Three years and numerous talk show appearances, acting gigs, and media
potshots after the release of his landmark Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino
has finally directed a full-length follow-up, Jackie Brown. But those
expecting the blood-drenched, trigger-happy Tarantino of old are in for a
surprise--his adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch is a more
mature, only moderately violent, and a most unexpectedly romantic and
moving caper comedy/drama.
OK, I know what you're thinking--a good review from me is just about
guaranteed for Tarantino, right? No. I walked into the screening with my
expectations dramatically diminished, partially based on some early
positive-but-not-great notices and the virtual lack of buzz attached to the
finished project. My expectations were neither boosted nor diminished
further by the amusingly kitschy, retro-'70s opening credit roll, with Pam
Grier's title character moving on one of those airport conveyor belt
walkways, the hard-driving soul of Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street"
blaring on the soundtrack, and the appearance of a copyright notice under
the film's title card.
Jackie is a 44-year-old, down-on-her-luck flight attendant for Cabo Air
who also works as a money courier for arms dealer Ordell Robbie (Samuel L.
Jackson). When the Feds, led by ATF agent Ray Nicolet (Michael Keaton),
catch onto her extracurricular activities (without knowing exactly whom she
works for), Jackie devises a complex scheme to rob Ordell of
$500,000--_and_ stay in the good graces of law enforcement, whom she pits
against Ordell. Figuring into her plan is her bail bondsman, burnt-out
50-something Max Cherry (Robert Forster).
Leonard's basic storyline is pretty standard, but Tarantino tells it in a
straightforward fashion, but not without a certain amount of his unique
panache, albeit slightly altered in some respects. Predictably, his
dialogue has great snap, but while there are the trademark pop culture
references, they are noticeably in shorter supply--a wise move, so the
speech never distracts from the twisting plot. His penchant for nonlinear
storytelling shines in a brilliantly handled climactic money exchange
sequence, told three times over, each from the perspective of a different
character; however, that sequence is an exception, for the rest of the way
he uncharacteristically follows the story linearly. Naturally, this being
a Tarantino film, there is also violence, but, oddly enough, these
incidents are depicted with a minimum amount of bloodshed. These instances
still shock, though, mostly because the actual depiction of violence is
surprisingly sporadic; there is always the mere threat of it hanging in the
air, and Tarantino milks that threat for maximum tension.
But what makes Jackie Brown so surprising is its (gasp) heart. For all
the caper antics and profanity, the film essentially boils down to an
earnest love story between Jackie and Max. At first the romantic angle
plays less like a genuine angle than a joke; when Max becomes enamored of
her at first sight as Bloodstone's classic "Natural High" plays in the
background, it is hard not to snicker. Also pretty comical is how Max goes
to Sam Goody and buys himself a tape of the Delfonics' "Didn't I Blow Your
Mind This Time" (which becomes the de facto recurrent "love theme") after
first hearing it at Jackie's apartment; he then plays it in his car and
lipsyncs along. But the underlying romantic nature of their
relationship--which is played out as a mere business alliance--is so
skillfully and subtly developed that I was taken aback by how much I felt
for the pair by the film's close.
Jackie and Max's likability onscreen owes a great debt to the actors who
play them. As proven by his resurrection of John Travolta in Pulp Fiction,
Tarantino has a great eye for forgotten talent, and he has once again hit
the jackpot with Grier and Forster, who should be Oscar contenders next
year. Former '70s blaxploitation queen Grier is an immensely appealing
performer; not only is she blessed with a natural beauty and sexiness, she
is able to project a sympathetic vulnerability even when violently showing
everyone who's boss. Forster, who has long toiled in anonymity in films
such as Original Gangstas (which, as it happens, also starred Grier), is
more than up to the tough task of suggesting Max's love for Jackie without
clearly spelling out his true intentions. As is the case with Tarantino's
previous efforts, the rest of the ensemble is also solid. Jackson is his
usual first-rate self, and Robert De Niro and Bridget Fonda develop an
irreverent comic chemistry as Ordell's dim loser sidekick, Louis Gara, and
Ordell's beach bunny stoner girlfriend, Melanie Ralston, respectively.
Jackie Brown is not a complete return to Pulp Fiction form for Tarantino;
though the film is consistently engrossing, at 155 minutes, it is overlong
by at least 20 minutes, and the unspectacular climax is quite
disappointing, especially when compared to the terrific money exchange
sequence. Nonetheless, the very well done Jackie Brown marks the welcome
return of the filmmaker who revolutionized independent cinema.