Black Like Him

If Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown didn't arrive weighted with post-Pulp Fiction (1994) expectations, it might be easier to see it for what it is: an overlong, occasionally funky caper movie directed with some feeling. It's derived from Elmore Leonard's 1992 bestseller Rum Punch, with the location shifted from Palm Beach to the beach communities located south of Los Angeles -- Tarantino's boyhood stomping ground. Leonard's Jackie Burke, a white flight attendant, has become the black Jackie Brown, and she's played by Pam Grier, the kick-ass icon of such blaxploitation films as Coffy (1973) and Sheba Baby (1975). The centerpiece of the action is the Del Amo Mall -- "America's largest mall" as an on-screen note tells us -- and that seems fitting. Tarantino's work, for all its neocool, has always seemed like the apotheosis of mall culture.

He offers up a prefab world chock-a-block with marketable "attitude." Everything from the black-and-white Blues Brothers duds in Reservoir Dogs (1992) to the gory fandangos in Pulp Fiction seem designed to wow the trendoids. He mixes black street talk and noir pulp and Hong Kong chopsocky and Scorsese-isms and Godard-isms and buckets of blood: something for everyone. And somehow because of the spin he puts on them, he makes all his borrowings seem minty-fresh. Tarantino is a special case: He's both ersatz and an original, and perhaps because that same combination sets the tone of pop culture, he can seem up-to-the-minute, cutting-edge.

Everything depicted in his movies -- the violence, cynicism, derangement -- is purposefully unauthentic. He shows you all this wacked-out stuff, but it arrives emotionally defused, which is why his films are funny even when they're horrifying. The core of his appeal is that he gets you high on danger without any side effects. He knows how to heat up his buddy-buddy badinage and his visuals, but his movies don't have much emotional staying power. They're memorable in a cut-rate way -- the way you might remember a particularly notable TV commercial.

Jackie Brown is being hyped by its makers as the work of a kinder, gentler Tarantino. (At least it doesn't have any torture scenes.) To some extent this is true, and it shows in the casting of Grier, who still looks like she could kick major butt but also carries a world-weariness that seems like the real thing. She's more soulful now, and she's become, in the twenty years since her bad-mama days, a formidable actress. (I saw her a decade ago in a Los Angeles Theater Company production of Sam Shepard's Fool for Love and still remember her power.) Grier's Jackie Brown is a flight attendant for a fourth-rate Mexican airline, who, acting as a cash courier for gun merchant Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), is busted at Los Angeles International Airport by a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agent (Michael Keaton) and an L.A. cop (Michael Bowen) for smuggling in 50 grand and some coke. The movie is about how Jackie, enlisting the help of the valiant but tired bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster), attempts to bring down both the cops and Ordell while nabbing a half million in bootleg cash.

The way in which Jackie maneuvers her scam -- the feds think she's working for them, Ordell thinks she's working for him -- doesn't really ignite the screen. All the paraphernalia of the crime-caper genre -- the business of marking the money and switching the cash-filled bags and double-crossing the double-crossers -- comes across as rote. Except for a few of his trademark time-sequence zigzags, Tarantino's storytelling is numbingly linear. Given the film's running time of two hours and 35 minutes, it often feels as if we're slogging through a B-movie that got too big for its sprockets.

The drawn-out caper connivances would be easier to disregard if the story resonated in other ways. But Jackie Brown isn't exactly a deep character study, either. It's deep only by previous Tarantino standards. The casting of Forster opposite Grier is a double whammy: It's like watching a wholesale reclamation project. Like Grier, Forster has already enjoyed his heyday -- in his case on TV -- but has been out of the public eye for a long time. In Jackie Brown he doesn't chomp at his chance for a Travolta-like career boost. Instead he slides imperceptibly into the role, and his been-there-done-that rue is very affecting. Forster's Max has a straight-arrow look that bespeaks something wiggier and more offbeat beneath his bail bondsman's deadpan demeanor. It makes sense that he should fall instantly in love with Jackie, and that the Delfonics' "Didn't I [Blow Your Mind This Time]?" becomes his lullaby.

Still one can make too much of the world-weariness that suffuses Jackie and Max. It's resonant but it doesn't cut very deep. Essentially it's a romanticized hard-boiled convention, like the weariness of over-the-hill mobsters in noir crime thrillers. For Tarantino this borrowed romanticism may be his way of opening up. But he doesn't open up very far; he's still locked into a pulp formula -- even more so than Elmore Leonard. Tarantino hews pretty closely to the plot of Rum Punch, going so far as to duplicate some of its dialogue, but for the most part he doesn't avail himself of the characters' backgrounds, which are at least touched on in the novel. We don't find out much about where these people came from, and when Tarantino disposes of a few of them, their passings are barely noted.

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