Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Jackie Brown (1997)

A tightly-woven story, great technical filmcraft, and more superstar actors than you can shake a .45 at, all within a $12 million budget. You just don’t see this kind of movie anymore.

The way you make a movie nowadays is you call up Nicolas cage and say “I’ve got $5 million. Are you free?” Or you call up Mel Gibson and say “I’ve got half a million. Can you do a cameo?” Then you build a science lab set and make up some story about a time loop so you can limit the locations. It won’t be a good movie, but people will watch it.

If you’re spending several times that amount, in which case the weight of the Weinsteins is needed, audiences expect an extravaganza. Funny how perceptions are. Character dramas spend their money on actors, and getting this many hard hitters into one drama (no time travel or giant starfish) was a feat only possible thanks to the clout of a little film called Pulp Fiction (1994).

Among the stars that threw their hats in the ring, we’ve got Pam Grier, Sid Haig, Samuel L. Jackson, and Robert DeNiro, just off the top of my head. There are many recognizable faces, all doing their damndest to make this movie a special experience. They must have thought it would be the next Pulp Fiction, and it kind of was.

There is a lesson to be learned here. If you do something that’s fucking great, something that people look up to, don’t let them forget it. “Who’s Tarantino?” Oh, he’s the Pulp Fiction guy. His entire career was a hot streak until Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), his first misstep after decades of incredible art. (The novelization was written in present simple tense. Come on, man.)

Enough about QT. What about Jackie Brown?


Well, Pam Grier gives a decent blaxploitation performance, albeit with less aggression than Jackson’s character. I would have prefered something closer to Grier’s earlier roles. In this film she works as a flight attendant on a crappy airline. (After being a stewardess on a decent airline.) Her life downgrade came as a result of some war-on-drugs bullshit or some shit like that, and now the ATF is busting her for doing a friend a favor and bringing some money in from Mexico. That friend is Sammie J, who makes a John Woo reference early on:

When them Hong Kong flicks came out, every nigga in the world had to have a .45, and they ain’t want one, they want two.

Gotta hand it to Tarantino for paying homage to his inspirations. This film is unfortunately short on martial arts or any fighting at all. It’s all mind games. I like a very specific type of film, and this isn’t it, but the arts and crafts are so refined that I not only respect it but have fun watching it. For a convoluted character drama that borders on heist-thriller territory, you might be surprised at how good it is.

Just as an example, and I know this is a small thing, a number of shots involve quick iris pulls when characters walk in front of windows, even with handheld and steadicam shots. The lighting is perfectly balanced between indoor and outdoor shots, and it’s so seamless by 1997 standards that it caught me by surprise. The crew is supremely comfortable with what they’re doing, as is the cast, as is the writing, as is every aspect of this precise film that masquerades as a slapdash early ’80s cheese fest. It’s brilliant.

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