whose stories were located within black communities. The trend began with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft (1971), and went on to include Super Fly (1972), Hell Up in Harlem and Cleopatra Jones (both 1973). It made stars out of Richard Roundtree, Tamara Dobson, ex-football player Fred Williams and the star of Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), Pam Grier, who takes centre stage here as the titular character in Tarantino’s third feature.
Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s only adaptation to date. A long-time fan of the American writer Elmore Leonard, who was best known for his crime fiction but also turned his hand to westerns and pulp fiction, Tarantino chose to adapt the author’s 1992 novel ‘Rum Punch’. It wasn’t the first time Leonard had been adapted, but it came along in the period that saw the best screen versions of the author’s work. In 1995, Barry Sonnenfeld directed the slick Get Shorty.
After Jackie Brown, Steven Soderbergh made Out of Sight (1998). Both those films were adapted by Scott Frank. Unlike previous Leonard adaptations, Frank and Tarantino’s scripts revelled in the playfulness of Leonard’s writing – its ability to shift from witty street banter to high-octane action and even brutal violence. If earlier films felt patchy, unconvincing even, these films balanced detailed characterisation with complex plotting and rhythms that shifted between the laconic in quieter moments and dynamic as the narratives edged towards their climax. Jackie Brown and Out of Sight even had an actor/character link, in the form of Michael Keaton’s not-quite-so-bright ATF agent Ray Nicolette.
After his success in Tarantino’s Cannes-winning – and era-defining – sophomore feature Pulp Fiction (1994), Samuel L. Jackson stepped up to the plate as Jackie Brown’s villain Ordell Robbie, a gun trafficker who uses Jackie Brown, an air steward for a low-rent airline, to ship a sizeable personal fortune from Mexico back into the US. When she’s arrested, Ordell agrees to Jackie’s plan to bring the rest of the money in to the US, but adopting a ploy to fool the AFT and LAPD officers tailing her. But having struck up a friendship with bail bondsman Max Cherry, played by another 1970s US movie stalwart Robert Forster, Jackie has her own plans. Jackson is fire and fury to Cherry’s calmly untroubled professional, with Jackie in the middle – exuding calm but a rage of emotions beneath the surface.
It’s Grier and Forster’s performances that make Jackie Brown so rich. Jackson is on top form, as are Bridget Fonda and Robert De Niro as Ordell’s girl and old prison buddy. But in Jackie and Max, Tarantino explores the lives of people who feel they missed their chance only to find themselves thrown one last opportunity. Tarantino’s deft handling of the scam Jackie hatches – showcasing just how good a director he is – is a pleasure to savour. But the film’s power lies in the quieter conversations, between Jackie and Max as they discuss ageing, or Jackie and Ordell as he realises he has long underestimated her.
Tarantino’s writing is fluid and surprisingly poignant. If both Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction display the flash and fury of a wunderkind filmmaker, Jackie Brown is a beautiful and mature work by an artist fully in command of his medium and producing a film that feels no need to hurry in order to keep its audiences’ attention. The influence of Blaxploitation notwithstanding, Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s least referential film and it remains one of his most pleasurable.
Three reasons to watch Jackie Brown
Pam Grier. She was great as Coffy and Foxy Brown, but in each of those films was subservient to male characters. Here, Pam Grier excels as Tarantino’s heroic air steward, who takes on both sides of the law in order to have the life she’s dreamed of.
The music. A Tarantino soundtrack is always a draw, but who would have thought that the film’s standout track is not Bobby Womack’s but The Delfonic’s sweetly melancholy ‘Didn’t I Blow Your Mind (this time)’. The remainder veers between country and funk, and never puts a foot wrong.
The problem of Beaumont. A low-level employee of Ordell’s, played by Chris Tucker, who gets in trouble with the law, it’s clear from the outset he’s a liability. Tarantino films Ordell’s solution to him, in one single take, as The Brothers Johnson’s ‘Stawberry Letter 23’ plays on the car stereo. It’s just one of the many brilliantly staged set-pieces in the film
Jackie Brown is available to watch on Curzon Home Cinema throughout August