Hollywood never got Elmore Leonard. Of the thirty-odd crime novels written by Leonard, most were optioned and went to production but little of Leonard’s unique voice and great potency as a writer ever managed to find its way to the screen. While that can be said of more than one author it seems that Leonard’s particular stylistic intonations have been hard ones for film-makers to get a handle on – if they’ve bothered to really try.
Writer/teacher Barry Hannah called Leonard a ‘dry comic noirist’, an apt-enough description but one which would kill the pitch before the elevator closed. Hollywood mostly took a brain-dead approach to Leonard, seeing in him only what’s most obvious - foremost a stock of script-ready characters including a dude with a questionable résumé but good motives and moves; a righteous woman as cool as he is (and often smarter); a monkey-house of bad guys who force the play or threaten to ruin it.
Around these, Leonard plotted like a bandit holding tightly to a schematic that at first has us puzzling over how the characters relate to each other and what they’re up to. Then just as we think we’ve got it figured, there's some dizzying lift of events and all bets come off.
Admittedly Leonard looks to be film-ready with his books structured like treatments. However, that plus millions of studio dollars apparently gets you a dry cappuccino and a pile of stink like ‘The Big Bounce’ (1969) an ineffectual melodrama and then also ‘The Big Bounce’ (2004), a crudely-struck ‘crime comedy’. That two such abject failures would be been born of same book suggests that Leonard was never meant to be the smartest choice in a high-concept world. This isn’t to say that every film based on a Leonard title has been a waste of time - just most of them with almost none able to negotiate Leonard’s tight straddle between mayhem and drollery, never overplaying his hand in either direction.
Of the better ones, John Frankenheimer’s '52 Pick-Up' (1986) a grim neo-noir adapted from an earlier Leonard book, didn’t even attempt that negotiation, offering a hard-edged reading that backed right away from any irony. 'Out of Sight' (1998) directed by Steven Soderbergh was moody and romantic and settled for quirky charm. While it wasn’t lame, it still was a bit limp.
On the other hand, ‘Jackie Brown’, released in 1997 was the real deal and the only film that can lay claim to having captured Elmore Leonard where he lived and breathed.
Based on Leonard’s book Rum Punch, it’s the story of an airline stewardess (Pam Grier) who’s picked up by Federal agents at LAX with cash and drugs intended to go to Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). Knowing Ordell isn’t going believe her even if she doesn’t inform, she decides to set him up along with his ex-cellmate/sidekick Louis Gara (Robert De Niro) and Ordell’s stoner girl friend (Bridget Fonda). However, Jackie wants to come out of it better than she came in (not all that great) and enlists the help of Max Cherry (Robert Forster), a bail bondsman Ordell initially had hired to get her out following the bust.
The film was directed by Quentin Tarantino, who took his own kind of liberties with the story. The novel’s ‘Jackie Burke’ becomes ‘Jackie Brown’ - no longer a trim blonde 30-ish cougar but an older black fox with ample curves. Tarantino relocates the story from West Palm Beach to Los Angeles and messes with countless details. However, what emerges is a film and iteration of Leonard that is near-perfect. Tarantino wisely cools his jets and settles for straighter story-telling and slightly more cautiously interesting characters than he normally likes to do.
It’s often been an authentic sense of character absent in movies adapted from Leonard’s crime list (the westerns have done better). Films such as the popular ‘Get Shorty’ and ‘Be Cool’ jettisoned Leonard’s smart, nervy characterizations in favor of dumbed-down caricatures. Tarantino clearly better understands the complexity of the folks that inhabit Leonard’s world. In ‘Jackie Brown’ it's straight-shooter Max who’s prepared to dirty himself in order to right a few wrongs for Jackie and perhaps to again find romance. Or criminals like Ordell, a stone killer both mesmerizing and terrifying.
Taratino has his actors command the screen without showiness - just as Leonard’s characters effortlessly command the page. But Tarantino actually does the author one better by making Jackie more resonant and memorable with the casting of Pam Grier. Grier has appeared in movies since the blaxploitation days (‘Foxy Brown’, ‘Coffy’). However, she’s never been the actress (and the star) she is in ‘Jackie Brown’ as she realizes the poignancy of a middle-aged woman who’s managed to get by on her looks and now has to trade on her wits in order to get out of her dead-end life.
Apart from racial identity, there’s nothing black and white about these characters or the situations in which they find themselves - though it’s important to note that questions of identity always were central to Leonard. He put race up front from the time of his early westerns and also wrote more authentic female heroines into his crime books than just about anyone else in any genre. The writer’s’s affinities to popular culture and music always were those of generations half his age. It’s not hard to see why Tarantino would be preternaturally drawn to Leonard, starting with the director’s own obsession with the idioms of genre and pop artifacts.
To his credit, Tarantino also avoids any uncomfortable displays of violence in ‘Jackie Brown’ even to the point of taking what there is in the book down a notch. Little is seen and not much dwelt on. When Ordell takes care of his ‘associate’, Beaumont Livingstone (Chris Tucker) whom he suspects of snitching, it’s off at a distance. When Louis suddenly shoots Melanie for getting on his case one too many times, she goes down off-screen in another of those superb ‘drop-dead’ moments that Tarantino owns. When Ordell in turn kills Louis for shooting Melanie, it all happens inside a vehicle and again, way off. The violence itself (though not its threat) is almost incidental, similar to how Leonard writes it.
While’ Jackie Brown’ has a shambling feel to it which doesn’t hold to the book’s tight construction, Tarantino nails the essentials – not only the hustle and flow of the narrative but also Leonard’s smart dialog (one of Leonard’s ‘10 Rules of Writing’ was to leave out the parts that no one ever reads including exposition or undue description).
Though he’s always insisted he doesn’t ‘do neo-noir’, Tarantino obviously recognized ‘Rum Punch’s story for what it was - not just some screwball, comedic affectation but something real and raw and human that also was funny. Which was comfort to those who long had been believers in Leonard - recognizing there were some who tended to regard him as a formulist and, for purposes here, not enough a ‘noirist’. However Leonard from the beginning transcended formula to create a genre category unto itself, case-hardened pulp noir thrillers graced with both dark humor and the heartbeat of real human beings. ‘Jackie Brown’ is that and more.