Technically speaking, Life Of Crime is not a prequel to Jackie Brown. The former, a chill new caper from writer-director Daniel Schechter (Supporting Characters), is based on Elmore Leonard’s 1978 novel The Switch. The latter, Quentin Tarantino’s superbly loquacious encore to Pulp Fiction, drew inspiration from one of Leonard’s later works, Rum Punch. Thing is, though, for anyone familiar with the Tarantino film, this less remarkable picture will totally seem like a prequel, peering back as it does on younger versions of characters audiences got to know in Jackie Brown. Far from a liability, the cross-movie echoes actually improve Life Of Crime, whose minor pleasures are amplified by a familiarity with the central players and a knowledge of what the fictional future holds for them.
This is not to say only those with a yen for Jackie will enjoy Schechter’s brisker, more lighthearted trip to Leonard land. In some respects, Life Of Crime comes closer to capturing the spirit of the late author’s writing—his economy, his bursts of absurdist mayhem, the charisma of his laid-back lowlifes. At film’s center are a pair of familiar faces: smooth operator Ordell (Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, in the role Samuel L. Jackson originated) and his level-headed partner, Louis (John Hawkes, taking over for Robert De Niro). Decades before becoming a ruthless drug lord and a hardened ex-convict, respectively, the two are just ambitious small timers, hatching get-rich-quick schemes. The opening scene, in which they talk through a plan before putting the hurt on a bullying pimp, immediately establishes their thick-as-thieves camaraderie, as well as the film’s generally playful approach to violence.
Early on, Ordell and Louis set their sights on Mickey (Jennifer Aniston), the trophy wife of Detroit real-estate developer Frank (Tim Robbins). When the crooked mogul heads for his love nest in the Bahamas, the criminals spring into action; only after they’ve snatched their mark do they learn that her husband has just secretly filed for divorce, and hence seems less than inclined to pay the $1 million ransom they’re demanding. Complicating matters further are a doltish white supremacist (Mark Boone Junior), a cowardly suitor (Will Forte), and Frank’s mistress, Melanie (Isla Fisher), the same scheming “surfer girl” Bridget Fonda played in Jackie. As in many Leonard narratives, the plot is largely just an excuse to put these big talkers in a room or on a telephone line together. The tone is comic, the stakes fairly low—especially as Mickey begins to develop some Stockholm affection for Louis, who treats her much more kindly (kidnapping and all) than her snake of a hubby.
Working with a not-quite-timeless tale from the Leonard oeuvre, Schechter demonstrates a certain relaxed panache; he’s no Tarantino or Steven Soderbergh (whose Out Of Sight rivals Jackie Brown for the title of best Leonard adaptation), but he’s good with his stars and evokes tacky, 1970s country-club culture with a minimum of fuss. Mostly, however, the film’s appeal is vicarious, derived as it is from seeing a capable cast settle into the groove of previously occupied roles. None of the actors are doing imitations, exactly, but that won’t stop Jackie fans from hearing a little of Jackson’s singsong cadence in Bey’s delivery or seeing a touch of Fonda in Fisher’s bubbly performance. Conversely, there’s something sad about the discrepancy between Hawkes’ mostly good-hearted Louis and the dead-eyed jailbird De Niro played. (The arc of that character, over a couple decades and novels, is almost tragic.) Considering that they share no creative talent, it’s probably unfair to compare the two movies, but damn if Life Of Crime won’t be a little more fun for those who keep its QT-helmed predecessor in the back of their minds.