Hello and Happy Friday, everyone, and welcome to Weekend Movie Brawls!
Here, we take an in-depth look at films with similar themes or stories and we pit them against each other in a competition based on their merits. For example, it can be two animated films of the same type, two films which take place during a certain time period, two films with similar plots or an original film versus its remake.
The reason we make this a weekend thing is because when else might you have the time and energy to relax and see something you haven’t seen before?
This week’s match-up is between two pulp-style crime films. While they’re not so much forgotten, I feel they might have been slightly underappreciated.
Let’s meet our competitors…
In this corner…
1) JACKIE BROWN (1997)
Based on the novel “Rum Punch”, by the late Elmore Leonard, the film tells the story of a woman named “Jackie Brown” (veteran actress Pam Grier) whose uses her job as a flight attendant as a cover to help smuggle money into the United States for an illegal arms dealer named Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). One day, she runs into two ATF agents (Michael Keaton and Michael Bowen) who arrest her on suspicion of money laundering. The ATF, however, doesn’t want Jackie, they want to bring down Ordell and they offer Jackie a deal: her freedom for Ordell. At first, she rejects it, but after Ordell nearly ends her life, she decides to take the deal — but things just aren’t that simple. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.
And, in this corner…
2) THE KILLING (1956)
After serving five years in prison, Johnny Clay (Sterling Hayden) realizes that he’s had just about enough of living a life of crime and the prison time he just served as a result. He plans “one last heist” so that he can get rich quick, retire, and marry his sweetheart, Fay (Coleen Grey) who has been nothing if not patient with him. The plan (robbing a horse racetrack of $2 million dollars in broad daylight during racing hours) is foolproof, with a team comprised of people who don’t have a criminal background and who are sworn to silence about the robbery…but, once again, things just aren’t that simple. Written and directed by the late Stanley Kubrick.
The scoring in Weekend Movie Brawls is simple. There are five categories: music, casting, writing, production (which includes design, costumes, make-up, etc), and direction. Each of these will be awarded a letter grade, from A to F. As in school, each of these letter grades has a number associated to it. An “A” is worth 4 points, “B” is 3 points, “C” is 2 points, “D” is 1 point and “F” is worth nothing. At the end, the final score will be average total of each of the 5 categories. For instance, if the score at the end of a round is “20”, this will be divided by five, the number of categories, for a final score of “4”. In the event of a tie at the end of a brawl, the winner will be decided via a playoff round at a later date.
And, as always, THERE MIGHT BE SPOILERS, so if you haven’t seen these films, get out of here while you still can.
If you’re still game for this, read on!
As is the case with every film Tarantino did up until “The Hateful Eight”, Jackie Brown didn’t have a score. What it DID have was Tarantino’s penchant for setting the mood through the use of songs from his old record collection. Every song on the soundtrack is beautifully utilized. Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” introduces us to Jackie at the beginning of the film and also sends her off into the sunset. “Natural High” serenades the audience the first time Max Cherry (Robert Forster) lays eyes on Jackie. Jackie has a thing for The Delfonics to the point where Max goes and buys a greatest hits album, which later surprises Samuel L. Jackson. The bouncy soul hit, “Strawberry Letter 23” by The Brothers Johnson provides the background for Ordell’s first murder. Jermaine Jackson and Minnie Riperton provide a laid-back atmosphere for Ordell’s favorite retro neighborhood bar and grill. Randy Crawford’s “Street Life” further establishes Jackie’s already unshakable confidence as she walks through the Del Amo Fashion Center. For most filmmakers, the use of music is a bit of a lost art, especially when it’s the use of a pop song or radio favorite. Quentin Tarantino has turned it into an art form. GRADE: A
Gerald Fried had the scoring duties for “The Killing”…and it sounds like just about every piece of incidental music you heard in 50’s cinema or television. Fried is considered to be a pioneer in his field. He’s known, the world over, for producing some memorable television scores as well as the main theme for “Roots”. However, (and please don’t hate me for this) there’s nothing remotely special about the music for “The Killing”. The music fits the film, attacking the audience with a series of horns and drums which are meant to give a sense of intensity to the proceedings, but it’s difficult to get into the action near the end when it sounds like a marching band is scoring everything. One could argue that this was “new” and it does remind me of Brian Eno’s “Force Marker” used during the big robbery in the movie “Heat”, but, beyond that, the score’s just kinda there. Fried would do better later on. GRADE: C-
Everyone in the cast is spot-on. Pam Grier plays Jackie as an independent woman To look at her, one might get the sense that she’s a pushover, but she’s a fighter and watching her weave in and out of trouble is pure bliss. She’s complimented nicely by veteran actor Robert Forster who plays Max Cherry, a bail bondsman who is insanely good at what he does…but he’s also tired of it. Aging and somewhat lonely, his need to escape the system is a trait he shares with Jackie and it’s a joy to watch the two together. They have an amazing chemistry that fuels this entire film. Samuel L. Jackson plays Ordell Robbie, a gun runner who’s cool as ice — but also oozes evil from his pores. He smolders each time he’s on screen. The supporting cast is also nicely rounded with Robert DeNiro who plays Luis, an ex-con who hangs out with Ordell in order to get well after prison, a role that goes against type for a guy who usually plays the “large and in charge” types as he did in Michael Mann’s “Heat” just two years prior. Bridget Fonda plays Ordell’s arm candy, Melanie, a somewhat stereotypical beach blonde bunny whose only wardrobe choices seem to be denim shorts and a tank top. But even she’s a necessary cog in the machine and plays her part well. Michael Keaton’s outstanding as Ray Nicolette (a role he’d reprise in Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight”, also based on Elmore Leonard’s novel), a cocky ATF agent who is incorruptible (despite his shady personal life in “Out of Sight”) and serves as the other half of Jackie’s conscience. This is one impeccably casted film. Everyone gives a career-worthy performance here because they make these characters seem GENUINE. GRADE: A
The same goes for “The Killing” — with a couple caveats. Sterling Hayden is perfection as Johnny Clay, playing him as imposing and confident in the Clooney vein, the perfect noir anti-hero, which runs contrary to Coleen Gray who plays Fay as a submissive wimp who not only waited for Johnny to get out of prison for five years, she still trusts him to pull off a heist that will make the both of them rich. The femme fatale here is Sherry, played by the great Marie Windsor who could play this role in her sleep. Unlike Johnny and Fay, she’s in complete control of her relationship to her husband, George, played here by Elisha Cooke Jr., who is also excellent. Cooke is a cuckold, his wife Sherry the cuckoldress, as she fools around on the side with Val Cannon, played by Vince Edwards, who is as sadistic and conniving as she is, only a touch more violent. The rest of the cast is fine, with Jay C. Flippen, Ted de Corsia, Timothy Carey, and Kora Kwarlani as Johnny’s gang. The latter pair are standouts. Carey is excellent as Nikki, a violent gun-nut who provides Johnny with his weaponry and who Carey plays with vicious intensity (his racist exchange with the parking attendant played by James Edwards still makes me bristle to this day). Russian pro-wrestler Kola Kwarlani is plain outstanding as Maurice solely for the soulful talk he and Johnny have near the middle of the film. The former pair of the aforementioned quartet of actors seem a bit extraneous, even if they’re necessary. GRADE: B+
As has already been mentioned, Tarantino adapted Elmore Leonard’s novel “Rum Punch” and it’s near-verbatim from the source material, which I’ve had the pleasure of reading three times. It’s one of my favorite books. Tarantino famously changed Jackie’s last name (which was “Burke” in the novel) to “Brown” which Leonard seemingly didn’t have an issue with. Much of the Leonard’s trademark dialogue remains intact, which is huge because, as talented as Tarantino is writing dialogue, Leonard has a style all his own and is arguably better at writing it. The result is the perfect fusion between the two and the cast nails each line with perfection. It’s as much Leonard’s film as it is Tarantino’s and that’s just nirvana for film geeks. It must be said that Jackie Brown’s format is somewhat non-linear, which is heavily inspired by “The Killing”. Here, the audience learns that Jackie was able to obtain a gun to protect herself from Ordell, a moment that’s revealed at the same time Max discovers that his gun is missing — because Jackie stole it when he wasn’t looking. The two moments are revealed via split-screen. Later on, much like “The Killing”, the big, climatic switch-of-the-bag caper plays out from the viewpoints of Jackie, Max, and Ordell’s pair of Luis and Melanie, which is fairly clever, if not wholly original. Yet, the style doesn’t dominate the entire film as it does in “The Killing” and Tarantino can be credited for improving upon things…more on that in a moment. GRADE: A-
Stanley Kubrick and hard-boiled pulp novelist Jim Thompson adapted Lionel White’s novel, “Clean Break”, which was originally destined to be a Frank Sinatra vehicle. Hayden, of course, would go on to win the lead role, much to United Artists’ chagrin. The screenplay used non-linear storytelling, which was fairly ahead of its time. When you saw two people talking, the action might shift to “2 hours ago” when a related event might be taking place. The only thing wrong with this is the lack of subtitles and the unfortunate use of a very loud and annoying narrator who yells at the audience every five minutes to describe what’s going on or to tell them what time it is. Additionally, like most of what Kubrick produces, the script is fairly cold and robotic. There’s a lot of caper planning and not much humanity to be had with a final twist you might see coming a mile away. Still, it’s a well-written caper. GRADE: B+
Tarantino (being Tarantino) fashioned “Jackie Brown” into a homage to the “Blaxploitation” films of the 1970’s, which include such famous films, among others, as “Shaft”, “Super Fly”, “Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song” and “Foxy Brown”, the last of which the film gets half its title. As such, the film excels at giving us a fabulous shot of Jackie on an airport conveyor belt, on the way to her job, the tiled wall behind her changing colors as the title of the film flashes on-screen to Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” (which is from the film of the same name), in a glorious 70’s-style font. This is what Tarantino was born to do. The film also does a great job at showing us the more seedy side of the Southern California suburbs which is photographed in loving fashion by Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro who had also collaborated with Tarantino and director Robert Rodriguez on “From Dusk ‘Till Dawn” and with director Guillermo Del Toro on “Pan’s Labyrinth”. The use of locations is perfect, with particular emphasis on the famous Del Amo Fashion Center, who once screened the film as part of the Alamo Texas Roadhouse’s traveling movie exhibitions. They’re as much a part of the movie as the characters, as is the use of music, which I have already mentioned. GRADE: A
It’s Crime Film Noir. What’s not to like here? Stanley Kubrick utilized actors from past films of that genre and each of them are good in their roles. The use of light and shadow in certain scenes (particularly the planning scenes) is excellent and Lucien Ballard provides some great photography, providing us with some incredible shots (the sequence where a fatally-injured George finally confronts his wife and guns her down is haunting). The racetrack robbery is nicely executed and the finale at the airport is authentic as it is jaw-dropping. The only downside is the editing and narration, which sometimes reduces the action to procedural monotony and provides for a slightly clunky experience. GRADE: B+
Tarantino has an ear for dialogue and a talent for casting and pulling the best from all of his actors. “Jackie Brown” is no exception. It’s possibly Tarantino’s most underrated film in his career and a sleeper. His love for film lore shows in everything he puts on screen. GRADE: A
This is one of Stanley Kubrick’s lesser efforts — and even with lesser Kubrick, you’re getting an interesting, thought-provoking film even if it isn’t perfection. Kubrick’s penchant for shooting his film with the events out of order inspired films like “Jackie Brown” and “Pulp Fiction”. It’s well-shot and well-acted and it has a hell of an ending — and this is up-and-coming Kubrick. He’ll be back. GRADE: B+
JACKIE BROWN: 20 (4.0 Average)
THE KILLING: 14 (2.8 Average)
This one was hard for me to write about. I love both directors equally. Say what you want about Tarantino. The dude is one of the greatest writers and directors ever and, aside from maybe “The Hateful Eight”, he’s produced nothing but greatness. When I decided to do this match-up, I seriously thought my bias for Kubrick would get in the way of my final rating. I’m just Joe Blow Nobody but “Jackie Brown” is a near-perfect film. “The Killing”, as much as I adore the film, does have flaws that stand out. Keep in mind, however, that the majority of the body of Kubrick’s work contain probably over a half dozen of the greatest films EVER MADE…and I can only say that of maybe two or three of Tarantino’s films. For me, Kubrick didn’t truly blossom until “Paths of Glory” and “Spartacus”, the latter of which he disowned completely. He would come into his own with “Lolita” and then make four straight masterpieces right after that with “Dr. Strangelove”, “2001: a space odyssey”, “A Clockwork Orange” and “Barry Lyndon”. The fact remains that “Jackie Brown” won this particular contest — but Kubrick will soon see his day.
Do you agree? Disagree? Sound off in the comments!
NEXT WEEK: It’s summer and we need some great big blockbusters to do battle! It’s “Independence Day” vs. “Armageddon”! See you next week!