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Jackie Brown: Collector's Edition

Buena Vista Home Video

Starring Pam Grier, Robert Forster, and Samuel L. Jackson

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino


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Review by Dawn Taylor                    


There's nothing that Quentin Tarantino could have done for his third film that would have satisfied everybody. After the out-of-nowhere success of Reservoir Dogs (1992) and his blazing, ground-breaking follow-up Pulp Fiction (1994), fans' expectations were high — and many critics were poised to slap him back down for his hubris (his incessant talk-show appearances certainly didn't help on that front, either.) If he'd strayed too far from the distinctive style he'd established with just two movies, he'd have pissed off the people who were expecting another "Tarantino film." But if he'd made a movie with too similar of a feel to the others, he'd have been lambasted for being a one-trick pony. Perhaps that's why he waited nearly four years before making Jackie Brown (1997); the pressure must have been enormous. And, on the film's release, reviews were predictably lackluster. Tarantino's first two films literally changed the face of American cinema — how the hell do you follow that?

Of three Elmore Leonard novels that Tarantino optioned post-Reservoir DogsRum Punch, Freaky Deaky and Killshot — it was Rum Punch that piqued his interest the most. The book is a typically convoluted Leonard mix of interesting bad guys and not-so-honorable good guys who double- and triple-cross each other to acquire a lot of money. Set in Florida, it basically concerns Jackie Burke, a 44-year-old white flight attendant for a crappy Caribbean airline who gets popped by the cops for smuggling money for a gun dealer named Ordell Robbie. Ray Nicolet, the cowboy ATF agent (who also appears in Leonard's book Out of Sight) wants to use Jackie to get to Ordell. Attempting to extricate herself from the clutches of both the Feds and the gun-runner — and pocket as much of the cash as she can for herself — she enlists the help of Max Cherry, a world-weary, almost-divorced, fifty-something bail bondsman. Like in pretty much all of Leonard's novels, the plot's not nearly that straightforward. However, Jackie and Max's plan is complicated by two of Ordell's associates who'd also like to get their hands on the money: a dim-witted ex-con named Louis, and Ordell's dumb-blonde girlfriend, Melanie. Along the way, people get killed, schemes backfire, and the relationships between the characters twist in entirely unexpected ways.

What's surprising about the way Tarantino brought Rum Punch to the screen is how faithful he is to the novel — while still putting his own unique spin on the story. Keeping the plot, characters and much of the book's dialogue intact, he switched the location from Miami to his home turf of Southern California and changed Jackie's race and last name so he could pay tribute to his longtime screen idol, Pam Grier. The movie's title was changed as well to evoke memories of Grier's most famous leading role in 1974's Foxy Brown. But while Tarantino pays obvious homage here to the blaxploitation flicks of the '70s, he does it with a deft hand, using subtle cinematic references and evocative music like Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street" and the Delfonics' "Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time" to lightly flavor the proceedings (and, as with Pulp Fiction, the soundtrack to Jackie Brown could almost be considered a character in itself). The film never lapses into genre parody, despite its obvious roots. On reflection, it's also startling that a filmmaker at that stage in his career would choose to make a movie with a 44-year-old black woman in the leading role. It's not the sort of choice that most directors would opt for in his position, and another reason why QT is one of the best directors of the last decade — his movies aren't like anyone else's, and despite all the violence and slam-bang action, they're essentially stories about people first and foremost.

Grier was a remarkable choice for the role of Jackie, and she does arguably the best work of her long and uneven career. Jackie's introduction during the opening credits — cruising proudly along in front of a tiled wall, then breaking into a run, and finally taking her place, breathless, at the boarding gate for the crummy Mexican airline she works for — grabs the viewer on an emotional level, making us wonder who she is and what it is exactly she's doing. When we realize that she's just hurrying to get to work, it humanizes her in a way that's absolutely necessary for the rest of the film. We also relate to Jackie because her motives for double-crossing Ordell have nothing to do with heroics — at 44, working a low-paying career and in danger of losing it because of her arrest, she's more scared of getting old and losing her job than she is of Ordell's wrath. "If I can't fly, I'm going to have a bitch of a time trying to find my rent," she says — motivation that pretty much all of us can understand. When she meets Max Cherry (Robert Forster), they have an undeniable chemistry. The aging flight attendant and the burnt-out bail bondsman understand each other, and Forster's hound-dog gaze whenever he looks at Grier makes it plain that she's still got what it takes to make a man hot and bothered. Forster was always Tarantino's choice for the role, and he's a brilliant piece of casting; tough yet kind, his entire manner is that of a man who can easily take care of himself if he has to, but is long past the point of having to prove it to anybody.

Samuel L. Jackson is Ordell, a swaggering, ego-balloon of a thug, and he's as good as he always is. Jackson is never less than enthralling when he's on-screen, and Tarantino seems to be every bit as in love with Jackson as he is with Pam Grier — no one says Tarantino's lines with the same relish as Jackson, and much like his performance as Jules in Pulp Fiction, it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. As Louis, Ordell's just-out-of-jail pal, Robert De Niro has few lines but a lot of body language; free after four years behind bars, Louis is finding his way and really doesn't seem to have a lot of opinions on things. Not exactly known for his loquaciousness, De Niro seems happy to play Louis mostly as oddball shrugs and reactions. Michael Keaton is good, if a little out of place as ATF agent Ray Nicolet (he appeared briefly as the same character in Steven Soderbergh's film of Leonard's Out of Sight), but only Bridget Fonda seems a bad choice for her role — she's just too fundamentally intelligent to be believable as a pothead surf-bunny.

A more leisurely paced, less-violent film than his first two, Jackie Brown is a movie that improves with age. The performances are top-notch, the setting, clothes, music and other details are timeless, and the writing dazzles. However, at two hours, 31 minutes it's far too long and starts to wear out its welcome before QT finally ties all of the pieces together. But despite that, there's some moments of sheer genius in the picture, most notably when the climactic money exchange is shown from three different perspectives — each new version offers delicious, important details that were missed from the other characters' point of view, and the sheer fun of it all reminds us of why we go to the movies in the first place: to be surprised, thrilled, and entertained.

*          *          *

Miramax's two-disc "Collector's Edition" DVD release of Jackie Brown features a beautiful anamorphic transfer (1.85:1). It's a highly stylized film, with a vibrant, deeply textural look (thanks to cinematographer Guillermo Navarro), and it really looks great, with even the red-lit scenes in the Cockatoo Inn cocktail bar coming through sharp and rich. The DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is superb — this is a talky film without a lot of explosions or gunfire, but much of the talk is over Tarantino's superb '70s-kitsch soundtrack, and everything comes through clear as glass. The packaging is pretty nifty, too — a double-disc digipak in a stylish slipcase.

Disc One delivers the film — after an introduction by Tarantino — with the option of running the optional trivia track offering factoids on locations and cameos and QT trivia and changes in the script made along the way. An actual director commentary would have been better, but this is a lot of fun. Disc One also has ads for the Pulp Fiction DVD and the Jackie Brown soundtrack.

On Disc Two (entitled "The Perks") we get a whole lot of stuff: Jackie Brown: How It Went Down is a fairly standard 40-minute "making-of" featurette, with material culled mainly from promotional interviews made with the principals during the film's production. It's cute, it's snappily edited, but it doesn't offer any real information beyond the usual "we're so excited to make this movie and we all love each other" blather. But there's also a quick look at "skirt day," when QT made all of the male crew members wear dresses. That's kind of fun.

A Look Back at Jackie Brown is a not-quite-an-hour long chat with Tarantino, who seems to have cut back on the stimulants since the circa-1995 interviews used in the previous featurette. He talks at length about casting, shooting, writing, editing ... pretty much everything involved in the making of the movie. Film-school geeks will love it; others may find it a little dry. Still, with no commentary track on the DVD, it's better than nothing.

There's also a collection of alternate and deleted scenes, which Tarantino introduces by saying, "As if Jackie Brown wasn't long enough, here's some of the shit I left out of the movie." There's a longer version of the scene with Jackie and Sheronda at the mall food court; an amusing "alternate opening" with Pam Grier surfing and dancing down the airport concourse to Dick Dale's "Miserlou" (made famous in Pulp Fiction); an improvised scene between Grier and Keaton in the restaurant, with Grier cracking Keaton up at the end; Jackie plotting with Max to nail Ordell; an extended scene with Louis and Ordell outside Simone's house; and a terrific scene with Ordell introducing Louis to the seedy Cockatoo Lounge, telling him, "When I go into a bar, I want to go in a bar, not one of those battin' cage, hoop court, white boys drinkin' pitchers with pizza shit."

Much fun can be had viewing theChicks Who Love Guns video, an actual five-minute piece that Tarantino made to use in the first scene at Ordell's Hermosa Beach apartment. It has an intro by Tarantino, plus a surprising — and very funny — ending.

An insanely extensive still gallery is included, with any and every Jackie Brown bit of effluvia you can think of on board. Over 200 stills are presented, divided into eight categories: "Posters," "Production Stills," "Behind-the-Scenes Stills," "Location Scouting," "Production Design Sketches and Logos," and "Memorabilia." There's posters and photos and full-length print reviews and ... well, a mountain of stuff.

Arguably the most entertaining sections are the trailers for past films by Pam Grier and Robert Forster. There's a wealth of campy goodness here, with the original promos for such B-movie classics as Forster's Alligator and Medium Cool (also based on a Leonard novel) and Grier's turn is the films that made her a legend, like Coffy ("Nobody sleeps when they mess with Coffy!") Too much fun.

Also included are three theatrical teaser trailers, eight TV spots, some radio spots done by Pam Grier, and a five-minute Siskel & Ebert at the Movies snippet (two thumbs up!). There's also Jackie Brown on MTV, offering a mildly clever TV ad for a tie-in contest, and horrible "MTV Live" clips, with vapid VJs like Carson Daly doing what they so best — act like complete tools. Best to skip this one.

Slip the disc into your computer, and there are a few DVD ROM features to enjoy: the Enhanced Playback Track offers a more detailed factoid collection than the trivia track on Disc One, plus a search function; a Script Viewer featuring the entire shooting script with direct scene access (you can print out the script, if you like), and a Stash the Cash trivia game.

— Dawn Taylor



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