This is almost certainly going to be the most time-consuming double feature I’ll ever propose, but these two films are each a great deal of fun, and the connections between them add a little something extra to the experience. Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (154 minutes) and Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (123 minutes) arrived in theaters within six months of each other in 1997-98. Both are adaptations of Elmore Leonard novels, which lend each film the backbone of an intricate, pulpy crime narrative and some terrific characters. Those stories take place in the same universe, and more than one actor appears in both films (I won’t say who, because of course it’s best to find out while watching Out of Sight for the first time). The films also happen to be helmed by two of the finest filmmakers of their generation, directors whose artistic signatures are all over the finished products, making them easily distinguishable from one another.
There are critics who consider Jackie Brown to be Tarantino’s greatest accomplishment. To this day, it remains his most disciplined and straightforward film, carefully laying out the relationships and motivations of a web of characters all converging on a large sum of money. With two and a half hours to tell the story, Tarantino never lets the machinations feel convoluted but draws out suspense, develops the characters beyond what’s essential to the plot, and pays homage to the Blaxploitation films and soul music of the 1970’s. Jackie Brown often gets lost in discussion of Tarantino’s films between the showier epics Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, and I confess I also find those films to be more thrilling than this one, but it’s hard not to fall in love with this movie as you’re watching it.
Roger Ebert said of Out of Sight “it is…the first film to build on the enormously influential Pulp Fiction instead of simply mimicking it. It has the games with [chronology], the low-life dialogue, the absurd violent situations, but it also has its own texture.” Soderbergh’s most noticeable touch is the color schemes, so bold and distinctive that it’s almost possible to feel the weather in this movie — with glaring reds, oranges, and yellows for Miami and deep blue for Detroit. This story also has a variety of characters converging on a large sum of money, this time in diamonds rather than cash. As Ebert noted, the structure is not as linear as in Jackie Brown, taking the time to fill in backstory as it goes along. In general, this leads to a more playful feel: the stakes are not minor, but they never weigh things down.
Lined up side by side, the actors in these movies are a true murderers’ row. I’d give the edge in the quantity of impressive names to Out of Sight (when the likes of Catherine Keener and Viola Davis make only brief appearances, that’s saying something about the confidence the filmmaker has in the principal cast), but Jackie Brown boasts an equally impressive ensemble with less star wattage. Everyone is allowed to contribute to the spectrum of emotions provoked by these films: the hilarious, the suspenseful, the confrontational, the affectionate, the sexy. Above all, the verbal — these are action movies defined by dialogue.
Since they are action movies, it may come as a surprise just how romantic these movies are. Despite their ensemble nature, both have their primary focus on a relationship between a man and a woman. One of these relationships runs warm, the other hot. But I can’t decide whether it’s Pam Grier and Robert Forster in Jackie Brown or George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight who make the more enjoyable pair. Grier and Forster are such a pleasantly odd couple, and their courtship is depicted with a tenderness that is largely absent from Tarantino’s filmography (only Django and Broomhilda come close). And I have to root for Grier and Forster because they play the leads in a major film while being so far outside the demographic called the “movie star.” Clooney and Lopez, on the other hand, were just becoming movie stars at this time. Lopez does the best acting of her career as Karen Sisco, deftly conveying both competence as a U.S. Marshal and strong desire for that charismatic bank robber. Clooney and she have incredible chemistry from the start, with their unforgettable “meet-cute” in the trunk of a car. The tension between their growing attraction and the requirements of their “jobs” is much more pronounced than it is for Grier and Forster. It’s apples and oranges, but these are both remarkably organic relationships.
These movies are fun for fans of genre filmmaking, and they’re also fun for fans of auteurs who know how to put their personal stamps on familiar genre templates. They combine the depth of their source novels with plenty of visual flair and impeccably curated musical accompaniment. Tarantino and Soderbergh have had very different careers, from the number of movies they’ve directed (Tarantino, 8; Soderbergh, 25) to the additional roles they take on during production (Tarantino always writes his movies’ scripts; Soderbergh, using a pseudonym, has been the cinematographer on well over half his films). But at this moment in time, they came together with a pair of films that are unique and yet seem to relate to each other on some fictional plane. As I write this, Soderbergh has just recently retired from filmmaking, and Tarantino has suggested a number of times that he also might quit in the near future. This only highlights what a special occasion it was when both of them felt compelled to adapt crime stories by the same author, and turned out some of their finest work.