Quentin Tarantino’s third film is now revived in cinemas for its 25th anniversary, an impossibly stylish and exciting race-swapped adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s 1992 crime thriller Rum Punch. It’s a quasi-blaxploitation homage featuring a glorious central performance from Pam Grier as Jackie, the tough flight attendant importing gun-running profits into the US in her tote bag.
Brown figures she can keep all the money by outsmarting her ruthlessly violent associate Ordell Robbie (Samuel L Jackson), whose grisly criminal court includes ex-cellmate Louis Gara (Robert De Niro) and space-cadet girlfriend Melanie (Bridget Fonda), and also law enforcement (in the form of Michael Keaton and Michael Bowen) with whom she is pretending to work undercover. But she finds herself encountering the equally tough, self-deprecating and gallant Max Cherry, a lovely performance from Robert Forster as the bail bondsman who falls deeply in love with Jackie.
This is Tarantino’s most conventional movie, his sole adaptation in fact, and his most humane and most romantic: he gives Grier and Forster one of the greatest screen kisses in history. His use of Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street at the beginning and the end of the film has me levitating with happiness every time. Jackie Brown is often ostentatiously hailed as Tarantino’s best film by people who are not in their hearts Tarantino fans, this praise signalling a disapproval of the distinctive and delirious methamphetamine stimuli of Tarantino’s other movies: the pop-culture self-awareness, the comically crazed ultraviolence, the sheen of irony and studied immaturity, and the more unstructured, chapter-by-chapter narrative procedure. Jackie Brown doesn’t do any of that, although it certainly has violence, a great dead-body-POV car-trunk opening scene and a classically Tarantinoesque sequence in which Ordell, with nothing much else to do in his day but hang out and praise firearms, waxes lyrical about a certain kind of assault rifle. Maybe posterity will crown Jackie Brown as his best film and maybe not. Either way it shows that mainstream plotting and noir romance are yet more movie styles that Tarantino can fabricate: brilliantly.
Those supreme survivors and warriors Grier and Jackson are both explosively good – so much so that it’s easy to overlook how great the supporting turns are as well. De Niro gave an excellent performance, a late career gem, as a rare beta-male among his gallery of tough characters; Louis is the second-stringer who is entirely subordinate to Jackson’s overwhelmingly tough Ordell, the nervous, bleary incompetent who is out of his depth and is finally brutally executed by his old jail buddy: “Your ass used to be beautiful.” Fonda is icily good as Melanie, who resents having to get up to answer the (landline) phone for Ordell, and of course Forster gives a wonderful portrayal of that rarest and most unfashionable of movie attributes: manliness. He is as tough as anyone else on screen, without being enamoured of violence; his professionalism and control are what govern his attitude, which is what gives him more in common with Jackie than the sinister Ordell, as Jackie is about to fight back against being exploited.
This is a stone-cold liquid nitrogen classic from Tarantino and a magnificent performance from Grier.
• Jackie Brown is released on 16 September in cinemas.