Saturday 2 July 2016

Movie Review: Jackie Brown (1997)

A crime film saluting the blaxploitation sub-genre without exploiting it, Jackie Brown offers the promise of provocative characters and a compelling plot but takes too long to eventually not achieve much.

Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) is a down-on-her-luck flight attendant for a low-cost airline operating between Mexico and Los Angeles. To make ends meet she acts as a courier for gunrunner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), importing his overseas cash in $50,000 increments. Ordell's friends include surfer girl Melanie (Bridget Fonda) and the none-too-bright ex-con Louis Gara (Robert De Niro), who are both often stoned into uselessness. Ordell's operation hits trouble when Beaumont (Chris Tucker), another of his couriers, is arrested. To silence him, Ordell uses the services of bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) to spring Beaumont and then summarily kills him.

But Beaumont had already alerted cops Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) and Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen) that Jackie is another of Ordell's couriers, and she is also arrested. Ordell tries to pull the same trick, using Cherry to release Jackie in order to silence her, but she is one step ahead of him. Jackie instead offers to help Ordell bring all $500,000 of his money in from Mexico in one shot under the noses of Ray and Mark, while at the same time striking a deal with the cops to deliver Ordell to them. With Max developing an attraction towards Jackie, a convoluted plot of cross and double cross unfolds, sucking in Max, Melanie and Louis, with Jackie in the middle of it all playing the most dangerous game of all.

Jackie Brown finds writer and director Quentin Tarantino at his most retrained. An adaptation of the Elmore Leonard book Rum Punch, Jackie Brown stays away from the blood and gore orgies of excess that define many of Tarantino's works. The film is also an unexpectedly calm appreciation of blaxploitation, more a stylistic nod to the music and aesthetics of the early 1970s trend and less a recreation of the in-your-face, all-mindless-action-all-the-time compositions that defined the genre.

What remains is a long running time of over 150 minutes reliant on character and plot to generate and maintain momentum. Both elements are adequate but not fully successful. The preponderance of characters appears to be more about populating the film with plenty of sidekicks, and few of the players are fleshed out to any meaningful degree. Melanie and Louis (despite two terrific performances by Bridget Fonda and Robert De Niro) get plenty of screen time but remain a shallow sideshow, while the detective Nicolette drifts in and out of the movie with no conviction.

The main characters offer more, but not by much. Ordell's defining trait is an endless stream of profanities, Max is suitably tired and circumspect after a life spent handling scum, and Jackie is juicing the odds for the first time in her life. But despite the film riding on their shoulders they also remain surprisingly opaque as individuals worth investing in. Instead of character definition, the film offers endless and slow-moving facial close-ups, style failing to mask the absence of script insight.

As for the plot, it maintains a modicum of interest but eventually starts to collapse under its own weight. After an inordinately long set-up, the plotting and counter-plotting to transfer envelopes and bags stuffed with money among criminals at a suburban mall all gets to be too intricate given the less than sympathetic characters.

In the final third of the film Tarantino does a nice job showing the same scenes from different perspectives, sometimes revealing surprises with just the slightest shift of angle. But ultimately there is too much peripheral detail and not enough core depth.

Jackie Brown is a rich attempt at a cerebral crime thriller. It enjoys a steady stream of quality, but lacks the essential spark of imagination to ever properly take off.

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