Jackie Brown is and always will be the follow-up to Pulp Fiction.
It didn’t take long for Pulp Fiction to graduate from being just another great movie to its own category, a shorthand for critics and audiences alike to use when describing other, lesser things. It hadn’t yet left multiplexes before entering the vernacular like Citizen Kane or 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Godfather, to be used as a meta-marker for all kinds of artistic works.
Of all the comparisons made to Quentin Tarantino’s breakthrough, one overshadowed them all: Jackie Brown is and always will be the follow-up to Pulp Fiction. Tarantino, of course, understood the intense scrutiny he was under. As a gag, he filmed an alternate opening to his long-awaited third film. Jackie Brown’s official credit sequence is set to Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” and, in an homage to The Graduate, features a tracking shot of Pam Grier gliding down an airport conveyor belt. The alternate take replaces the Womack tune with “Miserlou”, the rollicking instrumental that kick-started Pulp Fiction. Rather than stand stoically in place, Grier pantomimes surf poses and mimics that movie’s famous dance scene. Forget whistling past the graveyard; Tarantino and Grier joyfully boogie through it.
Later Tarantino pictures would flirt (and needle) with his audience’s sky-high expectations in their own fantastical ways – see his two-part opus Kill Bill and the trio of period revenge-fantasias that followed. But Jackie Brown, which veered away from cinematic flourish and toward human relationships, stands alone as his most self-consciously minor work. As such, a feeling of mild disappointment, at the time, has given way to a general shoulder shrug toward the picture, which age has revealed is one of Tarantino’s finest.
“Minor” here equally applies to Tarantino’s stylistic ambitions and his film’s mode. In music composition, the minor key can be hopeful and plaintive at once. Jackie Brown works in the same way. It’s a romp, but one underscored with sadness. Its central duo, Grier’s title flight attendant and Robert Forster’s bail bondsman Max Cherry, are both stuck in midlife ruts. In Jackie’s case, a stalled career is augmented with a side gig, smuggling money for the two-bit gun runner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson at his best). Max, on the other hand, has grown tired of the daily grind. Wrangling petty criminals in and out of L.A. county jails has taken its toll.
On the surface, Jackie Brown centers on a golden opportunity, an ingenious double-cross caper made under the gaze of the law, which Jackie concocts on her own and then executes with Max’s help. She understands the downside risks, which are huge (incarceration and being murdered, just to name two). But the upside potential is bigger still. The superb third-act switcheroo that Tarantino painstakingly presents from three different perspectives is her ticket to a better life. And she wants Max there by her side, to share the risks and, even more crucially, the rewards.
So, Jackie Brown is really a tale of burgeoning love and mutual redemption. Our heroine’s back is against the wall, as is Max’s. Both are past their prime and understandably drawn to one another. With her last-ditch stunt, freedom is on Jackie’s whip-smart mind, but companionship is too. All that happens in between – the extended hang-out scenes and duplicitous planning sessions, featuring a wonderful cast of misfits (played by the likes of Robert De Niro, Bridget Fonda, and Michael Keaton) on both sides of the law, which make up the bulk of the film – is a hugely entertaining bonus to what is, at its beating heart, a bittersweet love story.
Chalk it up to the screenplay, Tarantino’s adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch, or perhaps some post-Pulp Fiction nerves, but Jackie Brown remains an earthbound outlier in an otherwise high-flying oeuvre. Trapeze acts are entrancing, but human stories endure. Quentin Tarantino would eventually give his audience what it wanted most, cinematic flash and bombast. Twenty years after Jackie Brown, it’s about time he returns to what we need: humanity with style on the side.