Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Based on the novel Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard
Starring Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton, Robert De Niro, Chris Tucker
I watched El Camino today. It’s not a bad film. Not quite worthy of Breaking Bad and a far cry from Better Call Saul. It was in the third act that I saw the eyes of Robert Forster, who plays a vacuum cleaner shop owner and a “disappearer.” It was a small role, but it fit Forster to a tee. This feels like the same guy I saw many years ago in one of the greatest acting performances I have enjoyed. Vince Gilligan must obviously had the same role in mind. I just had to watch that performance again.
Ever since its release in 1997, Jackie Brown has been the best Tarantino film. He’s grown as a filmmaker since then. He’s even made some classic films. He’s had Samuel L. Jackson deliver several of the finest performances of his career. This film included.
What the other films don’t have is Robert Forster and Pam Grier. As bail bondsman Max Cherry, Forster defines lovelorn from the moment he bails Grier’s Jackie Brown out of jail. His eyes tell a different story from his unshakingly honest dialogue. He is the veritable definition of a Leonard protagonist. There is no flair, no prose, no elaborate description on why he says what he says.
In her titular role, Grier is a magical combination of intelligence, desperation and strength. She has nothing going for her but a weary grit and a determination to stay out of the ground. It’s not ever clear if falling in love is on her mind, and the best thing for us the viewer is we don’t get hammered with obvious prose telling us this is so. Just like in life, love is a game of guessing what the person across from you feels.
The irony here is that Max Cherry never does come out and speak plainly with her. For all of his ability to look a gangster in the eyes and tell the unvarnished truth, he never does come right out and ask. He’s too polite to burden her with his somewhat obvious affections, and she’s got too much going on to ponder with him. He knows this, and accepts it. It’s a marvelous thing to watch.
The story is about gun dealer Ordell Robbie (Jackson) who’s working on getting his cash up from Mexico. One of his runners, Beaumont (Tucker) gets busted driving drunk with a weapon. Beaumont’s position leaves Robbie vulnerable, so after getting bailed out with Cherry’s service, that’s the end of Beaumont.
Unfortunately for Jackie Brown, Beaumont tagged her as a mule coming in on a flight from Mexico where she is a stewardess. Ordell uses the same money used to spring Beaumont for Jackie. If not for meeting Max she might be right there with Beaumont.
Now that Max is involved, Jackie hatches a plan not only to save herself, but to get herself out of trouble permanently. Max sees the chance at living she presents. Will he take the chance?
The story is a marvelous weave of the figures we normally see in a Leonard story. The criminals are fierce, if not too bright. The police are cocky, and also not too bright. In between we have two figures living in between. They are conscious of the world around them and the forces that play their hand. Until they meet each other, it was okay just to roll along. Just accepting status quo is no longer acceptable.
Tarantino has every trick working for him by this, his third directing effort. He understands every aspect of the story and how to translate the true essence of Leonard into a tale that feels like he conceived it himself.
The casting is note perfect.
De Niro plays dumb convict superbly. The violent passion is there, right along with a confusion that prevents him from understanding even the most basic of environments he inhabits. Bridget Fonda is the definition of beach blonde.
Keaton and Bowen play their roles as FTA agents like frat boys who never had to leave college. Every day they get to break down people who can’t fight back, and damn that sure looks like fun.
Jackson is perfection as Robbie. He is vicious, eloquently profane and funny as hell. We know what to expect from him from the first, and he never wavers. There is some stupid controversy regarding his use of that language by people who don’t understand how to create anything. There is nothing different here than we see in Get Shorty, it’s just the complainers who are different.
Grier and Forster, two actors who were lost in the crowd for almost two decades, are the two rabbits that Tarantino pulls out of his hat for this film. Their performances here make one wonder how in the hell they ever didn’t spend more time in lead roles. Both performances were Oscar worthy (only Forster was nominated). Their chemistry is electric and completely believable, right down to the way the phone call that interrupts them. This is just before the final lingering scene concentrating on Forster and his eyes, as she drives away. Then he fades into the background and we then see the effect of their parting on Jackie Brown.
The ending sends chills through me every time. Especially today, knowing that the end of El Camino is the last time I will ever see the deep story told within the eyes of Robert Forster.
(***** out of *****)