In 1994, Quentin Tarantino made Pulp Fiction, probably the most important American film of the 1990s. Three years later, his follow-up was Jackie Brown, an adaptation of Elmore Leonard‘s novel, which he overlaid with homage to his beloved blaxploitation genre. And just as he had with John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, Tarantino helped fuel a comeback for a star of the ’70s, putting Pam Grier in the lead role.
The film wasn’t nearly the cultural phenomenon that Pulp Fiction was, but it’s an extremely enjoyable film, combining first-rate dialog with a stylish California look and very good performances from a strong cast.
Another Los Angeles story, just like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown had something of a complex plot, involving flight attendant Jackie Brown (Grier) playing her arms dealer boss Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson) and the feds against each other, with the help of the clearly smitten bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster). Other key characters include Ordell’s ex-con sidekick (Robert De Niro), his bikini-clad girlfriend (Bridget Fonda), and a motormouthed crackhead who gets bumped off in the first ten minutes (Chris Tucker).
When I first saw Jackie Brown in 1997, I confess I was completely flummoxed by the plot, which involved a series of double-crosses, mostly involving a bag of money and portions of the money being taken at various times. Watching it again recently, I grasped it better, but the movie isn’t really about the plot so much as the characters.
They were led by Jackie Brown, who in Leonard’s novel was named Jackie Burke, was white, and living not in California but Florida. The book, published in 1992, had a similar conceit as John Grisham’s The Firm, from around the same time and also made into a movie: the hero gets arrested, gets stuck between the criminals and law enforcement, and ultimately outsmarts them both. It’s a truly smart screenplay, joining Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and the Justified TV series as the best Elmore Leonard adaptations. And because Michael Keaton plays the same fed character in this that he did in Out of Sight the following year, we know they’re in the same universe.
But while the hero of The Firm was a hotshot young lawyer, Jackie Brown is a middle-aged, down-on-her-luck flight attendant. Grier capably embodies this character, shown taking huge risks but still coming out ahead.
Ordell is another fantastic creation, an arms dealer with a fake ponytail who uses a promotional video (“Chicks Who Love Guns”) to hawk his weapons:
There’s also Ordell’s vocabulary, in which practically every other word is either the n-word or “motherfucker,” with the heavy use of the racial slur a huge surge of controversy around the time of its release.
Max Cherry, meanwhile, is probably the suavest bail bondsman ever in movies. Much like Grier, Robert Forster was also plucked somewhat from obscurity after a 1970s heyday. But Forster continued to work, regularly, up until his death in 2019; and also in quite a few posthumously released projects, including the later seasons of Better Call Saul.
While Pulp Fiction got lots of Oscar nominations and even won Best Original Screenplay, Jackie Brown had less success of that kind in the Titanic-dominated year of 1997, and its only Academy Award nod was for Forster, for Best Supporting Actor; he lost to Robin Williams, for Good Will Hunting. As for the box office, Jackie Brown earned $39.7 million domestically, which wasn’t huge money — it, of course, opened a week after Titanic — although it made more than its budget.
Jackie Brown‘s reputation has improved over time, as one of Tarantino’s more beloved films; you can watch it now on all VOD platforms.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.