Jackie Brown (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It has been three long years since Quentin Tarantino stunned the cinema world by claiming the Cannes Film Festival's Palme D'Or, a $100 million-plus box office gross, and an Oscar nomination – all for his sophomore outing, Pulp Fiction. Since then, the talented film maker has been virtually invisible, surfacing briefly as a co-director of the wildly uneven Four Rooms and the screenwriter of the gory vampire-fest, From Dusk Till Dawn. In between, he has moonlighted as an "actor" with several decidedly unmemorable performances. Now, with much fanfare and anticipation, Tarantino has returned with his third directorial effort, Jackie Brown. And, while this motion picture, adapted from Elmore Leonard's novel, Rum Punch, offers solid entertainment, those expecting another bravura outing from Tarantino will leave theaters disappointed. For the most part, Jackie Brown is a pretty ordinary crime movie.

The story, which starts out slowly, develops into a twisty affair, with double-crosses and triple- crosses. And the movie is littered with occasional Tarantino trademarks: witty dialogue, unexpected gunfire, '70s pop tunes, and close-ups of womens' bare feet. Yet, for all of that, the production is something of a letdown. The sheer, in-your-face exuberance that marked Reservoir Dogs and especially Pulp Fiction is absent. The mostly-straightforward chronology of Jackie Brown doesn't match up favorably to the non-linear style of Tarantino's previous efforts – an approach that added tension and edginess to the narratives. And there aren't nearly as many deliciously offbeat conversations this time around. There's a Samuel L. Jackson monologue about guns, a Jackson/Chris Tucker argument regarding the merits of hiding in a car trunk, and a Jackson/Robert De Niro exchange that recalls some of the Jackson/Travolta material from Pulp Fiction, but that's about it.

Jackie Brown's lone "innovation" is its presentation of a crucial sequence from three different perspectives. This isn't exactly an original technique – it has been done numerous times before, most famously in Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon and most recently in Edward Zwick's Courage Under Fire. However, while in those two movies (and others), there was a legitimate plot reason for the multiple points-of-view, Tarantino's sole purpose for using it appears to be because it's unconventional. Had the scenes in question been shown from only one of the three vantages, nothing would have been lost. As a result, this aspect of the film is little more than a curiosity.

For the second picture in a row, Tarantino is attempting to revive the career of a '70s icon. This time around, instead of John Travolta, it's Blaxploitation queen Pam Grier (Foxy Brown has become Jackie Brown). In one of many nods to the most famous segment of Grier's career, Tarantino uses a '70s song to accompany her first appearance during the opening credits. There are also several instances during Jackie Brown when the director offers a sly wink towards certain conventions of the Blaxploitation genre (although Grier never does any butt- kicking).

Grier is Jackie Brown, a flight attendant who gets caught transporting drugs and money into the United States. She's working for gun dealer Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), but she keeps her mouth shut under questioning, despite pressure from Ray Nicolet (Michael Keaton), a Federal official. No longer sure whether or not he can trust Jackie, Ordell arranges for a bail bondsman, Max Cherry (Robert Forster, TV's "Banyon") to post the necessary $10,000, then plans to shoot Jackie if she proves disloyal. Jackie passes Ordell's test, however, and soon the two of them are plotting a way to smuggle $500,000 of Ordell's money into the United States without tipping off the Feds. Soon, just about everyone is after that money, including Jackie, Max, Ray, Ordell's perpetually oversexed and drugged-out girlfriend, Melanie (Bridget Fonda), and his right-hand man, Louis (Robert De Niro).

Unsurprisingly, the most memorable performance is turned in by Samuel L. Jackson, but Ordell isn't nearly as invigorating or compelling a character as Jules from Pulp Fiction. In addition to looking fantastic, Pam Grier is also quite good, although hers is not an Oscar-caliber performance (although she might get a nomination). Robert Forster and Michael Keaton are solid in their tough-guys-who-rarely-smile roles. Bridget Fonda is around for three discernible reasons: to look sexy in a bikini, to provide a little twisted comedy, and to satisfy Tarantino's foot fetish. Robert De Niro is criminally underused in a part that could have been played equally well by any grungy-looking, middle-aged actor.

The film, which clocks in at several minutes over the two-and-a-half hour mark, is probably too long for the material, but the plot is convoluted enough to keep us guessing throughout (although the payoff is a letdown). Tarantino keeps things moving along nicely, with a heavier dose of humor and less violence than in Pulp Fiction, but, on the whole, this movie seems more like the work of one of his wannabes than something from the director himself. When it comes to recent caper films (like The Grifters and Bound), Jackie Brown is a second-tier effort. It's an entertaining diversion, but not a masterpiece, and certainly not an Oscar contender.

Jackie Brown (United States, 1997)

Run Time: 2:35
U.S. Release Date: 1997-12-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Situations, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1