When you hear the name Quentin Tarantino, you probably think of Pulp Fiction. Or maybe one of his more recent movies like Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, or Django Unchained. Dude's made a lot of good movies. But his best movie is one most people probably don't think of when they hear his name. There's a good chance you haven't seen it.
Tarantino's best movie is his third feature film: the 1997 crime caper Jackie Brown.
Based on the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch, Jackie Brown is the only Tarantino movie (so far) whose screenplay was adapted from a prior work. The dialogue has that unmistakable Tarantino je ne sais quoi, and the characters and plot are just as unmistakably Elmore Leonard at his best.
And the cast. The cast!
Pam Grier is on fire as the titular Jackie Brown, who's sick of being pushed around and takes matters into her own hands. The entire movie rests on her performance and she absolutely nails it right from the opening shot, an homage to the classic opening of 1967's The Graduate.
But where The Graduate's opening scene shows us a nervous young white man who isn't sure of his place in the world, Jackie Brown's opener shows us a confident middle-aged black woman who knows exactly who she is. Grier's Jackie Brown is unflappable without being inscrutable or one-dimensional.
Samuel L. Jackson gives one of the best performances of his career (and that's saying a lot) as small-time gunrunner and drug dealer Ordell Robbie. There are moments in this film where Jackson switches from charming to deadly so fast it'll give you chills. He's at the top of his game.
Robert De Niro somehow makes himself seem a foot shorter as the dimwitted Louis, a recently released ex-con in Robbie's employ. It's not your usual De Niro role. He disappears so effortlessly into the character that you forget you're watching one of the most recognizable actors of all time in a supporting role.
Michael Keaton is brilliant as usual as detective Ray Nicolette, a role he reprises in a cameo in 1998's Out of Sight (also based on an Elmore Leonard novel).
And of course, Robert Forster brings an unforgettable quiet confidence and depth to bail bondsman Max Cherry, a performance for which he received an Oscar nomination.
While on the surface this film is an entertaining crime caper with twists and turns and plenty of suspense and humor (and you'll certainly have a great time if that's all you care about), Jackie Brown is at its core a surprisingly nuanced story about aging, and the way people choose to either accept or reject the changes the come with it, and where those decisions take them.
It's also a touching and understated romance between two people who make a connection in the unlikeliest of circumstances, and who perhaps each see in the other a reflection of something that they hadn't previously noticed about themself.
A lot of crime capers end up being stylistic-but-shallow affairs in which characters and their motivations exist only in service of the caper at hand. Everyone is more or less a cardboard cutout with a single purpose — the mastermind, the driver, the thief with a heart of gold, the girl (yeesh). But Jackie Brown is a movie full of people who aren't just one thing, and whose choices about who they want to be lead them down paths that eventually culminate in one of the most suspenseful and satisfying capers on film.
Jackie Brown is Tarantino's most mature film by far. There's no style just for the sake of style. There are no just-because-it's-cool setpieces. There's no sly winking at the audience as if to say, "Get it? See what I did there? Like in that one movie?" There's just a master of his craft masterfully employing that craft in service of a great story full of nuanced characters portrayed by fantastic actors.
If you haven't seen Jackie Brown, you really should watch it. And if you have seen it but didn't fully appreciate it at the time, consider giving it another look.