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"Jackie Brown."

By Devin D. O'Leary

DECEMBER 29, 1997:  Occasionally, a film surprises me. Jackie Brown is a good example. Quentin Tarantino has only directed two films (plus a couple writing assignments and assorted acting cameos), but he's made a monumental impact on the modern independent film scene. His style is instantly recognizable, whether it's his cyclical pop-culture-littered film dialogue or his own manic hipster-geek drop-ins on Dave Letterman or Jay Leno. I suspect everyone on the planet, fan or otherwise, knows what to expect from a Quentin Tarantino film. At least that's what I thought. Jackie Brown is like a bolt from the blue. After much soul-searching, I've concluded that's a good thing--but I doubt many of his rabid fans will agree.

Jackie Brown has its origin in a novel titled Rum Punch by crime novelist Elmore Leonard. Aside from a shift in location (from Leonard's Florida to Tarantino's Southern California) and a change in the main character's ethnicity (from white to black), Tarantino's script hews remarkably close to Leonard's original novel. But aside from the quirky ensemble cast and the '70s-flavored soundtrack, most viewers would be hard-pressed to peg this as a Tarantino effort. Gone are Q.T.'s trademark energy, his bravura staging, his sledgehammer violence, his sniggering humor.

After crafting a film as influential as Pulp Fiction, Tarantino found himself his own hard act to follow. Never exactly known as an originator, Tarantino made his mark as a pop-culture cannibal stealing ideas, characters and dialogue from every movie, comic book and magazine at his fingertips. With two films under his belt (both co-written by Roger Avary), Tarantino made a wise move buying the film rights to Elmore Leonard's novels. Leonard's books, like Tarantino's films, are offbeat ensemble cast stories loaded with sly black humor.

Whereas Barry Sonnenfeld's 1996 version of Get Shorty emphasized the humor of Leonard's original novel, Tarantino chooses to focus on the people in Jackie Brown. What emerges is a leisurely, detailed character study. The 1970s blaxploitation star Pam Grier stars as the titular character, a flight attendant in her mid-40s now reduced to working for a cruddy third-rate Mexican airline after a run-in with the law. When Jackie is busted by ATF agent Michael Keaton muling $50,000 into the country for low-rent arms dealer Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), she's forced to participate in an elaborate sting to trap her nasty boss. Also involved in this operation, in one way or another, are a fiftysomething bail bondsman (Robert Forster), a brain-dead ex-con (Robert De Niro) and a pot-addled surfer chick (Bridget Fonda). Grier has just the right air of "survived it all" world-weariness and faded (though hardly diminished) sexuality to enliven her character. Robert Forster (another Tarantino rescuee from such '70s B-movies as Medium Cool and Alligator), meanwhile, pulls off a disarmingly lived-in portrait of Max Cherry, the bail bondsman who's seen--dispassionately--every ill society has to offer. When he bails Jackie out of jail (at the behest of Ordell), Max discovers a kindred spirit. The slow, midlife crisis love story between these two characters is handled deftly and with a surprisingly tender touch from the man who gave us the gasoline torture test.

The central issue in Jackie Brown is "Who's scamming who?" Is Jackie working with the ATF to nab Ordell? Is she in cahoots with Max to steal Ordell's half-million dollar nest egg? Or is she still loyal to Ordell? Tarantino certainly doesn't rush to judgment on any of these questions. At two hours and 45 minutes, Jackie is a leisurely (some might say sluggish) journey. I regard it as a quantum leap forward in maturity for Tarantino. Tarantino has always professed that he doesn't care at all what audiences think. I disagree. I think Tarantino cares immensely what filmgoers think of him. Instead of dazzling us with his brilliance, for the first time, I feel Tarantino's actually more interested in his characters and what makes them tick (as opposed to what makes them tic).

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