In the three long years since the release of the dazzling "Pulp Fiction,"
Quentin Tarantino fans have wondered if the maverick director has still
got it. The answer is yes, but he's really slowed it down. "Jackie Brown",
adapted from Elmore Leonard's 1995 best-seller "Rum Punch," is a
sluggish, but satisfying character study masked as a crime caper. While
Tarantino's revered hair-trigger pacing is absent, he reveals new depths
of filmmaking skill, while presenting some exceptionally well-drawn
characters. The film hints at a level of substance beyond his trademark
barrage of pop culture references punctuated with flashy violence. It
appears that little Quentin may actually be growing up just a bit.
Closely adhering to Leonard's novel, while adding his own unique sense of
flair, Tarantino introduces Jackie Brown (Pam Grier,) a middle-aged
flight attendant in a heap of trouble. Caught transporting money and
cocaine into the States from Mexico, Brown faces a stint in prison unless
she gives up the identity of the man she's working for. Unfortunately,
that man is weapons dealer Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson,) an
extremely violent type with a penchant for murdering snitches. Faced with
the prospect of jail or death, Brown proposes setting up a sting with ATF
agent Ray Nicolet (Michael Keaton) to nail Robbie. Meeting with Robbie,
she proposes using the sting to double-cross the cops, while slipping a
half million dollars into the country right under their noses. Then she
huddles with bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) and asks for his
help in twisting the sting into an elaborate triple-cross. If successful,
Brown could get Robbie out of her life and end up with a great deal of
money, but the set-up is risky in a dozen different ways. And so the
Tarantino takes his own sweet time getting to the caper, devoting a good
stretch of the film to an up-close-and-personal look at Ordell Robbie, a
fast-talking hustler who is both riveting and repulsive. Samuel L.
Jackson, one of the great actors of our time, is electric here, creating
a hyper-active viper with an oily charisma. Almost as disturbing as his
bursts of intense violence is his incessant use of the word "nigger,"
which pops up literally dozens of times during his staccato harangues.
Tarantino may think lobbing the word around provides street credibility,
but his fascination with the term feels juvenile and offensive.
Robbie's right-hand man is Louis Gara (Robert De Niro,) a quiet ex-con
more interested in getting stoned with Melanie (Bridget Fonda,) a
girlfriend and shill of Robbie's, than in taking care of business.
Jackson and De Niro are a colorful pair, though nowhere near as
interesting as Jackson and John Travolta's Jules and Vincent in "Pulp
Far more engaging are the characters of Jackie Brown and Max Cherry,
wonderfully realized by Pam Grier and Robert Forster, the latest pair of
actors to receive career resuscitation from Tarantino. Grier, a 70's pop
icon as star of "Foxy Brown" and a host of blaxploitation flicks, is
compelling in the film's lead role. Jackie Brown is a handsome middle-
aged woman whose great poise masks the despair and desperation she feels.
Trapped in a low-paying, dead-end job with a small airline, she realizes
that the clock is ticking and her options for success are extremely
limited. Her legal crisis forces her to confront a bleak future, and take
what could be her last big chance.
Robert Forster, who starred in "Banyon" and other forgettable 70s TV fare,
exhibits a subtle, smoky charm as world-weary bail-bondsman Max Cherry.
Another victim of middle-age malaise, Cherry trudges through life with
dead eyes, until he meets Brown. Instantly smitten, he finds himself
tempted to break free of his own dreary pattern of existence. When the
two are together, they discuss little things, such as the weight gain
that often comes when one stops smoking, but there's something bigger
going on. They're really talking about their fear of aging and being
alone, of regrets and missed opportunities. Mostly, they're testing the
waters with each other, to try and determine if it's worth taking the
chance of feeling again.
That's pretty heady stuff for Quentin Tarantino, whose work in "Reservoir
Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction" was sharp as a knife, but tended to lack depth.
Using his camera more subtly than ever and employing lots of extreme
close-ups, Tarantino deals with intimacy in a way he never has before. At
two hours and thirty five minutes, "Jackie Brown" lags in spots, lacking
the peaks and valleys necessary to sustain its length. Despite its
difficulties with pacing, though, "Jackie Brown" is ample proof that
Quentin Tarantino continues to grow as one of America's brightest
filmmakers. Now if he'd just ease up on the "nigger" business...
Copyright © 1997 Edward Johnson-Ott