It took a long time for filmmakers to recognize the droll comedy in Elmore Leonard's novels. They were always in love with his plots, but lacking the comedy, most movies based on Leonard are but pale shadows. For Leonard himself, the plots are an excuse to study his characters. Once asked about his top five crime novels, Leonard listed George V. Higgins's The Friends of Eddie Coyle five times. That book is ALL character study. In any event, sometime in the mid-1990s, someone discovered the comedy, but it wasn't until Quentin Tarantino's 1997 adaptation of Rum Punch, retitled Jackie Brown, that anyone discovered the character study. Perversely, this breakthrough came from Tarantino's decompression of the book's plot, which he films from multiple angles (both chronologically and from points of view). The plot is still there, but the plot is secondary to watching the characters interact and it grows from these interactions. This is the kind of movie that takes time out to watch its characters have dinner or shop for clothes (this last in the midst of its most difficult plot points). A lot of movies tell us what its characters do for a living. This one tells us how much they make and even how much money they have saved in their 401k plan. It's rich with details, a fact that surely contributes to complaints about its length, though not from me. I wouldn't want this to be any shorter. Hell, I could spend another hour with these characters without noticing the time.
Of Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, I wrote: "and Shoshanna, as played by Melanie Laurent, is basically Marlene Dietrich to Tarantino's Von Sternberg." In retrospect, that honor properly belongs to Pam Grier as the title character in Jackie Brown. Tarantino is in love with all of his actresses, to be sure, but I think he held a special fondness for Grier, the action star and baddest mother fucker of his fondest imaginings. When he read Elmore Leonard's book, in which the character is a blond white woman, he imagined it for Grier. She responded in kind with the best performance of her career. She's Foxy Brown and Coffey fading into middle age, still holding her looks, but having to rely increasingly on her brains. Fortunately, she's also smarter than anyone around her. She's smarter than Ordell Robie, played with amiable menace by Samuel L. Jackson, for whom she smuggles money from Mexico. She's smarter than Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton), the ATF agent on Robie's trail who views Jackie as an instrument to trap him. She's probably smarter than Max Cherry (Robert Forster), her bail bondsman, but she never has to match wits with him given that he's smitten with her from the moment she walks out of jail and into his life. This is something pretty rare, actually. It's a movie about a 44 year old black woman and a 56 year white old man who have a relationship and plan a caper. I mean, has there ever been another character like Jackie Brown holding the center of a movie? Honestly, I can't think of one. Tarantino's willingness to stop long enough to really look at his actors enhances their performances. It doesn't hurt that all of them have interesting faces, none more so than Robert Forster, who, like Grier, also does career-best work here.
As cinema, this is Tarantino's most assured movie. He's not trying too much. He no longer needs to make a splash--he did that with his prior two films--so he doesn't have to overreach himself. One wishes that he had learned something from this experience, because in his subsequent films, he loads his palette almost to the point of bursting. In Jackie Brown, he's content to observe. A director noted for scenes of graphic violence, he keeps all of the violence in this film out of the frame or at such a distance as to cushion the blow. More than that, though, he's willing to let his lead characters fall in love. This is the only one of Tarantino's films in which the characters realistically relate to each other in the ways that adult men and women relate to each other, and he does it independently of the plot, too. Oh, the plot uses this, sure, but it doesn't depend on it. It also slows down to let its characters think things out. Action, in this movie, is no substitute for thought. The actions that occur without thinking--the scene where Robert DeNiro's character shoots motormouthed Bridget Fonda after she nags him a couple of words too far, for instance--precipitate disaster.
This is also the least "meta" of Tarantino's movies. Oh, the meta level is still there--it makes me smile every time I see Sid Haig play a judge sending Pam Grier to jail, for instance--but the director elides most of it, as if it doesn't matter to the movie. Most of it is in soundtrack cues. Oh, and my, heavens, does this have a killer soundtrack, from the opening shot scored with Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street" to the diegetic appearance of The Delphonics to a catalogue of heavy soul from soul's golden era. Some of the soundtrack cues come from Pam Grier's other movies. None of this really advertises itself the way that, say, the red light and soundtrack cue from Ironside mark the Kill Bills.
In any event, it's disappointing to me that Tarantino hasn't gone back to this mode of filmmaking. He's gone back to being a provocateur, which is fine, I guess, but on the evidence of Jackie Brown, that impulse squanders an immense reservoir of talent. For Jackie Brown's part, it remains the director's best film, even if it's the one that fans of his more outre films tend to ignore.