Thursday, May 24, 2012

Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino)

Across 110th street.

Known for his brash and trashy, but ultimately brilliant, cinematic sensibilities, "Jackie Brown" may unusually be Quentin Tarantino's subtlest film to date. With its characters more focused on committing actions based on the narrative's impulses rather than on raw characterization, Quentin Tarantino, a filmmaker who would rather dwell on what his characters are thinking than what the story dictates upon them to do, may very well be out of his groove in this film. 

An adaptation of Elmore Leonard's double-cross novel, "Rum Punch", a book that is highly enjoyable and bursts of great literary energy, "Jackie Brown" is a plot-based screen adaptation that does not expose its characters through the trivialities of a hustle and bustle life that made Tarantino a cinematic household name but merely through the very strict context of the film's central conflict. 

Immediately greeting us with the image of Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) and Louis Gara (Robert De Niro) slouched on a sofa watching the former's self-produced 'gun' movies, an image that has been the very representative of "Jackie Brown" in much the same way that Uma Thurman in a "Game of Death" motorcycle suit is to "Kill Bill", the film begins without that initially puzzling opening chapter in the novel which dwelled on a Neo-Nazi parade and instead started headstrong to tell, through a seminal image and the dialogue, who these two main characters are and what they do: Ordell, a street smart gun dealer, and Louis, a fresh from prison low life who's taken in by the former, his old pal, for a job. 

Unlike Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction", both of which begun with not so relevant opening conversations, "Jackie Brown", proving Tarantino's intent to direct against his staple style, is evidently tight in its storytelling that it dared not to let its characters fall that much on some small, unrelated talks just for the mere sake of it. 

One of the great aspects of the film, aside from Tarantino's rapid dialogue, is the casting itself. Elmore Leonard, a novelist more concerned with how his sleazy story would play out more than his character's back stories, still has properly conveyed in "Rum Punch" how his characters would look and act like. Except for the obvious main character change from a middle-aged white woman named Jackie Burke in the novel to a smoky, middle-aged African-American woman named Jackie Brown here and the complete overhaul of Bridget Fonda's Melanie character, the film is particularly spot-on with the characters, their demeanors, and how their literary interactions would translate into film. 

The story, in simple terms, is about the eponymous character's thrilling attempt to play the cops and Ordell with each other so that she can be able to escape with the latter's half a million dollar payoff, with a bail bondsman named Max Cherry (Robert Forster) assisting her in the process. But with Tarantino exercising his usual dry wit, the 'thrilling' part has been, in a way, transformed into an edgier brand of dark humor which has been one of the reasons for Tarantino's directorial successes.

As much as possible depriving the more tense sequences of generic musical scores, these particular moments, instead, have been perfectly peppered not with musical accompaniments but with an underlying humor that has been greatly established in the film's earlier scenes that it's like you're part of Jackie Brown's intent to scam everybody but is secretly smirking, with sweating forehead and all, while you're doing it. 

But then there's also the film's problem, which is the utter devaluation of Max Cherry's emotional connection to her estranged wife; an aspect of the story that has been finely tackled in the novel but is entirely absent in this film. Because of this, Max Cherry has been rendered as Jackie's stiff, lovelorn accessory and nothing more. It's a shame because, as far as characterizations are concerned, I think Max Cherry is the most fleshed-out of all the characters in the novel, which serves as an antidote for "Rum Punch's" half-serious and caricature-like portrayal of the criminal underworld.

As for the performances, there's nothing much that can be said about it because both Sam Jackson and Robert De Niro have, time and time again, proved that they are the staple greats of this industry, especially in portraying hard-edged criminal roles. Even Bridget Fonda is great as Melanie. But I, for the life of me, can't fathom how such a beautiful junkie like her can get into any man's nerve THAT easily (you'll see why). Oh, well, maybe the word 'junkie' does. While Pam Grier, one of the most resonant faces of the '70s blaxploitation scene, made the Jackie Brown character her very own that it's just difficult to read "Rum Punch", with a prior idea of who plays who here in "Jackie Brown", without imagining Jackie Burke as Pam Grier no matter the descriptions.

By Tarantino's standards, "Jackie Brown" may very well be the least violent of his films but is also the least natural one. It's quite obvious that this film has made Quentin exert the additional effort to pull it all off in the name of giving the source novel some screen justice. There's also this sense of inhibition in "Jackie Brown" that suggests the idea that QT has been utterly reserved all along and is quite cautious to pull out all of the tricks in his sleeves for this one. Maybe it's really just better for Quentin Tarantino to make films based on self-indulgent inspirations, not pure adaptations. 

But to end on a positive note, who would have thought that this is a 2 and a half hour film? Some may point out that the running time made the film a bit sluggish as it goes, but I never felt it. In some ways, I may have even preferred it more if "Jackie Brown" runs for 3 solid hours so that it can properly cover Max Cherry's emotional conflict regarding his divorce plans for his wife and may even leave enough time for that little Neo-Nazi mission spearheaded by Ordell Robbie himself. And the ending, well, it couldn't have been handled better.


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