Jackie Brown was Quentin Tarantino's first film after Pulp Fiction. Three years passed between the two releases, and expectations were high. It's impossible to top something as attention-getting as Pulp Fiction, and Tarantino was wise to dodge comparisons by going in such a different direction.
Different though it is, Jackie Brown retains many elements of Tarantino's style. Feminist elements, which in his case usually means that every woman is in some way a femme fatale, are again present. His trademarked hip dialogue is played down somewhat and is used in service of the plot, but it continues to pay tribute to various elements of pop culture. TV cheese culture is once again satirizelebrated, this time through the "Chicks Who Love Guns" video that Ordell studies for strictly professional purposes.
There is a strong retro feel, as the film's visual style combines with its period soundtrack to give the movie a 1970s feel even though it was made and set in the 1990s. Samuel L. Jackson again appears as an underworld figure whose outward gregariousness masks a frightening ruthlessness, although Ordell is played more for realism and less for style than was Pulp Fiction's Jules. Last and least, characters are still in the bathroom and the camera continues to make love to someone's feet. Bridget Fonda's popsicle toes are the objects of affection this time around.
A departure in style
Beyond these relatively superficial elements, the two films feel dramatically different. This movie has no dance contests, swordfights or speeding cars. There are many dialogue-driven scenes and slow camera zooms into characters' faces. Jackie Brown has a serious tone that makes it unique in Tarantino's filmography. He would not create something comparable until Inglourious Basterds a decade later, and even that contains fourth-wall-breaking genre references made in a spirit of fun. The contrast is highlighted even more by the way Pam Grier is cast against type. Few actors are more closely identified with a single film genre than is Grier, and there is little resemblance between Jackie Brown and vengeful blaxploitation action mamas like Coffy and Sheba.
Unless one were to wonder what an older, wiser and more mature Coffy would be like, and that's the key to what really makes Jackie Brown stand apart from the rest of Tarantino's oeuvre. The reason this movie has such a sober tone is because all of its main characters are preoccupied with aging. All are conflicted about the direction their lives are taking as they pass through middle age, and each is looking for a way out. There is a reflectiveness not seen anywhere else in Tarantino's work. For all of its crime drama theme and Roy Ayers soundtrack grooviness, this is a very quiet film.
This gives additional meaning to the casting of Grier, and to a lesser extent Robert Forster. Grier is famous for her action roles, but she would not be cast that way in her mid-40s even if the blaxploitation genre still existed. She was a solid enough actress to have continued to work through the eighties and early 1990s, but she was never given lead roles. By placing her in a straight dramatic part, Tarantino acknowledged her past yet allowed her to escape it. She was able to move beyond anything she'd done before, and the results could not have been more stunning.
The cast is loaded with top-notch talent, but with a twist. Tarantino subverts his actors' star status by giving lead roles to genre actors Grier and Forster, while Hollywood royalty like Fonda and Robert De Niro play supporting roles. De Niro is cast against type in an even more startling way than Grier, as the lethargic and slovenly Lewis allows little outlet for De Niro's usual intensity.
The early going establishes the plot in a sneaky and oblique way while giving an extended introduction to Ordell and his associates. Ordell is an arms dealer who lives with a surly, driftless surfer named Melanie, played by Fonda. A recently released convict named Lewis, played by De Niro, is a longtime associate who is a permanent fixture at Ordell's place. As Lewis and Ordell chat about business, a call comes in from an associate of Ordell's named Beaumont Livingston. Beaumont, played by Chris Tucker, has been arrested and needs bailed out of prison. Ordell visits a bail bondsman named Max Cherry (Forster) to arrange this, but he doesn't let Beaumont enjoy his freedom for very long.
The focus shifts to Jackie Brown, an airline stewardess who is intercepted by federal law enforcement officials while transporting a large sum of Ordell's money from Mexico. The officers pressure Jackie to get her to testify against Ordell. She is pinned into a corner: on the old side for an airline stewardess and with a previous prison sentence, she is stuck working for the only airline that will hire her and has nothing on which to fall back. Jackie has no choice but to cooperate, or at least to pretend to cooperate, with the lawmen.
Ordell wastes no time in going back to Max to arrange bail for Jackie. Cherry is taken with Jackie and invites her for a drink at a local bar before he drops her off at home, where she displays wile and guts in convincing Ordell not to fire her the way he did Beaumont. She's aware that the lawmen's scrutiny will make it difficult for Ordell to get his money out of Mexico, and she offers to help Ordell under the guise of cooperating with the authorities.
Musings on age
Jackie and Max discuss aging. Max is fine with aging, but he feels like he's spinning his wheels picking up bond-jumpers for a living and has doubts about how many more bail bonds he wants to write. Jackie is concerned about having reached a point in her life where she's always starting over, and she wishes that she had something to show for her years on Earth.
Other characters have similar regrets: Melanie keeps a picture of someone she didn't even like because it's her only memento of her time in Japan. Ordell expresses no such regrets, but he intends to leave the arms business as soon as he gets his money. Comically, Lewis is past his prime and can't make love for three minutes without getting winded or huff down a bong hit without breaking out coughing.
The deadly woman typical of Tarantino's films is in full force here. Melanie is disrespectful of and disloyal toward Ordell, and she openly plots to take his half-million. Ordell is in the habit of killing people that threaten to interfere with his business, but he tolerates Melanie. He rationalizes this by saying that he knows what to expect from her, but his judgment may be clouded, as he has more of a soft spot for her than he lets on.
Melanie is a kid playing with toys compared to Jackie, who plots a cunning scheme that gets her out of trouble with the Feds and eliminates Ordell's threat. Even her benefactor Max is drawn into her manipulations, although Jackie treats him more as a partner and offers him a way out of the bail bond business. Jackie orchestrates the whole thing like Ravel and conducts it like Toscanini.
Connections: It's a Quentin Tarantino movie, so it's loaded with pop-culture references. One of the funniest is Ordell's "Uh-uh-uh!" to Max, a reference to a Jackson scene from Jurassic Park. Lewis watches Detroit 9000 while Jackie and Ordell argue.