The drumbeat replicates the heart. As the record scratch bursts through, the pairing of Elmore Leonard’s eponymous character and the bondsman looking out for her is captured with excitement and keenness from the pulpy, blaxploitation style Quentin Tarantino wishes to replicate here. Jackie Brown (or Rum Punch to give it its real title) was never a text that exuded the notes and key roles of the blaxploitation feature, but Tarantino adapts it as such by twisting the arm of these characters and deploying a fine ensemble to take on the challenge. His critique of the typical machoism of the genre is on point, and surprisingly so. It is something not even Leonard could capture in his text.
Perhaps that is because Leonard never tried to. He showed seedy characters like Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) as cogs in a wider machine. A bigger problem that couldn’t be dealt with, even when Ray Nicolet (Michael Keaton) is blackmailing, conniving and, after all, just doing his job. Leonard explored the meaning of bad men and the lesser of two evils, provided by a big haul of cash that was off the books and ready for the taking. That game of cat and mouse, conniving characters switching places and sides time and time again, Jackie Brown explores that greatly. Much of its third act is dedicated to that game these characters play.
The best of the bunch is Max Cherry (Robert Forster), whose participation in the events Tarantino presents is nothing short of courageously silly. He is the accidental fall guy, coasting through life and involved in a greater plot not because he wishes for his cut of the winnings but because he is saddened by the life he has led so far. Forster provides a career-best performance as Cherry. His unmoved attitude and neutered abilities are not expanded on, but audiences can surmise why he is quiet and discontent. Within Elmore’s novel is the reason, clear as day. Tarantino’s omission neither harms nor helps his adaptation, it is just one of the many bonus details left on the cutting room floor. Those details are, sadly, frequent. There is no love lost between these characters, but no reason for them to like one another either. The build-up is lacking, and it makes for a colder and looser adaptation.
But that coldness produces some fine results. Jackie Brown does not depend on Pam Grier’s titular performance, but when it does the audience finds themselves in safe hands. She brushes shoulders with some of the best, and the best produce a quality adaptation of this Leonard novel. Cutting at times, Jackie Brown flows well. Avid fans of the book may be disappointed by the lack of little details here or there. The keenness of Rum Punch was the intricacies and the smartness of all those details, but Tarantino’s streamlining of this novel is a smart choice. It would be nigh on impossible to attract that blaxploitation charm and the intricacies of Leonard’s work. Tarantino backs the new meanings and simplification of these great characters, and it works out in his favour, with narratives woven as well as Leonard had offered in his novel, just with less to talk of.