Two of these in a row? Yeah, usually these articles come every couple of months, because I don’t really exclusively read novels that have been turned into movie, but when the next book I pick up has been made one, I’ll certainly do one of these. And when I was knee-deep in the Price of Salt to write the last of these articles, I was able to go to a special screening of what’s possibly my favorite Quentin Tarantino film, the wonderful Jackie Brown. I adore Jackie Brown, possibly because it’s the most forgotten of his films, adding to the fact that it’s just a really great movie, and I had been aware for a long time that it was based off a novel. And one written by the wonderful Elmore Leonard, who I have read a tragically small amount of work. So after seeing Jackie Brown on the big screen, I was really wanting to talk about it, and decided to just dive into Rum Punch, the novel it was based off, and talk about both of them. So here we go!
The films of Quentin Tarantino have reached a pretty mythic status among film geeks. These fun, crazy movies that are throwbacks to the older genre flicks that Tarantino worshiped as a teenager have somehow transcended their forefathers and become very respected and beloved films. Tarantino built his empire on the backs of movies that most people never heard of, and that the film establishment would turn their noses up at, and essentially makes exploitation movies, but with artistic skill. His films are usually a hodgepodge of inspirations and homages, mixing scenes, music, and inspirations from dozens of movies that he loves, without usually being a direct adaptation of one specific thing. Yeah, you can talk about how Reservoir Dogs is either an “homage” or ripoff of City on Fire, but all of the other movies are more broad in their homage, not necessarily picking on any one thing in particular. That is except Jackie Brown, Tarantino’s only adaptation to date. And man was it a great idea to have Tarantino adapt an Elmore Leonard novel for the screen. Tarantino, at the time especially, was known to make fun crime movies with quirky dialogue, and Leonard was known for making fun crime novels with quirky dialogue. They were essentially making the same types of stories, just in different medium, and where some directors fall while adapting Leonard, Tarantino excelled. He made a wonderful movie that while maybe is the least Tarantinoy, is still another masterpiece and took full advantage of his style.
The plot is an twisty crime caper, like most of Tarantino’s earlier films, and mostly revolves around Jackie Brown, a middle-aged stewardess played by the Blaxpolitation icon Pam Grier. She’s working for a local gun-dealer named Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson with the weirdest ponytail/beard combo of all time) who is having her smuggle money from Mexico to Los Angeles for him. Ordell is ready to make a big score and get half a million dollars sent in, and has brought his buddy Luis Gara (Robert DeNiro in a wonderful role) to help him out, since he just got out of jail for a bank robbery. And everything is going good for Ordell until an associate of his named Beaumont (Chris Tucker) is arrested for an unrelated crime, and gives an ATF officer named Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) and his LAPD partner Mark some information about his money smuggling. That gets them to find Jackie, and give her a “random” search that pulls up the $50,000 she brought in. She’s brought in, but does her best to remain loyal to Ordell and not tell them anything, that is until they find some cocaine in her bag as well, and she’s busted.
While all of this is going on, Ordell and Luis meet with a bail-bondsman named Max Cherry (the wonderful Robert Forster), and get the bail for Beaumont. And when Beaumont gets out of jail, Ordell almost immediately kills him to make sure he doesn’t snitch any more than he already did. So he gets Max to move the bail for Beaumont over for Jackie, and get her out too, planning the same fate. But when Max goes to pick up Jackie, he falls for her right away. The two end up chatting and going to a bar, while Jackie begins planning her revenge for Ordell, even stealing Max’s gun to use on Ordell if necessary. And that night when Ordell comes to kill Jackie, she gets the upper hand and ends up getting Ordell to agree to a plan of hers that will get his $550,000 into the states, and screw over the ATF. She then convinces Nicollete and his partner that every time she brings money into the States she drops it off in this complicated matter at a mall, and that if they keep watching the mall they’ll eventually track it down to Ordell and get him that way. But in actuality, she and Max are planning to screw everyone over. They do a test-run of the plan where Jackie brings a bag with the marked money into the mall, where she switches the bag with another of Ordell’s girls Sheronda. But Nicollete doesn’t know that Sheronda’s bag is then picked up by yet another woman, Simone, who brings the money back to Ordell. And when Jackie is waiting in the mall food court she ends up running into Max, who was at the mall to watch a movie, and the two end up spending more time together as the plan starts to come together and she convinces Max to help her steal the money from Ordell and the ATF.
Unfortunately, when the real switch is getting ready to happen, Simone flees, leaving Ordell without another reliable woman to help him out, so he has to resort to using Melanie (Bridget Fonda) a ditsy surfer-girl who knew Ordell and Luis from the past. So Jackie goes to Mexico, gets the $550,000 and brings it back into the States, while separating it out between $50,000 and $500,000. She gives Nicollete the $50,000 to mark, and keeps the rest secret. She then goes to a store in the mall to buy an awesome new suit, and heads to the dressing room, where the plan is to give the $500,000 to Melanie before doing the drop-off with Sheronda. But in actuality she only puts a couple thousand in the bag for Melanie, and hides the rest. So Melanie and Luis come to get the money, while Luis doesn’t find it weird that Max Cherry is wandering around the same store. Luis and Melanie head out with the cash, and Jackie goes running out to the food-court, telling Nicollete that Melanie stole the money before they could do the drop. That gets Luis and Melanie, and Jackie and Nicollete out of the mall, so Max can grab the $500,000 and head out. Nicollete is obviously irritated with Jackie, but it doesn’t seem like there was anything she could do about it, and her story seems to add up when they find Melanie’s body in the parking lot, which happened when Luis shot her because she was annoying. So Jackie is cleared of her charges, and now all she has to do it take care of Ordell. After killing Melanie Luis heads out to meet Ordell, and when he shows up with only $50,000 Ordell gets furious and ends up killing Luis. He then knows that Jackie has screwed him over, and when Max Cherry shows up at one of his houses, he decides to come back to Max’s storefront with him, since Max says Jackie is waiting for Ordell there to tell him about the money. So Ordell and Max head back to his store, where Ordell is planning to kill them both. But when they get there it turns out Jackie has gotten Nicollete to be there too, and Jackie yells that Ordell has a gun, causing Nicollete to shoot him, ending all her problems. The story then picks up a couple of days later, with everyone dead Nicolette and the ATF have stopped caring, and Jackie shows up at Max’s store before heading off into the sunset. She ensures Max that she didn’t use him, and offers for him to come along, but Max knows that he can’t keep up with her, and decides to stay behind, knowing that she’s changed his life.
This movie is so wonderful. The plot is so twisty and fun, and full of memorable characters, but that’s all from the Elmore Leonard novel, so I’ll focus more on the film here. Tarantino is known for taking different exploitation genres and giving them his own twist, and here he takes what amounts to a crazy heist story, and gives it a bit of a Blaxploitation twist. But not really through the plot, since if that was the case Jackie would spend most of her time shotgunning pimps and drug-dealers in the face while being topless, you know, like most of Pam Grier’s other movies. No, the Blaxploitation flavor of the movie comes from the cast and the music. Tarantino took one of the queens of the genre, Pam Grier, and gave her a new starring role, and man did she deliver. Grier puts in a truly wonderful performance, really selling Jackie as this mastermind of the whole plot, while also being genuinely moving when talking about her faded glory and her relationship with Max. Speaking of Max, Robert Forster was another actor whose career had been in a gully at the time of this movie, Tarantino knew him from all the bad exploitation movies he made in the 70s and 80s, and he was also stellar in the movie. Max Cherry is a truly tragic character, who gets drawn into this crazy plot, and even though Jackie denies it in the end, she totally played him, but he doesn’t even care, because this whole event, and the attention she gave him, probably made his life. He falls fast and hard for Jackie, even going to get some music she likes to listen to. And all of the other actors are great too, Samuel L Jackson is so intimidating and frightening in the movie and Robert DeNiro puts in a performance unlike anything I’ve ever seen him do, making him a burnt out old bum who just can’t do anything right. And the music, oh man, the music. Tarantino has always been amazing at putting together some perfect soundtracks for his movies, and this may be my favorite of them all. It’s jam packed with classic soul songs, many of which are from some of he most famous Blaxploitation films, and all of them are amazing. As much as I love Jackie Brown, it’s greatest feat may have been introducing me to most of the music on the soundtrack, especially “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind,” by the Delphonics, which is featured in one of my favorite scenes of the movie, where Max and Ordell are driving to Max’s store in the end of the movie, both men aware that one or both of them will die that night, but they find common ground by grooving to the same song. This movie is probably the least-well known of Tarantino’s, and I really don’t know why. Yeah, it’s the movie of his that’s the least dripping with his style, but it’s so well-made and fun. Tarantino took an amazing story, some fascinating characters, and made something his own with them.
I mentioned earlier, but I really want to dive deeper into the bibliography of Elmore Leonard. This is the second book of his I’ve read, and man they’re enjoyable. I know he’s also made a bunch of Westerns, but the two I’ve read have been really fun, silly crime novels that have a bunch of goofy characters all trying to get one over on each other. And here we have Rum Punch. And once again, I have another book that is extremely close to the film adaptation. It has the same plot, the same characters, and often the same dialogue. So it’s not going to make much sense going over the plot, because it’s essentially the same. We have Ordell and his gun operation that requires him to smuggle money into the country, Jackie being busted by the Nicollete and deciding to screw Ordell over with the help of Max Cherry, and the whole scam with the fake drop-offs are the same. So we don’t need to rehash the plot, but what I will talk about are some of the differences with the novel.
Now, in Jackie Brown, I would certainly say that Jackie is the main character, it’s her story, and we follow her. But Rum Punch is much more of an ensemble story, with no clear main character. We follow everyone equally, and learn about them all. And that’s not to say the the book had less of Jackie, she’s in all the same scenes, the difference is that the movie left out a lot of character development for pretty much everyone else. It was Jackie’s movie, so everyone else was knocked down to supporting cast, whereas the book let us learn about everyone. Everything about Jackie is the same in the novel, except for the fact that she’s named Jackie Burke and she’s white, it’s the other characters that get some changes.
First of all there’s the fact that this is actually a sequel to an earlier Leonard novel called the Switch that revolves around a younger Ordell and Luis trying to ransom the wife of a rich land developer, before meeting his mistress Melanie. So three of the characters have already been established, and have a much deeper relationship in the novel. Ordell and Luis are old pals, and have been through a lot together, which makes it even harder for Ordell when Luis gets out of jail and has clearly become a different man. We also see that Ordell has changed from when Luis knew him, becoming a crueler and darker man. Max Cherry is pretty much the same character, except for the fact that he’s going through a divorce in the book, which is kind of spurred on when he meets Jackie. He’s been separated from his wife for a while when the story begins, but it’s meeting Jackie and falling in love with her that really gets him moving on the divorce.
Then there are some of the plot changes, in some cases that enhanced the story, and in others that seemed cluttered. There’s a weird element to the story where Max’s bail-bondsman business is being taken over by some sort of insurance company with mob ties, and that Luis is an employee of Max’s, albeit one that’s forced upon him. That’s why Ordell gets the bond from him. And similarly there’s the fact that Luis had been living with Simone, and when Max comes to threaten him and get some money back from him, that’s what scares Simone out of the picture, causing Melanie to be brought in. There’s also an incredibly weird plot where Luis and Ordell are planning on robbing some neo-Nazi’s and their gun cache with the help of a group of crack-head soldiers that Ordell controls. Yeah…that’s odd. And that plot even ends with Melanie stone-cold murdering the head of the Nazis. And man is Melanie more diabolical in the novel. She keeps trying to convince Jackie to screw over Ordell and split the money between the two of them, which really works well with the fact that she was introduced in the previous novel as a con-artist. In the end, the novel is incredibly similar, but it really does more with the characters, giving them all a lot more depth so that it’s more than just the Jackie show.
Well, once again I’ve gotten a movie and a book that are virtually identical. The stories are incredibly similar, and they’re both really great. The big difference between the two ends up being if you want more an ensemble plot or one focused on one character. You can tell that Jackie Brown is going to be more focused than Rum Punch, pretty much based on the name. Rum Punch could be about anything, but Jackie Brown is definitely going to be about Jackie Brown. Both of these are great, and I really love the character of Jackie, which makes the movie incredibly enjoyable, but I will say, I loved Rum Punch and learning more about the other characters. Yeah, for the most part the characters in Jackie Brown were well fleshed-out, but you really get a better feel for them in Rum Punch. You learn their motivations and struggles. And while I really liked the fact that the novel filled in some weird plot-holes, like why they chose Max Cherry, what Max was doing in the mall when he ran into Jackie, and where Simone went, they aren’t really integral parts of the story. It adds flavor, but it’s not necessary. I definitely suggest experiencing both of these stories, and while I really love Rum Punch, Jackie Brown was my favorite of the two, mainly because of the cast and the music. But in the end, it’s a great story, told brilliantly in both mediums, and should be experienced both ways, although, just like Carol and Price of Salt, you maybe shouldn’t back-to-back them like I did, because they’re a little too similar and create a bit of fatigue, although not as bad as that last example, since I generally enjoy this story more than Carol and Price of Salt. But check them out, they’re awesome.
Jackie Brown was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino and released by Miramax Films, 1997.
Rum Punch was written by Elmore Leonard, 1992