Punch drunk

With the overlong, sometimes funky Jackie Brown, Tarantino looks for direction

If Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown didn't arrive weighted with post-Pulp Fiction 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, Florida, to South Bay, California--Tarantino's boyhood stomping ground. Leonard's Jackie Burke, a white, female flight attendant, has become the black woman Jackie Brown, and she's played by Pam Grier, the kick-ass icon of such '70s blaxploitation films as Coffy and Sheba Baby. The centerpiece of the action is the Del Amo Mall--"America's largest mall" as an onscreen note tells us--and that seems fitting. Tarantino's work, for all its neo-cool, has always seemed like the apotheosis of mall culture.

He offers up a pre-fab world loaded with marketable "attitude." Everything from the black-and-white Blues Brother duds in Reservoir Dogs to the gory fandangos in Pulp Fiction seems designed to wow the trendoids. He mixes black street talk and noir pulp and Hong Kong chop-socky 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 inauthentic. He shows you all this wacked-out stuff, but it arrives already 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 flagrant television 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 ass but also carries a world-weariness that seems like the real thing. She's more soulful now, and she's become, in the 20 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 an ATF agent (Michael Keaton) and an L.A. cop (Michael Bowen) for smuggling 50 grand and some coke. The movie is about how Jackie, enlisting the help of the valiant, equally world-weary bailbondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster), attempts to bring down both the cops and Ordell and nab a half-million in bootleg cash as her reward.

The way in which Jackie maneuvers her scam--both the Feds and Ordell think she's working for them--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 zig-zags, Tarantino's storytelling is boringly linear. At a running time of two hours and 35 minutes, it often feels like 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 only deep by previous Tarantino standards. The casting of Forster opposite Grier is a double-whammy: It's like watching a reclamation project. Like Grier, Forster had his season in films (and, in his case, series TV) but has been out of the picture 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 has a straight-arrow look as Max that bespeaks something wiggier and more offbeat beneath the bailbondsman deadpan. 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 of 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 pulp formula--even more than Elmore Leonard was. Tarantino hews pretty closely to the plot of Rum Punch, even duplicating some of its dialogue, but for the most part he doesn't avail himself of the characters' backgrounds, which are explored in the novel. We don't find out much about where these people came from, and when he disposes of a few of them, their passing is barely noted. We've been made to care about them, and then they get zapped. Maybe we care more than Tarantino.

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