I break Quentin Tarantino’s career up into two stages. The first stage consists of his first three films, which are all crime movies, are all set in L.A., and which all just feel very much like “Quentin Tarantino movies” (a genre unto itself back in the 90s, if you lump in all the pretenders). After those first three films, he took a pretty lengthy six year break, and then he came back and started exploring other genres, making movies that were largely homages to the B-cinema he enjoyed in his youth. While there’s a soft spot in my heart for most of Inglorious Basterds, in general I prefer that first stage of Tarantino’s career to what came after.
And as far as that first trilogy of crime films goes, I think most people are in agreement that Pulp Fiction is the masterpiece. It was the one that broke down the doors of the movie industry and ushered indie filmmaking into the mainstream, and it’s the one most often referenced when people talk about his career; so I’m not going to focus on that one here. I’m going to focus instead on Tarantino’s debut feature Reservoir Dogs, which was the film that first got heads turned in his direction, and which still gets mentioned right alongside Pulp Fiction as badass things from the 90s. And also I’m going to focus on Jackie Brown, which is kind of the forgotten Tarantino film. This is one that doesn’t get brought up much these days, unless it’s to talk about how it was too long and indulgent, or how it was a disappointing followup to the revolutionary Pulp Fiction. I’ve even heard it described as a misfire. But I don’t think that’s fair; I consider Jackie Brown to be Tarantino’s second best work.
What do they have in common?
They both include Tarantino’s famous “trunk shot,” where he places the camera inside the trunk of a car. They both have kickin’ throwback soundtracks. They both tell their stories using Tarantino’s patented, jumbled up timeline method. And probably they both have telltale signs of Tarantino’s gross foot fetish, but I forgot to catalogue them. Basically, they’re two peas in a pod.
Why is Reservoir Dogs overrated?
While Tarantino’s fusing of ultra-violence and pop culture soaked chatter was revolutionary enough to make this movie seem really fresh back in 1992, decades of imitators have taken the shine off of it enough that its flaws are a lot more apparent when you watch it with modern eyes. When this movie first came out it seemed so cool that basically the whole thing was just guys standing around and talking in a warehouse. But, watching it now, you really start to realize that the whole movie is basically just guys standing around and talking in a warehouse. And the dialogue, it doesn’t seem so fresh anymore. All of the characters in this movie are slightly different takes on the same tough guy archetype, and listening to them posture around each other gets tiring. This is the sort of movie that has a character deliver the line, “You shoot me in a dream you better wake up and apologize,” with a straight face and still expects me to take it seriously. Sorry, but I’m not quite buying it anymore.
The then unique, now tired approach to snappy dialogue and excessive violence messes up the character development going on, as well. Am I really supposed to believe that all of these grizzled criminal types sit around all day talking about pop music from the 70s? A lot of Tarantino’s movies suffer from the problem of all the characters talking like the author, whether it makes sense or not, and Reservoir Dogs is one of the worst offenders. And what’s the deal with Michael Madsen’s character? Twice in this movie he goes completely crazy, in the bank robbery shootout and during the lengthy torture sequence, but during the rest of the film he acts completely contrary to such outrageous behavior. Lawrence Tierney and Chris Penn’s characters seem to have known him for his entire life, and they don’t seem to think that he’s capable of doing things like this, yet he does them anyway. And we never get any explanation as to why. It’s never brought to light what’s making him tick. Watching it back in the day that torture sequence felt so edgy and dangerous, but now it just feels like an attempt to shoehorn something shocking into the movie at the expense of character.
Why is Jackie Brown underpraised?
The biggest draw of Jackie Brown is its acting. While Reservoir Dogs has some of the worst performances of any Tarantino movie, with Tim Roth trying to overpower everyone he shares the screen with via overacting and Harvey Keitel sleepwalking his way through bringing one of the blandest Tarantino characters ever to life, everyone in the Jackie Brown cast is pitch perfect from top to bottom. Of course there’s Robert Forster, who absolutely kills it in the role of the smitten bale bondsman Max Cherry, and who got an Oscar nomination for his efforts. And yeah there’s Pam Grier, who does a great job of anchoring the film and who got to experience one of those career renaissances that come from an actor viewed as past their prime being featured in a Tarantino movie. But there are also a ton of smaller roles played by actors being used to the absolute best of their abilities. Samuel L. Jackson is endlessly entertaining in probably the best “written for Sam Jackson” role he’s ever done, Michael Keaton goes back to his roots as a comedic actor to create an awesomely annoying, gum chomping cop character, De Niro gets to step out of his “guy in charge” typecasting and play a dumb grunt to results that are entertaining as hell. This movie is chock full of varied, colorful characters being brought to life by top notch actors. It’s like a traveling freak show of weirdos, and it’s a far cry from Reservoir Dogs, where the entire film is populated by nothing but the same hardened criminal character wearing the same suit, just played by different guys.
Everything just feels so much more organic and skilled in Jackie Brown as well. Reservoir Dogs has a lot of stylized, dynamic camera work, but it almost takes away from the movie. At times it feels like you’re watching somebody’s demo reel. In comparison, look at the scene in Jackie Brown where Samuel L. Jackson’s character kills Chris Tucker in the trunk of his car. The sequence is masterful. He uses extreme depth of focus and one simple, subtle camera move to tell a story that takes place across an entire city block, without ever cutting to another shot or resorting to anything extreme and obtrusive. And look at how he uses the soundtrack here. We get a great soul music collection, much like how Reservoir Dogs gave us a great 70s pop selection, but the music doesn’t feel as shoved down our throats. Tarantino’s films often have scenes where his characters talk about how great the soundtracks are (which he generally doesn’t get guff for, but Zach Braff got crucified for), and here it actually makes sense. In Reservoir Dogs it’s weird to hear a bunch of tough guys sitting around talking about Madonna, but here he uses the talk about the Delfonics to help develop the relationship between Max Cherry and Jackie Brown, which kind of becomes the backbone of the film.
Evening the odds.
Watching these movies again right now, Reservoir Dogs feels like a damn fine first effort from a talented young director, but one that is a little rough around the edges and clunky in execution. Comparatively, Jackie Brown feels like a self-assured masterpiece being put together by a filmmaker who has figured out all the ins and outs of his craft. As the pages of history turn and people start looking back on Tarantino’s career, I think their reputations will shift a bit to reflect that.
Also, you can debate all day about the merits of one of these films over the other, but when you get right down to it, there isn’t anything in any other Tarantino movie nearly as spectacular as Samuel L. Jackson’s hair in Jackie Brown, and the movie demands to be respected because of that alone.