There are a lot of things right in Jackie Brown, and they all combine to form an entertaining, stimulating movie.
First, the plot is a twisty little caper which Tarantino adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel (whose Get Shorty also made the favorable jump to the big screen). It involves a flight attendant (Pam Grier) who’s a small-time smuggler on the side. When the cops catch up to her and tell her she either informs or to goes to jail, she informs. Then she tells her “employer” about the cops. We can’t tell what she’s got in mind because she’s playing both sides, which keeps us interested and involved in the story.
Second, the performances are top notch. The most surprising comes from Robert Forster, a character actor who plays Max Cherry, a bail bondsman. One is convinced that the person on the screen really is a bail bondsman and not an actor. Samuel L. Jackson as crime boss Ordell Robbie and Robert De Niro as his stoned sidekick Louis check in with their usual badass performances. Pam Grier makes a solid showing as the title character, though I don’t see how she is irreplaceably perfect for the role, as Tarantino has suggested (maybe he sees himself as the great reviver of pop culture icons of the ‘70s).
Third, whether you like the look or not, Tarantino and production designer David Wasco (who worked with Tarantino on Pulp Fiction) have created a unique style that successfully mixes elements of several decades. The cop-funk music, the orange and brown interiors, and the presence of Pam Grier all suggest the movie is set in the ‘70s. But Jackson’s millinery and long hair puts the movie in the ‘80s. The pot-smoking blond beach girl and her VW bus pins the movie in the late ‘60s, while “Chicks with Guns” on the VCR reminds us that the real setting is the ‘90s.
Finally, The cinematography and editing are fresh and interesting, but they also serve the story — they’re not just there to show off. (Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro has worked with Tarantino before.) Early on, Jackie Brown looks like a student film. Long takes with a static camera let scenes play out how they will. In fact, one of the first shots of the movie is a long take showing Ordell and Louis on a couch. After quite a while, Jackson orders his blond groupie to get some ice. She was framed out of the picture and we didn’t even know she existed until the men became thirsty. It was a clever way to show Ordell’s disdain for women.
Toward the end, a critical scene is played out from a few different perspectives, each revealing new and important details about the scene. It was a nice little Rashomon bit (or a Clue: the Movie bit for the cynical among you) that drew out the tension of the scene and gave the whole sequence some extra weight. Since it is critical to the story, the extra weight is appropriate.
One final point is well worth mentioning. I am constantly surprised (and pleasantly so) by how normal people look in British movies. Actors are chosen for how well they fit the parts and not for how many glamour magazine covers they have filled. I think it’s great that a 44-year old, nonanorexic woman is the hero in this hip, slick, American movie.
Congratulations to Tarantino for proving himself an able filmmaker who promises to change the face of Hollywood movies.