When Jack Dawson held Rose De Witt Bukalter at the aft of
the Titanic in the Jack Cameron movie of that name, he said,
"Do you trust me?" Rose did. She held her arms wide and
leaned over the swirling waters of the North Atlantic ocean.
Her confidence proved accurate. Though Jack seemed
irresponsible as seen through the eyes of the upper-class
passengers who scorned his class, he is consistently
accountable--far more so than the snobs riding the ship on
the upper deck.
By contrast, Quentin Tarantino's film "Jackie Brown," among
the most talked-about openings of the year, features a parade
of characters who are the very antithesis of trustworthiness.
They lie, cheat, steal, and above all betray one another to
such a degree that we wonder whether any criminals would
be caught without the betrayals of their fellow lawbreakers--
who are willing to tell all to the authorities if such disclosures
would save their tails. With the one exception--a rare
relationship between the title character played by Pam Grier
and an honest, but burned-out bail bondsman performed with
particularly quiet eloquence by Robert Forster--"Jackie Brown"
holds that there is no honor among thieves.
Given Quentin Tarantino's audacious, film "Pulp Fiction"
three years back, it's no wonder that this one is being
received with impressive anticipation. While some may leave
this drawn-out episode disappointed in its relatively mild tone
(most of the violence takes places off camera), others will
cheer Tarantino's reigning in of mayhem to concentrate on the
developing connection between the white bail bondsman and
the black stewardess. There is much to cheer in the film.
Based on Elmore Leonard's novel "Rum Punch," Tarantino's
screenplay highlights witty dialogue, hard-edged action, and
most of all an attitude toward crime which is joky without
being irresponsibly dismissive. Pam Grier's casting in the
central role of a seemingly defenseless, down-and-out woman
in her forties rather than a post-pubescent bimbo, is daring
enough at a time that Hollywood has scant enough lead roles
for females in obvious middle age.
The opening moments set the tone. As the credits role,
Jackie is shown heading through the corridors of Los Angeles
airport like an icon, her stony face and Mona Lisa smile
projecting both determination and vulnerability. Stopped at
one point by two law-enforcement officials, one from the
Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco Agency (Michael Keaton), the
other from the L.A.P.D. (Michael Bowen), she is busted for
smuggling in $50,000 cash which she retrieved from her
departure airport in Mexico and asked to cooperate in return
for a reduced sentence. Her initial reluctance to collaborate
followed by her apparent willingness to help the officials catch
bigger prey is just one example of the betrayals which flood
the film from its cynical beginning to its stifled upbeat windup.
In the role of chief villain, Samuel L. Jackson proves once
again that no one else can read Tarantino's dialogue or
respond to his direction like him. Playing a salesmen of
illegal firearms who has hired Jackie Brown to bring $500,000
which he has stashed in Mexico, Jackson is Ordell Robbie, a
intimidating man with blazing eyes, a fierce determination, a
set of impossibly ludicrous wigs, and an apparent loyalty to
his small gang of petty thieves. He keeps the beautiful but
perpetually stoned Melanie (Bridget Fonda) as one would
tend a pet Afghan, at one time encouraging his bank-robber
henchman Louis (Robert De Niro) to enjoy her supple frame.
His only fear--that members of his band may talk if arrested
and promised a deal by the prosecutors--keeps his trigger-
finger itchy. His casual execution of Beamont Livingston
(Chris Tucker), whom he bails out of jail, cajoles into the trunk
of his car, and then shoots, is shown in Tarantino's typical
clowning style. Tucker, a fast-talking veteran of prancing
pictures like "Money Talks" and "House Party 3," is his usual
self here, refusing at first to stash himself in that closed
compartment, then coaxed into it by the man who got him
released from prison.
After Jackie Brown's arrest, Ordell's defense are again up,
but he appears for a while to trust her to carry in the
remainder of his loot with the promise of a decent
commission. Little realizing that his nemesis would be not the
L.A.P.D. or the A.F.T., but rather a middle-aged, middle-class
white man who befriends Jackie and identifies with her even
to the extent of buying soulful tapes for his car radio, he
remains only dimly aware that Jackie would expertly play
Ordell off against both the authorities and the members of his
In the movie's most structurally effective scene, Tarantino
hones in on a scam which takes place in a boutique shop
involving Jackie's switching of shopping bags with Melanie.
The scene is shown from three points of view: from that of
Jackie, who slips the bag with the alleged $500,000 under the
dressing room door to Melanie; from that of Melanie, who
soon has a tussle with Louis for possession of the bag; and
from that of Max Cherry, the bondsman who watches all with
a sly smile of appreciation on his somewhat wan but curiously
The success of Tarantino's "Jackie Brown" as a wily
parable of crime and its consequences poses a challenge to
Spike Lee's view that primarily black movies must be helmed
by black directors. Featuring a great soundtrack and a
panoramic view of assorted banal locales in southern
California, "Jackie Brown" is a slick, sly, soulful story of
paranoia, misgivings, a dominant theme of vengeance and a
tone of whimsy.
Copyright © 1997 Harvey Karten