Released twenty years ago this week, Jackie Brown is often considered something of a minnow in comparison with the rest of Quentin Tarantino's output.
Beyond Robert DeNiro and Samuel L. Jackson, the film didn't feature any actors of especial note. Pam Grier, in the titular role, was primarily known for blaxploitation films of the '70s and was largely resigned to guest roles in TV shows such as Miami Vice, Crime Story and Knots Landing. Robert Forster, who played the reserved bail bondsman Max Cherry, was in a similar situation - turning up in the likes of Jake & The Fatman and Murder, She Wrote on no less than two episodes. Further down the cast list, Michael Keaton was primarily associated with Batman, Bridget Fonda had done low-rent thrillers like Single White Female, and Chris Tucker was more known for his stand-up comedy or a outsized cameo in The Fifth Element.
Yet, for all the lack of apparent starpower, Tarantino was able to mine the talent and come back with some of their best performances and, what's more, craft a deeply human story in a way that he hasn't done before or since. Look at the likes of Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, or even his later stuff like Kill Bill, Inglorious Basterds or The Hateful Eight. They're all great, sure, but none of them have any kind of subtlety to them. Even in Pulp Fiction's quieter moments, there's a sense that it's merely stalling for time to build up to something else.
Robert DeNiro, as Louis Gara, and Samuel L. Jackson, as Ordell Robbie
Inglorious Basterds was an over-the-top, gleefully violent romp through World War II that featured equally over-the-top performances from Brad Pitt and Christoph Waltz. Even the smaller strands, like with Daniel Bruh and Melanie Laurent, are done in a more obvious way. Bruhl's earnestness and, of course, Laurent literally burning a cinema to the ground as revenge. The Hateful Eight was more like a horror than a Western, taking inspiration from John Carpenter's The Thing and every locked-room thriller you can think of - mixed together with a complete lack of restraint in just about every way you can imagine.
Jackie Brown opens simply and unobtrusively, homaging The Graduate's understated opening credits with Bobby Womack's Across 110th Street in place of Simon & Garfunkel's Sound Of Silence. From there, we're shown Brown's situation - she's a forty-four year old air hostess, working for a low-cost Mexican airline and earning $16,000 "plus benefits", who's just trying to make a living. As each character is introduced, they're done so in a way that brings their motivations down to simple and relatable reasons. Samuel L. Jackson's character, Ordell Robbie, for all his swagger and ruthlessness, just wants to retire. Robert Forster's character leads a somewhat dull life that he's beginning to question, whilst the title character is riven with fears about starting over again in middle age. Throughout it all, there's a humanity to it and an authenticity that Tarantino's never fully recaptured.
Even in the soundtrack, it's the same thing. Most of the soundtrack is diegetic. Chris Tucker's character is shot dead to the smooth sounds of The Brothers Johnson after Samuel L. Jackson pops a tape into an 8-track. When we hear Randy Crawford's Street Life, it's being played on the radio in a Toyota Corolla. There's even a scene set in a music shop when Robert Forster picks up a Delfonics CD. While some of Tarantino's most recognisable setpieces have featured diegetic music - the ear removal scene from Reservoir Dogs, the dancing contest from Pulp Fiction - it's not something he's done much since, apart from maybe Death Proof or the infamous guitar scene in The Hateful Eight, which saw Kurt Russell destroy an authentic Martin guitar that was nearly 150 years old instead of a prop one.
Compared to the likes of Inglorious Basterds, Kill Bill or even Pulp Fiction, Tarantino lays out each scene in a much more reserved way. There's no black-and-white sequences, no cutaways or whip-pans, and there's even very little action to it. The most thrilling part of the film is the money exchange sequence, which is just a simple Steadicam shot following Pam Grier through a shopping centre. Jackie Brown was intended to be Tarantino's love letter to blaxploitation - the same films that Pam Grier made her name in, films like Coffy, Bucktown or Foxy Brown. Yet, when you look back over those films, there's a lot more visual flourish to them that Jackie Brown didn't have.
In a lot of ways, Jackie Brown is Quentin Tarantino without any of his usual visual flashiness or ostentatiousness. The violence is always at a remove - like the Chris Tucker scene - or over in a flash, like when Robert DeNiro angrily shoots Bridget Fonda in a carpark. The dialogue is much more back-and-forth, and some of the most human moments require almost no dialogue. For example, the scene where Robert Forster sees Pam Grier for the first time is done without a word of dialogue, instead allowing Bloodstone's Natural High and Forster's expression to fill out the scene - and it works, too.
It's stripped back in a way that he hasn't done before or since, and exposes a much more convincing and truthful way of telling a story. They're not trying to stop World War II, or kill one another in the most horrible way possible, and they're not even looking for huge amounts of money. A deleted scene explained that Samuel L. Jackson's retirement figure - $1,000,000 - would last him way longer in Thailand.
Watching Jackie Brown in the knowledge of what followed in Tarantino's career, there is a depth and confidence to how the story is told and how it looks that's all of its own making, and that assured demeanour just carries you through the film. Pulp Fiction had it, but Jackie Brown refined it into something more tangible.
Twenty years on, it's still effortlessly cool and had it been more of a success, it could have changed how Tarantino made films from then on.