Jackie Brown

If there absolutely has to be another movie about guns and stolen money, it might as well be drawn from the work of the master — Elmore Leonard, whose novel Rum Punch is the basis for Jackie Brown, the long-awaited new film by Quentin Tarantino. How is it as a follow-up to the hallowed Pulp Fiction? Don’t think of it as that. Consider it a superb Elmore Leonard adaptation by a filmmaker who knows how to serve someone else’s material while making it his own. Neither a razor-sharp black comedy like Reservoir Dogs nor a pop-culture encyclopedia like Pulp, this is something new for Tarantino: a leisurely and compassionate character study in which the guns and stolen money seem almost incidental.

Despite the central presence of Tarantino favorite Pam Grier and the blaxploitation tone of the ads, this isn’t the Quentin-a-go-go vanity project some of us feared it would be. Tarantino, it turns out, has done for Grier what he did for John Travolta in Pulp: pluck a good actor out of obscurity and restore his/her dignity. As Jackie Brown, a 44-year-old flight attendant for a last-resort airline, Grier is earthy, funny, smart, and often touching. Here, finally, is a Tarantino woman who offers more than just diversion or danger for a Tarantino male (even if she began life as an Elmore Leonard woman named Jackie Burke). Grier eagerly rises to the challenge of a complex role; she takes the screen like a lioness.

Jackie is running money for a gun dealer named Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), a ruthlessly pragmatic criminal with an efficient way of dealing with employees who’ve been nabbed by the cops: he bails them out and then kills them (so they won’t rat on him). When Jackie herself is arrested by two feds (Michael Keaton and Michael Bowen), she knows her options: go to jail for a year and start her life over at 45, or end her life in a car trunk. There’s also a third option, brilliantly laid out by Leonard in the novel and faithfully followed by Tarantino. It involves Jackie’s bail bondsman, the weary Max Cherry (Robert Forster in an authoritative comeback performance that equals Grier’s), and an elaborate scam that Tarantino, in a nod to The Killing, shows us three times from various viewpoints.

Although not an actor (he stays behind the camera this time, thank God), Tarantino is indisputably an actor’s director. Not merely a rehash of Pulp Fiction‘s Jules, Samuel L. Jackson’s Ordell is a calculating sociopath with a short fuse. Jackson makes Ordell quietly deadly where Jules was oratorical (Ordell wouldn’t waste time quoting Ezekiel 25:17). Ordell’s flunky Louis, just out of prison, is played by Robert De Niro in his subtlest, funniest performance in years. At first glance a harmless, run-down stoner (he gets high constantly with Ordell’s girlfriend Melanie, played by a hilariously lackadaisical Bridget Fonda), Louis eventually reveals his own short fuse. When De Niro gives the ditzy Fonda a long, silent, furious stare, he’s scarier in that one moment than he is in all of Cape Fear.

By now, Tarantino has gone through so many shifts in public perception (he’s a genius, he’s an overexposed geek, he’s a one-hit wonder) that Jackie Brown is bound to disappoint some people who want to be disappointed — who want Tarantino to take a dive in a big way, and shut up and go away. Jackie Brown proves he’s not going anywhere except further in his career. The movie is nimble and more quietly funny than Tarantino’s other work (it may benefit from a second viewing). Even if it’s not “original” (and, really, what Tarantino film is truly original?), it’s the ideal match of author and director; Tarantino is the first filmmaker to get Elmore Leonard on the screen, and not just Leonard’s plot and zesty dialogue. Get Shorty got his plot and dialogue but missed his spirit. Tarantino, who once got busted for shoplifting a Leonard paperback, understands and loves Leonard’s marginal losers, grungy milieu, and decent people trying to keep their heads above water. Pulp Fiction, after all, was the best Elmore Leonard novel Leonard never wrote.

Jackie Brown continues and expands Tarantino’s basic ongoing theme (actions have consequences), and its black comedy is leavened by a new, more humane outlook. The abrupt sick humor of the past (“I just shot Marvin in the face”) is gone, replaced by genuine shock. Only four people get whacked in Jackie Brown, but their deaths have weight. Tarantino is maturing, and the sensibility of this film is miles away from the bouncy sadism of Reservoir Dogs. With Jackie Brown, Tarantino restores his own dignity and his status as an artist to watch.

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, one of the year's best, tarantino, thriller

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