It's a pleasure to report that "Jackie Brown" is unevenly paced, lethargic and sometimes even boring. Because even though it is mediocre as a movie, as an example of a filmmaker in transition, it is a triumph.
With his eagerly anticipated follow-up to "Pulp Fiction" -- that 1994 masterpiece of scattershot editing, addiction to pop culture and Ritalin-deprived dialogue -- Quentin Tarantino seems to be slowing himself down, choosing to focus on characters as complex bundles of motivations rather than vectors for grand gestures and punchy aphorisms.
"Jackie Brown" may not be the Royale With Cheese that "Pulp Fiction" was, but it suggests that Tarantino may actually be trying to find the beef.
His first smart move was to cast Pam Grier as the title character, a stewardess for a rinky-dink airline who is discovered smuggling drugs and money into the United States by two federal agents. It turns out that Jackie is tied up with Ordell Robbie, a low-life gun runner played with verbose vigor by Samuel L. Jackson. She cuts a deal with the feds to help them nail Ordell. But seconds later she's cutting a side deal with Ordell himself.
Who's zooming whom? We're the last to know, as Tarantino engages in his penchant for time-shifts, double-backs and contortionist plot twists.
One of those twists is a bail bondsman by the name of Max Cherry, played by Robert Forster (best known for his TV work in such series as "Banyon") in the most lovable performance of the year. Max is a man who left illusions behind long ago and is hanging on only to his decency. He and Jackie's scenes together are the sweetest part of "Jackie Brown." Grier's hard, asymmetrical beauty and Forster's hangdog goodness play off each other in a potent visual expression of age and hard-won wisdom. When he quiets his camera down and gets real, Tarantino turns out to be pretty good at the boy-girl thing.
Still, even these sweet high points seem too few and far between during the film's 2 1/2 -hour running time. "Jackie Brown," which Tarantino adapted from the Elmore Leonard novel "Rum Punch," has a strangely deflated, enervated feel. Robert De Niro and Bridget Fonda are good as two of Ordell's pot-smoking hangers-on, but their scenes stop the action in its tracks. And Tarantino's famous knack for mining Top 40 lists for obscure faves is beginning to feel forced.
This isn't to say that "Jackie Brown" isn't shot through with signature Q.T. touches: He masterfully plays with time, flashing back and jumping forward with hyperkinetic glee. Whereas Tarantino doesn't glamorize violence the way he did in "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction," he still finds a way to enjoy his fetishes, albeit ironically.
And he has by no means avoided his love for profanity or fascination with moral turpitude. It's getting easier to discern who the good guys are, but not much.
Which brings us to the most troubling aspect of "Jackie Brown." What to make of Tarantino's constant use of racial epithets that fly back and forth between the film's black characters?
For a director who is a magpie of American pop arcana, the co-optation of black culture and slang is part of an established M.O. But there is something discomfiting about an audience of young white men snickering over every common racial slur or comparable misogynist invective.
Tarantino might intend "Jackie Brown" to be an homage to the films he loved growing up, the blaxploitation flicks and bad '70s caper movies, with their Afros and wah-wah pedals. He may have larceny in his heart, but there's love in his soul. But is his NTC audience taking this in the same spirit? There's a mean streak running through the knowing laughter that filmgoers, if not Tarantino himself, need to come to terms with.
Starring Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, Robert Forster
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Released by Miramax Films
Rated R (strong language, some violence, drug use and sexuality)
Sun Score: ** 1/2
Pub Date: 12/25/97