Blog Directory CineVerse: Tarantino packs a potent Rum Punch adaptation

Tarantino packs a potent Rum Punch adaptation

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown defied audience expectations upon its release in late 1997. This adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel Rum Punch, with a screenplay penned by Tarantino himself, was the director’s third effort, following his breakout 1994 hit Pulp Fiction. The narrative centers around Jackie Brown, portrayed by Pam Grier, a flight attendant who becomes ensnared in a convoluted scheme involving arms smuggling, law enforcement, and perilous criminals portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton, and Robert De Niro. The storytelling weaves through multiple characters and perspectives, crafting a layered and suspenseful crime drama.

Tarantino's skill in creating memorable and nuanced characters is evident in Jackie Brown, with particular emphasis on the well-developed title character. Additionally, the narrative structure is intricate and non-linear, showcasing Tarantino's distinctive storytelling style. The plot unfolds with multiple layers, intersecting storylines, and unexpected twists.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of Jackie Brown, conducted last week, click here.

Jackie Brown continues to fascinate film fans on several fronts. First, It’s a different kind of approach for Tarantino, at least up to this point. Jackie Brown takes its leisurely time – over 2½ hours – painting these characters in fine brush strokes and giving preference to dialogue and character dynamics rather than plot. This film contains less action than other works by Tarantino, but you still get his notable blend of sudden, extreme violence, whipcrack streetwise dialogue, tasty pop-culture references, and quirky personality traits. Some critics and fans didn’t appreciate the slow burn tone and more relaxed pace of Jackie Brown, while others relished this more character-focused narrative that forces us to linger in seemingly trifling but intriguing and revealing mundane moments that allow the actors extra time to breathe and fill their roles with small, realistic touches.

“With Jackie Brown, Tarantino doesn’t solely rely on the flashier aspects of his patented postmodern style (disjointed editing, extreme violence, fetishistic images) to convey a character’s fated desires or failures. He positions individuals as pieces of a larger mosaic, one populated by burgeoning and disintegrating relationships that reach beyond the frame. This construct produces subtext-heavy conversations containing real conflict and tension at their core. The menacing verbal dance between Ordell and Jackie set in her apartment, where the former turns off each light the latter has just switched on, is a perfect example of this seemingly organic tension between conflicting characters. It’s just one of the many great moments in Jackie Brown where applied emotional pressure is a defining attribute, a telling lesson in flight or fight,” wrote Slant’s Glenn Heath Jr.

Yet, despite a more streamlined story than his predecessor, Pulp Fiction, Jackie’s heist and the dangerous game of chess she’s playing is fairly complex, motivating the viewer to pay close attention and try to evaluate all the angles and possibilities. Jackie Brown’s endlessly enthralling characters reward repeat viewings, but so does its central scheme as we root for Jackie to outwit her adversaries. Roger Ebert posited: “One of the pleasures of Jackie Brown…is that everybody in the movie is smart. Whoever is smartest will live… This is the movie that proves Tarantino is the real thing, and not just a two-film wonder boy. It's not a retread of "Reservoir Dogs" or "Pulp Fiction," but a new film in a new style, and it evokes the particular magic of Elmore Leonard--who elevates the crime novel to a form of sociological comedy… This movie is about texture, not plot.”

Tarantino has fun here paying tribute to blaxploitation films and influential cinematic works, large and small. There’s a nod to The Graduate in the opening credits, and plenty of references to other pictures like The Killing, Rashomon, Coffy and Foxy Brown, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Once Upon a Time in America, Shampoo, and more.

Tarantino’s cache as a hot filmmaker at this time enabled him to cast two long-forgotten thespians in the lead roles: Grier and Forster, who each prove they can carry a movie with aplomb, charisma, and good looks—despite their ages (48 and 54, respectively).

Notably, this is the only Tarantino film where the story is adapted from a different source; all of his other films are original screenplays he wrote himself. Jackie Brown has also been called “his most conventional movie…and his most humane and most romantic: he gives Grier and Forster one of the greatest screen kisses in history,” per The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. Additionally, Max may be the director’s most empathetic male character, according to Collider.

Jackie Brown is a fascinating rumination on unrequited affection. Max instantly falls for Jackie and secretly pines for her without coming on too strong, although these feelings are not reciprocated or shared by her, at least as strongly. The story ends with Jackie leaving Max romantically unfulfilled although not necessarily broken-hearted, a refreshing and unexpected conclusion. Tarantino’s playful notions on how opposites attract are evident, too. Max and Jackie are about as unexpected a couple as you could likely expect, each with extremely different backgrounds, ethnicities, careers, and cultures. But Max is quickly smitten with Ms. Brown, including her taste in music, and Jackie quickly learns to trust him completely in her plans. Similarly, we see other interracial romantic pairings, including Ordell and Melanie, Louis and Simone, and Ray and Jackie.

This is also a film about survival of the fittest and the fine line between loyalty and betrayal. Jackie Brown is an absorbing study of characters who continually backstab, sabotage, or damage each other, with the only honest relationship existing between Jackie and Max. Audiences appreciate the rags to riches and pluck of the underdog themes at work, too. Jackie is a woman of meager means from the bottom rungs of the societal totem pole, with the fewest resources to work with. Yet, with clever strategizing and by using her sex appeal, she persuades men to help her overcome Ordell, walk away with his fortune, and raise her station in life.

Similar works

  • Out of Sight and Get Shorty, two other Elmore Leonard film adaptations
  • Coffy and Foxy Brown, also starring Pam Grier
  • Blaxploitation films from the 1970s including Super Fly, Dolemite, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Shaft, Blacula, and others
  • Oceans Eleven
  • Heist
  • Snatch
  • The Limey
  • Sexy Beast

Other films by Quentin Tarantino

  • Reservoir Dogs
  • Pulp Fiction
  • Kill Bill I and II
  • Inglorious Basterds
  • Django Unchained
  • Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

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