Jackie Brown is Quentin Tarantino’s overlooked masterwork. Perhaps that’s because the crime drama is much quieter compared to the films that preceded and followed it. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction made Tarantino a rock star. Kill Bill, meanwhile, saw the filmmaker reinvent himself as an action director. Jackie Brown sits in the middle, overshadowed by his other works.
That said, Jackie Brown stands out from the pack. Based on Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, it’s the only Tarantino film that didn’t begin as one of his own ideas. No Tarantino adaptation was ever going to be entirely faithful to the source material, however, so it’s not surprising that Jackie Brown boasts some of his original ideas here and there.
The most notable change from the novel is the decision to make the central character a middle-aged woman of color and change her name. The original character goes by the name Jackie Burke, and she’s a blonde white woman.
Tarantino changed her origin because he felt Pam Grier was an ideal choice to portray a world-weary protagonist. However, she also had to be smart, confident, beautiful, fearless, and sympathetic. His decision paid off in a big way.
In the film, Greer plays the titular flight attendant who becomes caught up in some shady business. She’s a smuggler for a drug dealer named Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson) who will not hesitate to put a bullet in her if she crosses him. However, the feds know she’s his accomplice and force her to cooperate with them — or else.
Jackie isn’t willing to be anyone’s puppet, though. So instead of siding with the cops or the crooks, she decides to go into business for herself, aided by Max Cherry (Robert Forster), an aging bail bondsman who takes a liking to her. Together they devise a scheme that will see her walk away a free woman, with a big bag of money to call her own.
For the most part, the characters in Tarantino movies are absurd. From the sharply dressed gangsters in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction to the tough talkin’ cowboys in Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, they’re manifestations of a wild pop-culture-obsessed imagination, as opposed to the kinds of people you’d meet in the real world. In Jackie Brown, though, they’re more grounded and relatable.
Jackie is a heroine worth rooting for. As the authorities bluntly remind her, no employer wants to hire a middle-aged black woman with a criminal record. If she goes to prison, she’ll have nothing to look forward to. At the same time, she risks incurring the wrath of a vicious criminal if she doesn’t make a smart decision.
Still, Jackie remains composed in the face of pressure. She’s the smartest person in the room. Life has dealt her a shitty hand, but it’s not the end of the world. Her lousy situation ultimately empowers her, and we want her to succeed because she’s worked her ass off in and has little to show for it.
What makes Jackie relatable, though, are the characteristics that make her human. At some point, every single one of us has to deal with growing old, coupled with the feeling that our best years are behind us and all we have to look forward to going forward is mundane routine and a laundry list of regrets. Jackie exudes strength and weariness in equal measure.
Likewise, Max is someone who’s going through the motions and living in a perpetual state of silent suffering. Upon meeting each other, a natural rapport develops between Jackie and Max as they both relate to the disappointment that comes with getting older.
Jackie Brown is a compelling crime caper, but at its heart is a story about discontent people searching for more. As such, the film contains some emotionally nuanced moments that range between sad, moving, and occasionally even sweet. A sense of melancholy permeates almost every frame, which we haven’t seen in the director’s other features.
The film does boast some of Tarantino’s typical hallmarks, but they aren’t as prominent as they are in his other movies. Even Ordell, who’s the most quintessentially cool Tarantino character of the bunch, showcases moments of authentic weakness and desperation.
Jackie Brown takes place in a world of crime and danger that’s unfamiliar to most of us. But by populating it with characters whose thoughts and feelings are universally human, its reality doesn’t feel farfetched at all. I love Tarantino’s other movies more than I do most movies in general, but I’d love to see him return to the contemplative brilliance he showcased with Jackie Brown.