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.

The French New Wave directors Tarantino reveres, such as Godard and Truffaut, used the conventions of American crime pictures to bring out the poetry in pulp; they were going for the soft center in the hard-boiled. Tarantino's use of pulp is a far simpler proposition. Essentially he's a movie freak who works his own riffs on the pop junk that formed him. (After Pulp Fiction he announced his next project would be an updated Man From U.N.C.L.E.) In Jackie Brown, he's combining the B-picture crime movie with '70s blaxploitation, and somehow the energy of both genres has eluded him. You get the feeling he doesn't mind that much.

He tries for a deliberately unslick look, but he hasn't really stylized the plainness. In the blaxploitation films, with their sallow lighting and cheapo decor, the stylization came from the outlandish actors and the costumes and, of course, the soundtracks. Blaxploitation films have survived the '70s to become major hip-hop touchstones; they're like fancy-dress balls with a great backbeat, and their influence on the posturing and theatricality of rap is in-your-face obvious. With his affinity for black culture, Tarantino may want to bring back the swagger and pomp of blaxploitation, but all he captures is the bleariness, and who needs that? He's paying homage to bad junk and missing the good junk.

In Pulp Fiction and especially Jackie Brown, Tarantino appears to be setting himself up as a '90 version of Norman Mailer's White Negro. In a recent Entertainment Weekly, Samuel L. Jackson is quoted as saying: "Quentin wants to be black. He watched a lot of black exploitation films growing up. He has a lot of black friends...And he likes to write black characters. He's like my daughters' little white hip-hop friends. They're basically black kids with white skin."

Tarantino is right to mainline the energy of black pop; it's what gives his films much of their pulse and surprise--you never know what might come out of it. But there's something ersatz in all this as well--and not just because Tarantino is white. The "street" blackness in Jackie Brown is like an episode of In Living Color that's been left on the stove too long. Jackson's Ordell, with his black kung-fu master look, is a bad ass in the tradition of his bad ass from Pulp Fiction, and he doesn't wear well. Plus Ordell must set the record for saying nigger the most times in a movie. Is this what Tarantino thinks black people do to be superhip?

Ordell's partner-in-crime, Louis, played by Robert De Niro in what appears to be a tranquilized state, is no match for him; he's just a floppy white guy. And Ordell's over-the-hill dopehead surfer-chick girlfriend (Bridget Fonda) is just sassy decoration. After so many movies in which black characters have taken a subservient role to whites, there is some justice, and humor, in seeing the racial tables switched in this way; it's a kick. But it's also a con--it's racial vaudeville for all the black wannabes in the audience.

Tarantino is saddled with cult status because of Pulp Fiction, but cults have a way of breaking up. That might not be a bad thing for him. Jackie Brown looks like it was made by a director who has moved beyond what made him a star but hasn't yet figured out what to do next. It's a marking-time movie. Maybe when he is no longer expected to capture the imagination of a generation, he'll be better equipped to recapture his own.

Jackie Brown.
Directed and written by Quentin Tarantino; based on a novel by Elmore Leonard. Starring Pam Grier, Robert Forster, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, Michael Keaton, Bridget Fonda. Opens Thursday.

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