Directed by: Quentin Tarantino || Produced by: Lawrence Bender
Screenplay by: Quentin Tarantino || Starring: Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton, Robert De Niro
Music by: James Newton Howard || Cinematography: Guillermo Navarro || Edited by: Sally Menke || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 154 minutes
It is near impossible to become a die-hard cinephile without falling in love with the filmography of Quentin Tarantino. The brash, outspoken, controversial filmmaker has been remaking the Western film industry since the early 1990s, mixing and matching various genres to the delight of both fans and critics; his charismatic dialogue, patient editing, and identifiable, stylized ultraviolence convert even the most conservative viewer, despite the often grindhouse, exploitative subject-matter of his screenplays. His rate of producing incendiary, trailblazing movies rivals that of Martin Scorsese, with the likes of Pulp Fiction (1994), Kill Bill (2003-2004), and Inglourious Basterds (2009) being regarded as modern classics. Even his “lesser,” more divisive films like Reservoir Dogs (1992), Django Unchained (2012), or The Hateful Eight (2015) boast unforgettable style and ambitious, theatrical premises that take advantage of some of the best acting direction around.
And then there are films like Jackie Brown and Death Proof (2007). Though Tarantino is the kind of filmmaker every amateur cinephile wants to be, his charismatic, identifiable excesses can sometimes get the best of him. His films are often longwinded to the point of overindulgence, while the actions of his unforgettable villains may stretch past the point of reasonable cruelty for all but the most hardcore cinephiles. Aspects of these weaknesses are present in the 1997 blaxploitation homage, Jackie Brown, though not in all the ways a critic of Tarantino’s (and they do exist) might expect.
If anything, I’m a card-carrying member of those legions of amateur film critics, cinephiles, and childhood movie-buffs whose daydream fantasy is to be an extra who gets violently murdered in a Tarantino film. I have no problem with cinematic violence save for in extraordinary narrative contexts, and feel Tarantino does a better job than most (e.g. Christopher Nolan, Peter Jackson, Paul Thomas Anderson) auteurs at justifying the immense running-time of his pictures. People who dislike Tarantino’s abrasive style at face-value are either (A) people who just don’t care for movies and film culture writ large, or (B) senior citizens who came of age long before the American New Wave of the 1960s-1970s.
The problems with a film like Jackie Brown are twofold and only have tangential connections to the most controversial aspects of his star persona. Jackie Brown (henceforth, JB) follows the trials and tribulations of Pam Grier (herself a famous alumna of the 1970s blaxploitation movement), a flight attendant who moonlights as a smuggler for a Los Angeles gangster played by Tarantino regular, Samuel L. Jackson. Long story short, Grier’s protagonist finds herself in hot water with law enforcement and her criminal boss after an initial arrest by the former, and must team up with bail bondsman, Robert Forster, to think her way out of several dangerous jams. This premise is somewhat milder, though by no means out of the ordinary for a Tarantino film, albeit minus any revenge motivations or subplots.
JB is sizeable at 154 minutes, and unlike Tarantino’s most ambitious narratives, doesn’t justify its massive length. JB is a straightforward story about a likable, straightforward protagonist, burning unnecessary screentime on meandering subplots, pointless minor villains including Robert De Niro and Bridget Fonda, and superfluous dialogue. JB feels like the rough cut of a first draft screenplay, a largely inoffensive yet dull, plodding narrative that tests even a cinephile’s patience and fails to build tension despite its crime drama premise. Part of the reason that premise feels so uninspired is the film’s almost complete lack of on-screen violence — a shocking outlier for a Tarantino movie — which undercuts audience suspense over whether Grier will succeed in her cat-and-mouse game with the authorities and Jackson’s antagonist. This is not a case where implied violence or the threat of such a la classic film noir heightens tension through indirect means, but rather the film comes across as self-censoring or unsure of itself. Put another way, JB is such a bizarre inversion of Tarantino’s usual style that it feels like an adult-orientated crime drama edited down to a teenage-friendly, PG-13 rating… despite the fact it remains bloated with filler.
JB’s strengths are not so much a function of great direction or storytelling precision, but rather a lack of severe weaknesses like bad acting (not possible even in a weak Tarantino film, apparently), a confusing story, or irritating characters. Pam Grier and Robert Forster aren’t that colorful of characters, but their relationship is endearing enough such that the story can function, if at a snail’s pace. Tarantino flaunts a few of his signature directorial flairs here and there, including flat angle comedy shots, composed long-takes, and split-screen sequences, the few instances of which are more memorable than the story as a whole.
This 1997 homage to 1970s blaxploitation melodramas is often regarded as Quentin Tarantino’s “forgotten masterpiece,” his most underrated film; those monikers imply Jackie Brown is worth remembering or challenges the auteur’s controversial, identifiable style in a meaningful way, and I argue it doesn’t. I am baffled at fans’ cult following of this picture, because I don’t get the appeal. It’s not violent or stylish enough for genre aficionados like me, nor is it streamlined enough for casual fans. Its strengths are limited to a reliable but somewhat wasted cast, whose characters are relatively flavorless and lack the embellishment of Tarantino’s better cinematographic compositions. Tarantino has made a career transforming cinematic indulgence into brilliant, artistic excess, but with Jackie Brown, his longwinded storytelling and shocking refrain from hardcore violence yielded the worst of both directorial styles. The film just isn’t worth two and a half hours.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Jackie Brown is the forgotten middle-child of Quentin Tarantino’s filmography, and for good reason. Its running-time and pacing are overindulgent to the point of absurdity, wallowing in pointless supporting roles and narrative filler. Much of Tarantino’s appeal is his ability to elevate schlock subject-matter into riotous entertainment, but this picture involves neither schlock nor much entertainment value, leading one to question the limitations of its auteur’s style when extreme violence is removed from the equation.
— However… Pam Grier and Robert Forster are a worthwhile duo bolstered by likable performances. A few cinematographic embellishments courtesy of director of photography, Guillermo Navarro, sneak through despite the bland story.
—> NOT RECOMMENDED
? What, you just shot her? For no reason?