Monday, March 1, 2010

Review: Jackie Brown

Having made quick work of Elmore Leonard's 'Rum Punch', I thought I'd take a couple hours to watch Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown to see how the two compared. If you aren't aware, Jackie Brown is QTs adaptation of Rum Punch for the silver screen and his only adapted screenplay. I've been a huge Tarantino fan since seeing Pulp Fiction for the first time nearly ten years ago, and his early passion for crime-centric screenplays is a big part of the reason I decided to check out Rum Punch (and make everyone in TBC read it as well)

In my opinion, Jackie Brown is Tarantino's most underrated film (Death Proof is a close second). While it retains his ear for dialogue and vibrant characters, it is decidedly less-stylized and has as linear a plot as you're likely to find in a Tarantino flick. Much like Pulp Fiction before it, Tarantino displays an uncanny eye for acting talent. Just as he revitalized the career of John Travolta as Vincent Vega, QT makes an inspired choice here by plucking Pam Grier (of 1974's Foxy Brown fame) and B-Movie actor Robert Forster off the discarded actor scrapheap. He also casts Robert Deniro as washed-up ex-con Louis Gara and Tarantino staple Samuel L. Jackson as the pony-tailed gun-runner Ordell Robbie. Everyone is at the top of their game here, but it's Forster's Max Cherry that is the most compelling (he garnered a best supporting actor nod for it).

In typical QT fashion, even the soundtrack is homage, this one heavily indebted to soul music, opening with Bobby Womack's Across 110th Street and featuring songs from Bill Withers, The Supremes and Brothers Johnson. Most notable of these is 'Didn't I' by The Delfonics, which is played at 3 different junctures by 3 different characters, with 3 different responses. Tarantino has always taken great pride in the songs used in his films (much like Martin Scorsese before him), and his obsession with the material shows in every frame.

With regard to how Jackie Brown compares to Rum Punch, the differences are very minor. Small subplots involving an injured member of Robbie's entourage and Cherry's ex-wife are omitted, and the romance between Cherry and Brown is much more subtle through QTs lens, which is a nice touch. I'm sure much of this is due to the ease with which these delicate feelings can be portrayed on film compared to the written word. Tarantino has never been one for tact and subtlety, so to see him reign things in a bit here is refreshing. As far as the overarching plot is concerned, Tarantino is smart to remain faithful to Leonard's book, maintaining the tide of double and triple-crosses, and quite frequently using entire pages of dialogue verbatim. It is a testament to Leonard and Tarantino both that the words can transfer effortlessly across mediums, and only serves to make me wants to read more crime writing. Rum Punch is not the first Elmore Leonard book to be adapted for the screen (there have been nearly 20, including Out of Sight and Get Shorty), but in contrast to what I've seen of the others, Jackie Brown offers the perfect meshing of seemingly disparate styles. QT rises to the source material by keeping his stylistic urges in check, while at the same time, cutting scenes out of the book that would appear to be right in his wheelhouse in the interest of pacing. The result is a gritty balance of style and substance, everything you hope for in an film adaptation.

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