I just did an original peice of artwork inspired by the 1997 film "Jackie Brown" which ranks up there with one of my top 100 films of all-time. Sadly, "Jackie Brown" is often overlooked. When people talk about the film they usually call it Tarantino's worst film, or his bomb; they don't mention it as if it was a failure. Well yes, the movie didn't do as well as "Pulp" or the "Kill Bill" series but it is still a damn good film and I think it's time people recognize it.
It's no mystery that Quentin Tarantino is my very favorite filmmaker. Since I first saw his debut film, "Reservoir Dogs" back in the Summer of 1994, just a few months before his Palme D'Or winning classic "Pulp Fiction" was released in October. "Dogs" literally changed my life. It opened me up to independent films and introduced me to dialogue driven stroytelling. Not to mention a cast of unknown actors who would soon become some of my all-time faves. "Pulp Fiction" of course took the world by storm, ressurecting the career of John Travolta, giving a career to Samuel L. Jackson, and putting Tarantino at the top of the "A" list in Hollywood. The 1990s saw an explosion of fresh, new, exciting voices in the land of Indie filmmaking with Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez, Richard Linklater, Spike Lee, Michael Moore, Steven Soderberg, Peter Jackson, Paul Thomas Anderson and Jim Jarmusch. But it is safe to say that none of them inspired more copycats and recieved more acclaim than this hyper uber geek from California who started out the decade like his Indie brother Kevin Smith, working as a clerk at a video rental shop.
Needless to say, there was a lot of anticipation for Tarantino's follow up to "Pulp" and it took three years for something to arrive. In between he produced "Pulp" co-writer and ex-video store clerk pal Roger Avery's debut film "Killing Zoe", acted in a few Indie films like "Destiny Turns on the Radio" and wrote and starred in the blood and guts horror romp "From Dusk Till Dawn", directed by his best friend and life long collaborator Robert Rodriguez. Tarantino was talking about doing a remake of a 1970s Italian exploitation film called "The Inglorious Bastards" which had always been one of his favorite films. He also talked about doing a film called "The Vega Brothers" which would star Michael Madsen and John Travolta as Vic and Vincent Vega (The characters both stars played in Dogs and Pulp). Tarantino was also developing a big epic action flick in the vein of "Modesty Blaise" with Uma Thurman about an assassin known as "The Bride" that would eventually be called "Kill Bill". Tarantino had bought the rights to three novels by childhood hero, novelist Elmore Leonard. Elmore Leonard had began his writing career in the 1950s as a successful writer of westerns. A few of his novels, "Hombre", "3:10 to Yuma" and "Valdez is Coming" had been adapted into films. Then Leonard turned to writing crime fiction.
Anyone who has ever read the work of Elmore Leonard will instantly see the influence his novels had on Tarantino. Leonard's characters are usually bad people who are very likeable and human, they are also funny and a lot of their character comes from the way they talk. In fact, Leonard is perhaps one of the best handlers of dialogue than any of his fellow novelists. Tarantino essentially is a novelist; his films always break the rules and follow the structures of a novel. Most films are done in real time or in a straight forward sequence. Quentin decided to manipulate his audience like a novelist; letting scenes come whereever he needed them to, in order to make the story more compelling, tense and interesting. Flashbacks, flashforwards, half of the fun in his films is trying to figure out the hows, whats, wheres, whys and whens. The three novels that Tarantino bought the rights to were "Freaky Deaky", "Killshot" and "Rum Punch". It was believed that QT would direct "Killshot" and produce the other two films. But the more and more he thought about it, he really felt "Rum Punch" was the right film for him to do. Incidentally, Tarantino's first Leonard novel was "The Switch" which he admits he stole from a store when he was young. It just so happens that "Rum Punch" was a sequel to "The Switch". "The Switch" was about two low end thugs named Ordell Robbie and Louis Gara in Detroit who kidnap a housewife and hold her for ransom only to discover that her husband had already filed for divorce and didn't give a damn what they did with her. "Rum Punch" takes place about fifteen years later in Miami (most of Leonard's crime novels take place in Miami or Detroit) where Louis has just been released from serving four years in prison for bank robbery and has hooked back up with Ordell who is a gun runner, working for a man in Mexico. Ordell is about to hit the one million dollar mark and plans to retire only he has a problem. The middle-aged stewardess, Jackie Burke he has sneaking his money, little by little into the country has just been arrested by the police who they plan to cut a deal with to catch Ordell. Ordell plans to bail her out and murder her before she can rat him out but Jackie has a plan to get Ordell his money in one run, right under the noses of the police that he has no choice but to accept. But what he doesn't know is that Jackie is scamming not only the cops, but also Ordell.
QT had some ideas for "Rum Punch" however; most of which revolved around his choice for the actress who would play Jackie Burke in the film. One of Tarantino's favorite film genre's was blaxploitation from the 1970s. Growing up in the ghetto's of Knoxville and attending the grindhouses of Los Angeles as a preteen with mostly black audiences, he grew up deep in the black cinema culture. One of his favorite filmmakers was Jack Hill and one of his very favorite films ever was Hill's cult hit "Coffy" which starred actress Pam Grier. Grier was an icon of the 1970s but had sort of disappeared over the last twenty years, at least from the mainstream. Quentin had actually auditioned her for "Pulp Fiction" to play Jodie, Lance's bitchy wife only Eric Stoltz had already been cast as Lance and he didn't feel Eric would be able to yell at Pam Grier and it be believable. But he promised her that he was going to use her one day. When QT started thinking about the character of Jackie Burke he saw a woman in her 40s who looked like she was still in her mid-30s, strong, street smart, tough and cool. He said, "That sounds like Pam Grier." So Quentin saw a chance to sort of homage Jack Hill's films and changed Jackie Burke to Jackie Brown, a strong black woman. He also moved the setting from Miami to L.A. Quentin rounded out the cast with a great group of actors like Bridget Fonda (who he offered the role to after sharing a plane with her), Michael Keaton (who didn't think he was right for the role until filming began), Samuel L. Jackson (who "was" Ordell Robbie according to Quentin), Robert De Niro (who played a character unlike any other he had ever attempted), but his most questionable casting choice was forgotten character actor Robert Forster. Forster had always been one of Tarantino's favorite actors; in fact, he wrote the role Christopher Walken played in "True Romance" for him. He also auditioned Forster to play boss man Joe Cabot in "Dogs" but went with Lawrence Teirney instead. Robert Forster was perfect for Max Cherry, a bail bondsman who falls in love with Jackie when she becomes his client. In fact, Max Cherry is my favorite character in the film and a lot of it had to do with Forster's performance. Forster starred in a really cool viglante film in 1983 called appropriately "Viglante" which was directed by genre icon William Lustig and co-starred blaxploitation legend Fred Williamson.
Elmore Leonard has had over 30 novels and stories adapted to film and although Quentin changed a few major details in "Rum Punch", he not only felt that QT's script was the best adaptation of his work to date but it was perhaps the best screenplay he'd ever read, period. Tarantino really did capture Elmore's voice in the film; the movie also captures the coolness that Leonard's novels always have. The two men are very similar in the way they tell a story; Leonard was the perfect author for Tarantino to adapt from. Although it may be for this fact that "Jackie Brown" (Tarantino changed the title as well) is so knocked upon because it was the only peice Tarantino ever did that wasn't all his own. In fact, the most shocking part is if you read the novel you will be amazed at how much of the dialogue in the film actually comes straight from the novel. It just shows how these two men are similar in writing dialogue. Other Elmore Leonard adapted films to check out would be "Get Shorty", "Out of Sight", "Hombre", "Valdez is Coming", "3:10 to Yuma", "Joe Kidd", "Mr. Majestyk" and "Touch". "Killshot" (the novel Tarantino was going to adapt originally) has been made starring Diane Lane, Thomas Jane and Mickey Rourke and two more film adaptations are on the way, "Freaky Deaky" and "Sparks".
Another cool fact about Leonard's films: Michael Keaton's character in "Jackie Brown", Ray Nicolet, also appears in "Out of Sight" and Keaton reprised his role as Nicolet in "Out of Sight" as well for a nice little suprise for Leonard fans.
I assume the reason "Jackie Brown" is so overlooked or talked down about is because the movie wasn't very appealing to a wide audience. This movie didn't star Bruce Willis or John Travolta or Uma Thurman. It starred a 48 year-old black woman who hadn't starred in a film since the mid-1970s. But this is a reason the film should be respected. Who else but Quentin Tarantino could get the Weinstein's to give him a lot of change to make a big movie where the lead role in the film is a black woman nearing 50? Hollywood doesn't invest in this kind of film and I guess "Jackie Brown's" failure proves the theory right. People won't go out to see a film about a middle-aged black woman unless she's trying to get her groove back. But I challenge anyone to tell me "why" Jackie Brown is not a good film. In my opinion, it's a perfect caper film. The writing is up to par as always, it's a cool flick, with some great acting chops. Samuel L. Jackson's Ordell Robbie is in my opinion, one of the scariest bad guys ever put on screen and by far Jackson's most frightening character to date. Pam Grier is totally believable and proves that she deserves a second chance. Robert Forster is marvelous as Max Cherry, in fact I couldn't imagine another actor in the role. Forster's portrayal of Cherry's "seen-it-all" coolness is perfection. Cherry is my favorite character in the film. There is just no rattling him. The guy is cool as a cucumber, never impressed or scared of the criminals he deals with every day. Forster delivers a performance that deserves attention and recognition in the film. Michael Keaton is brilliant as Ray Nicolet and captures the "young guy who loves being a cop" visage of the character. He does with the character something that is very difficult to describe but it works so well it's amazing to me. Robert De Niro is halarious in the film. It just shows you what a master actor the man really is. His performance is so quiet and subtle and out there. Sam Jackson said he couldn't see what Bobby was doing on the set but when he saw the film he was in awe all over again. He said De Niro is like that; he sees something no one else sees and sometimes you yourself don't pick up on it until you actually see the performance on the screen. The supporting cast is also wonderful. Bridget Fonda as Melanie the beach bunny is perfect (you really want De Niro to shoot her ass...lol), Chris Tucker is funny as always and I've always been a fan of Michael Bowen who plays Keaton's partner, Mark Dargus. I believe it is one of the best heist movies ever put on film. It's just a great movie and I am always lost in why it gets so little respect.
One of the big issues in the film is the use of the "N" word in the movie. Spike Lee publicly bashed the film for it's overuse of the taboo word along with many other black figures. It is true that the word is heard throughout the film on a constant level. But it is always, mind you, said by the black characters in the film. Tarantino grew up in the black culture and let's face it, it's not that false to have a black man using that word loosely. Especially a man like Ordell Robbie. But you have to put some responsibility on the actors in the film. The scene that gets the most attention for using the "n" word so much is the scene between Sam Jackson and Chris Tucker when he visits him after bailing him out. I went and read the script Tarantino wrote and the word appears in the script "8" times in that one scene but in the film, Jackson and Tucker ab libbed and the word came out "13" times. Eight is enough as they say, but the two actors slipped out "5" extra "n" words just from "being in character." A lot of people point out that the blaxploitation films that Tarantino was trying to homage never used the "n" word that much. Jackson defends QT though. He once said, "Quentin thinks he's black."
As in all of Tarantino's films, the soundtrack to the film is pure gold. Only Scorsese uses source music as well as he does. The film is filled with great soul classics that really capture the film well. Great songs like "Didn't I blow your mind this time" by the Delfonics (which always makes me laugh when Max Cherry continously plays it in his car because it reminds him of Jackie), "Who is he?" is by Bill Withers is just cool as Hell and "Strawberry Letter 23" by Brothers Johnson really makes the scene where Jackson kills Tucker creepy cool. But is perhaps Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street" which opens and closes "Jackie Brown" that really sets the mood of the film. I love the song and it's use. And in true Quentin fashion, the song was pulled from the 1972 blaxploitation film of the same name. Tarantino also pays homage to two Pam Grier films in "Jackie Brown" with his choice of music. Most of the film's score is pulled straight from the original score for "Coffy" and the song "Long Time Woman" was sung by a a 22-year old Pam Grier herself from her second film "The Big Doll House". Another note about Jackie Brown is that Pam's old co-star from many of the films she made in the early 1970s like "The Big Doll House" and "Coffy" was Sid Haig who plays the judge in "Jackie Brown". Sid's career would be resurrected 6 years later when Rob Zombie cast him as Captain Spaulding in his own homage to 70s trash cinema, "House of 1000 Corpses".
I just felt it was time someone support "Jackie Brown" for what it is...a damn good film.