Sunday, February 22, 2009


If you’re expecting more of “Pulp Fiction” from writer & director Quentin Tarantino in “Jackie Brown,” the cult moviemaker’s first full-fledged cinematic opus since “Pulp Fiction,” then you may feel sorely let down by this extreme chick flick. Neither as sadistic nor as sexually bizarre as either “Reservoir Dogs” or “Pulp Fiction,” “Jackie Brown” (**** out of ****) represents something of a departure for the talented filmmaker. Indeed, an initial viewing may leave you with the impression that “Jackie Brown” suffers from a sketchy plot and lackluster action. Nothing could be farther from the truth. While “Jackie Brown” covers familiar “Pulp Fiction” territory, Tarantino emphasizes characterization at the expense of ultra-violence and implausibility. Furthermore, “Jackie Brown” may be Tarantino’s most accomplished film in terms of visual storytelling and the performances are simply unforgettable. Clearly, "Jackie Brown" deals with the themes of women versus men, women versus society, and women versus women in that order.

Veteran African-American actress Pam Grier, who made a name for herself during the 1970s with blaxploitation movies such as “The Big Doll House” (1971) and “Coffy” (1973), plays the eponymous heroine. As a 44-year old woman, Jackie works as a flight attendant for the worst airline, a shuttle that flies between the United States and Mexico. Life has not exactly been rosy for Jackie. She resorts to smuggling large sums of U.S. currency into the country that belongs to a treacherous arms dealer, Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson of “Pulp Fiction”) who stashes his cash in Cabo San Lucas. As the film opens, prickly ATF agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton of “Batman”) busts Jackie for sneaking $50-thousand in past customs. Nicolette and his LAPD partner Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen of “Iron Eagle”) put the squeeze on her, especially after they discover a two ounce baggie of cocaine hidden in with the bucks.

Jackie finds herself in jail, and Robbie posts her bond. Robbie hires bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster of “Medium Cool”) to spring her. Robbie follows an unmistakable pattern. Paranoid about going back to jail, Robbie ices any of his cohorts who come into contact with the law. Jackie got busted thanks to a tip the cops squeezed out of Robbie’s low-life henchman Beaumount (Chris Tucker of “Rush Hour”). After Cherry gets Beaumont out of jail, Robbie kills Beaumont and hides the corpse in the trunk of an abandoned car. Robbie is so leery of his buddies that he brings in an old-time convicted bank robber, Lewis Gara (Robert De Niro of “Goodfellas”) and uses him for his latest scheme.

Once out of jail, Jackie cooperates with the ATF. She plans to bring in more of Robbie’s dough and be a part of a sting against him. She tell Robbie what the law wants her to do and then presents him with a deal that will get him the rest of his money. She’ll bring in all his money at once when the cops aren’t expecting it, and they’ll pull a switch before the fuzz could figure it out. Robbie is leery again, but eventually he agrees. Meanwhile, Jackie pulls a fast one not only on the cops but also Robbie and get away with a fortune in cold cash. She devises another plan with Max Cherry.

While there are no overlapping plots, “Jackie Brown” is Tarantino’s best job of writing. He lays the story out in clear, simple terms and never needlessly complicates the action as he did in “Pulp Fiction.” You won’t get lost in the middle of this action comedy. Of course, the language is as corrosive as all get out. The F-word is used at least 131 times, and the S-word is heard as many as 69 times. Tarantino’s fans will appreciate the usual profane, inane dialogue that he writes so well, especially Robbie’s instructions to Gara about how to unlock his car.

Written and directed by Tarantino, “Jackie Brown” is based on best-selling novelist Elmore Leonard’s novel “Rum Punch,” published in 1992. Surprisingly, Tarantino removed two major shoot-outs that add bang-bang action to Leonard’s book. Robbie wants to kill a Nazi skin head and heist his huge arsenal of firearms. What might have made for a distinctively “Pulp Fiction” moment, however, Tarantino scrapped. Tarantino also eliminated a gunfight between Nicolette and Robbie’s gunmen. Usually, Hollywood filmmakers go out of their way to beef up Leonard’s novel. Consider the horrendous misfire that Burt Reynolds produced from Leonard’s entertaining novel “Stick.” While “Stick” boasted the trademark Leonard dialogue (he c0-scripted), the movie featured violence that the book did not contain. Although Tarantino doesn’t capture the quirky Leonard dialogue, he does a better job of transferring “Rum Punch” to the screen than either Reynolds did with “Stick” or Barry Sonnenfeld with “Get Shorty.”

As Jackie Brown, busty Pam Grier is ideally cast. Originally written for an Ann-Margret type (in “Rum Punch” she was named Jackie Burke), Tarantino has changed the racial composition of the heroine but retains the spirit of Leonard’s heroine. “Jackie Brown” is one of those pictures where the heroine isn’t fresh out of a Playboy centerfold, though Grier has the obvious endowments. Instead, Tarantino uses her as a woman caught in the middle that wants and deserves to get out of a bad situation. Compared with previous Tarantino efforts, “Jackie Brown” represents a definite feminist turn of the screw.

The supporting cast is both diverse and fantastic. Although Robert Forster has almost vanished from the screen, his performance as Max Cherry is so good and straightforward—in a poker-faced way—that you forget that Forster is acting. Cherry may qualify as one of the few tough-guy male heroes who could serve as a role model. Meanwhile, Robert De Niro brings his customary thespian skill to his bank robber thug and delivers a fastidious performance that relies on his physical presence. Lastly, Chris Tucker has only a few moments on screen, but he is hilarious as motor-mouthed Beaumont, especially when Ordell makes him climb in the trunk of his car so he can kill him.

“Jackie Brown” lasts over two hours, but nothing obstructs the straight ahead plotting. If you’re counting, only three characters get shot, and Tarantino stages each shooting incident off-screen or is shown from an angle that prevents the viewer from seeing much gore and violence. A sex scene between De Niro and Fonda is staged without nudity, too. The scenes from a video about machine guns is outrageously sexist. Feminists will be pleased to know that Jackie triumphs over all the bad guys and Max Cherry is the best guy in the world.