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The Boston Phoenix Plump Fiction

Quentin Tarantino gets off color in "Jackie Brown."

By Peter Keough

DECEMBER 29, 1997:  Jackie Brown, Directed and written by Quentin Tarantino; based on the novel Rum Punch, by Elmore Leonard. With Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Robert De Niro, Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton, Michael Bowen, and Chris Tucker. A Miramax Films release.

As enjoyable as most of this movie is, you have to consider that it takes about as long to watch Quentin Tarantino's two-and-a-half-hour Jackie Brown as it does to read the Elmore Leonard novel, Rum Punch, on which it's based. After the two years following his sensational Pulp Fiction, during which some wondered whether the auteur wunderkind was indeed a one-trick pony, Tarantino has returned with a film that eschews flash and emphasizes acting, dialogue, character, and atmosphere. The in-your-face shock values are minimized, the deft toying with narrative and other cinematic conventions is lacking, the rollicking play with the debris of pop culture is subdued. Tarantino seems relaxed, confident, unconcerned about taking his time. In short, compared with the pyrotechnics of its predecessor, Jackie Brown is a little slow, but sure.

Although he's reduced the pace, Tarantino is still strolling over the same terrain. Jackie Brown (Pam Grier), née Burke in the Leonard original and a blonde Caucasian, is a down-on-her-luck stewardess for a backwater airline who's first seen in a long tracking shot as she rides down a people mover. In her flight bag she's carrying $50,000 to deliver to gun runner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson, trading in his Jheri curls for a ponytail and setting a new record for saying the word "nigger") from his secret cache in Mexico. She's arrested by Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton) and Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen), two cops staking her out, and offered a choice: turn Robbie in or do hard time.

It's not much of a choice. In a masterful sequence in which Tarantino augments his trademark black-comic touch with violence with newfound subtlety and indirection, Robbie is shown dealing with another associate in a similar position. Whether she cooperates with the authorities or not, Brown's prospects are bleak -- at best she faces prison time, the loss of her job, and the unenviable position of being a 46-year-old African-American woman starting over again on the bottom.

As with Bruce Willis's palooka in Pulp, however, such adversity proves a character builder. With the unlikely assistance of Max Cherry (former Banyon and Medium Cool star Robert Forster, turning in a touching, nuanced, career-restoring performance), the straight-arrow bail bondsman who springs her, she slyly and courageously plots to turn the tables.

The mechanics of her scheme are convoluted and unfold with clarity and care (maybe too much care -- in a nod perhaps to the narrative shenanigans of Pulp, Tarantino runs through a climactic money exchange three times from different angles). The details, though, are secondary to the character arcs and the side patter. Starting out seemingly fragile and defeated, Grier's Brown regroups and slowly recaptures the bravura and the fire of her hardboiled heroines in such '70s blaxploitation classics as Coffy and Foxy Brown. Forster's Cherry, too, begins inauspiciously as a square but decent loser; when he starts to fall for Brown, his pathos melts into canny resolve.

Even the minor characters have their surprises. In one of his best performances in some time, Robert De Niro plays Robbie's stooge Louis, an ex-con with neither the nerve to make anything out of his criminality nor the will power to end it. He serves mostly as straightman to Robbie's outlandish, hilarious ravings and unenthusiastic accomplice to his capers, but under the unassuming, ill-clad exterior there lurks something akin to Travis Bickle. And as Melanie, one of Robbie's trio of ill-matched girlfriends, Bridget Fonda ranges from dope-induced stupor to snarling, backstabbing bitchiness while still finding time to engage De Niro in one of the briefest, least romantic love scenes in cinema history.

Only Jackson's Ordell remains unchanged and unrepentant. Unlike his hitman in Pulp, Jackson here is having too much fun being a bad-ass, jive-talking motherfucker to think much about redemption. In scenes in which he provides the commentary for his sales video "Babes with Guns" or discusses with a colleague the propriety of getting into the trunk of a car with a shotgun, he embodies Tarantino at the director's most exuberant and inspired. Some might find the recurrent and lengthy shots of Torrance, California, a little lulling -- even with '70s soul greats like the Delfonics playing on the radio. Easygoing though it might be for the most part, however, Jackie Brown shows steady progress in the maturing of one of America's great filmmakers.

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