(This post is being published by me as part of Scenes of the Crime blogathon under category Heist. One of Tarantino’s more under appreciated movies, a brilliant heist movie, with enough twists, turns and double crosses. )
Spoiler Alert: Some key scenes and moments in the movie are discussed in post, readers please note.
One of the numerous slam bang movies, i saw as a kid during the late 70’s in India was Black Belt Jones. It had Jim Kelly, one of the main characters in the 70’s martial arts flick, Enter the Dragon, that had made Bruce Lee an icon of sorts, especially during the 70’s and early 80’s. Black Belt Jones, was more like a Bollywood masala flick, made in English, hero taking on the Mafia, that wants to take over the land on which a karate school is located, and lot of bang, thud, kick, ouch, including a romance, and a kick ass finale in a soap factory kind. Black Belt Jones belonged to a genre that was quintessentially 70’s, the Blaxploitation genre. And from Wiki.
Blaxploitation is a film genre that emerged in the United States in the early 1970s when many exploitation films were made that targeted an audience of urban black people; the word itself is a portmanteau of the words “black” and “exploitation.” Blaxploitation films were the first to feature soundtracks of funk and soul music.
While many credit it’s origin to a 70’s movie called Shaft, other sources claim it to be an indie movie called Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasss Song, again having not seen either movie, though had heard about Shaft, honestly not really qualified to comment on this. Anyway origins and trivia aside, most of the Blaxploitation movies had some common trademarks- Afro hairstyles , typical OJ Simpson kind, the Harlem Ghetto background, and a backdrop of drug dealing, crooks, hit men, gangsters, throw in some funk and soul jazz soundtracks. Most of these movies were released quite often in India, Black Belt Jones was one i can recall, another one in this genre was Cleopatra Jones, story of a Black, female special agent, against a drug mafia, interestingly headed by a woman.
Quentin Tarantino’s 1997 feature Jackie Brown, has often been called his ode/ tribute/homage/ love letter ( take your pick) to the Blaxploitation Genre, after he was done making his tributes to the 70’s B Action Movies, Euro cinema, Hong Kong actioners. In a couple of ways, yes, Pam Grier who plays the title role was one of the leading actresses in the Blaxploitation genre flicks, notably with movies like Foxy Brown, Coffy casting her as the avenging angel, taking on the bad guys, using a mixture of seduction, brute force, smart thinking. Sort of an American version of our own desi Phoolan Hasina Dakuwali, Ramkali, Bhooki Sherni flicks, that we watched in the stuffy, stinking theaters. The soundtrack of the movie, lists a whole lot of 70’s music, and the backdrop is similar to most of the blaxploitation flicks- crime, black gangsters, double dealing, deception. But unlike the slam, bang, crash, thud nature of the blaxploitation flicks, Jackie Brown, for the major part relies on dialogue and character interplay. It’s like some one has decided that he is going to do a tribute to the Hasina Dakuwali stuff, removes all the whip wielding stunts, “Maa ki Kasam” dialogues, but keeps the basic plot structure intact- Wronged Woman takes on the Bad Guys, with a whole lot of dialogues and exposition.
The source material, for Jackie Brown was Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch, quite an interesting turn for QT, moving away from making references to other movies, to adapting a literary work. Also compared to Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, the plot of Jackie Brown, is more linear, as an average movie goer, you don’t really have to work hard to connect the dots here. I have not read the book, but from what i know, QT changed the central character’s race from White to Black for the movie, to make it a homage to the blaxploitation genre. Though for me Jackie Brown does not really have much similarities to the wronged woman- avenging angel roles that Grier had done earlier. For starters Jackie here is not on a mission against the gangsters, taking revenge on them. As QT clearly establishes in the airport garage scene, the camera dollying behind her, as she walks to the car, and then her encounter with the L.A.P.D cop Mark Dargus( Michael Bowen) and his partner, the ATF special agent, Ray Nicollette( Michael Keaton). Her confident demeanor, sweet smile, attitude, which we come across in the Graduate inspired opening credits, mask the screwed up life she actually leads. Jackie is not one of the criminals, or in Dargus word’s those “sonabitches have dedicated their lives to a life outside the law”, nor is she an innocent victim sucked into the world of crime or affected by it. She keeps smuggling in hard cash, from Mexico to the US, more in order to make up for the low pay offered to her by Cabo Airlines, a down to heel, budget airline, that runs flights from US to Mexico.
In fact the interrogation scene, sets up Jackie’s character beautifully, for the first part, the camera is focused only on Jackie’s face, stubborn, when Dargus tells her not to smoke, she shoots back “Arrest me”, and then only the voices of the agents, asking her about the details of a murder. She refuses to answer any query, and relents only when the agents threaten to turn her to the Customs. And that moment, camera again focusing on Dargus and Ray, as they interrogate here. She is not perturbed when branded a LOSER, and that’s when Dargus puts out her entire back story.
In 1985 you were flying for TWA and got busted for carrying drugs. You were carrying them for a pilot husband of yours. He did time and you got off. But that ended your career with the big airlines. Cut to thirteen years later. You’re forty-four years of age. You’re flying for the shittiest little shuttle-fucking piece of shit Mexican airline that there is. Where you make a whopping twelve-thousand dollars a year. That ain’t a hulluva lot to show for a twenty year career. And to top it off, you’re going tojail. Now true, the judge, even with your prior, will probably only give you a year or two. But this doesn’t seem like the time of life you got years to throw away.
Dargus monologues, being branded a loser, nothing seems to move Jackie, as she stonewalls every attempt. It’s when the cocaine is discovered, actually more of a plant, that she first loses her composure. And then when the agents, threaten to book her under Drug Trafficking, that we see her finally opening up, though not shown explicitly. Critics have slammed Jackie Brown for not having memorable moments, like the “torture” scene in Reservoir Dogs or the “Hamburgers” scene in Pulp Fiction. I beg to differ, the entire interrogation scene is one of the best shot, the way the characters are set up, the mind games played by the Agents, Jackie not falling for the trap. Watch the camera flitting between the expressions on the 3 characters, shifting the focus, and finally the moment, when Jackie is caught, one awesome sequence.
As is the part when right after the opening credits, we cut to the other 3 characters of the movie. Camera cutting to a TV screen, where a sexy bikini clad brunette with a killer bod, advertising a TEC-9 rifle, in a show aptly titled, “CHICKS WHO LOVE GUNS”. Actually that one moment, showcasing the American fascination for babes, TV, commercials and guns. I am not sure in which other nation, Guns are openly sold on TV, like any other consumer product. As the brunette, pitches the product, we hear the voice of a 45 year old black, Robbie Ordell( Samuel L Jackson), sitting in a typical California style beach apartment. Robbie makes his living and money, doing gun running, and like most of the Black gangsters, loves to live lavishly, wearing expensive branded clothing, silk shirts, dark leather jackets, baseball caps et all. The way Ordell speaks about the guns, his dominating manner, his “I know it all I am the Boss” attitude, points clearly to a man who runs the show. He is the same person for whom Jackie, keeps smuggling in the cash, made from the sales of the guns by his partner in Mexico.
Mr. Walker. He runs a fishing boat in Mexico. I deliver the merchandise to him, gets it to my customers. On all my bulk sales, anyway. Nigga didn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out ‘fore I set ‘em up. Now,motherfucker’s rollin’ in cash. He got himself a yacht, with all kinds of high tech navigational shit on it.
In sharp contrast to Ordell’s flamboyant attitude, is his ex partner in crime, Louis Gara( Robert De Niro), a former bank robber, who has served long time in prison, unable to adjust to the real world. Dressed in a grungy clothing, looking every inch a beach bum, he just stares at the TV screen with a blank face, while Ordell keeps giving his monologues about the guns. The other character in the room is the ditzy, blonde and tanned beach bunny, Melanie Graston( Bridget Fonda). Dressed for the most part, in the skimpiest shorts and a stringy top, she keeps lazing all day long in the flat, smoking weed, and doing the favors for Ordell. As a later sequence sets it up, in her prime time, she was an expensive hooker, entertaining rich Japanese businessmen, lounging around for the next money bags to latch on to. Now in her 30’s, she hangs around with Ordell, more for his money, and not thinking too highly of him. As she tells Louis later, about Ordell “He’s just repeating shit he over heard, he ain’t any more a gun expert than i am.”
Ordell is the kind who sells guns to the small time criminals( mostly black) and other assorted hoods, and then sells guns to people who wants to protect themselves from those criminals. Talk about the Gun Culture, whew. He however is frustrated with the low returns he has been getting, and is looking for one big deal, that could make him live happily ever after. He however now has to deal with one of his former associates Beaumont Livingston( Chris Tucker) arrested for drunken driving and carrying guns. That’s where he approaches Max Cherry( Robert Forster), a bail bondsman, to get Beaumont out of jail. One of the dialogue pieces is interesting, Max comes to know, that Ordell is ready to pay the entire 10,000 $ for the bail in hard cash, and wonder’s why he approached him, when Ordell could have directly paid the cash.
C’mon, you know how they do. Black man comes in with ten thousand, they wanna fuck with ‘em. First off, they gonna wanna know where I got it. Second, they gonna keep a big chunk of it – start talkin’ that court cost shit. Fuck that shit, Jack. I’ll go through you.
Was QT making some kind of statement here, about how Blacks are still looked upon suspiciously, that even if they have the money, it’s taken to be some kind of slush funds? Or does the feeling still persist, that Blacks are criminals by default, and could never earn such large amounts in the straight way? Later on again Ordell, raises the issue.
Besides, Beaumont’s from Kentucky, and I think they’re prejudiced against black men from the South out here.
Now considering California has a reputation of being liberal and diverse racially, it did sound surprising. Anyway Ordell’s intentions are not altruistic, the bail is a tactic to get rid of Beaumont, once he is out, as Ordell feel’s he could start singing about his activities in prison.
When you shoot, shoot, don’t talk- Eli Wallach( Tuco) in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Characters in Tarantino movie’s don’t talk before they shoot, they actually deliver monologues. The monologue here though is not the “Kutte, Kamine, mein teri khoon pee jaaonga” kinda stuff, where the hero, comes up with a roster list of the villian’s crimes, before bumping him off. Ordell does the same here, he plays an elaborate mind game with Beaumont before bumping him off. Meeting him at his flat, he plays on the sense of obligation Beaumont has to him, for getting him released, asking him to come out for a job, and putting it across firmly. Ordell sure has to be one of the smartest Bad ass guys ever seen, and then at the car, he manages to coax Beaumont into hiding in the trunk, first using the guilt factor.
Well, my ass has got a problem spending ten thousand dollars of my own goddam money to get ungrateful, peanut-head niggas outta jail, but I do it.
Promising him the reward of taking him to Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles for a treat. And then shooting him to death. Again a sequence to be followed, as we see Ordell, using a mixture of pyschological intimidation, mind games, stealth, to achieve his aim.
With Jackie now in the prison, Ordell again approaches Max, this time to bail Jackie out, and get rid of her in the same way, he did with Beaumont. Again another aside on racial discrimination.
They fuckin’ wit’ her. They callin’ it Possession with Intent. A black woman in her forties gets busted with less than two ounces on her, they call that shit Intent. Same shit happened to a movie star. It’s Possession.
Not sure , who the movie star in question here, but i guess it was more like being Black and poor, gets it harder for you in the US, than being White and Rich. But then when Ordell, asks Max to take a more humane view of the situation, he retorts back “Is White Guilt supposed to make me forget I am running a business?”. Smart and witty dialogue has always been a feature of QT’s movies , and it’s not much different in Jackie Brown. And now the twist begins, Max, expecting some tired old woman, is surprised to see a sexy, knock out babe, who looks hot even at 40. Max drops her at home, offering her a whole host of legal options. And that sets it up for the best scene of the movie, IMO. The steady cam tracks Ordell’s movement, into Jackie’s home. He meets her, keeps talking to her, hoping to do the same what he did to Beaumont. He keeps talking to her slowly, making sure, she has not revealed anything about him to the cops. As Ordell comes closer to Jackie, the screen splits, one half showing Ordell touching Jackie’s throat, and another showing Max driving home. Jackie however proves to be a tough nut, refusing to be cowed down, by Ordell’s mind games. Ordell’s hands go around Jackie’s throat, CLICK, something hard on his crotch, at the same time intercut, with Max opening the glove box in his car, the .38 revolver is missing, and then back to Jackie now pointing the gun at Ordell. The tables have been turned, fuck, a smart ass criminal outwitted by an equally smart ass female, seeti maar. And that’s where Jackie cuts the deal, pretending to help the authorities, while at the same time, helping to smuggle the 500,000 $ Ordell needs badly. The stage is set for the double games and wheeling dealing. Well how Jackie plays her double game, with both Ordell and the cops needs to be seen on screen.
Jackie Brown is also served up by some fabulous performances, the top of the charts being Pam Grier, in the title role. Jackie Brown, has to be one of the best female characters seen on screen in recent times. Sexy, intelligent, smart assed, tough, feisty, she sure knows how to play a double game. Pam Grier is fabulous, not one false note in her expressions, and a sexuality, that sure makes you weak in the knees, can’t blame Max for falling to her charms. 70’s B Movie star, Robert Forster, is fabulous as the good natured, romantic Max Cherry, who surely must be one of the nicest ever guys in a QT movie. And then as the bad ass, mind game playing, ruthless Ordell, Samuel L Jackson, takes off from Pulp Fiction, sinking his teeth into the part with relish. Watch his performance in the scene, where he leads Chris Tucker to his death, awesome. This must surely be one of Robert De Niro’s most laid back characters he has ever played, in contrast to the usually high strung characters he does. Not one of his best performances, but still does well enough. Bridget Fonda, does a great job, doing the ditzy beach bunny, and her toned body is a bonus. Michael Keaton as the agent and Chris Tucker as Beaumont are as good as ever.