In virtually every scene of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (Miramax), you know you’re watching a movie by the creator of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, but the fizz — the exhilaration — is gone. It’s like viewing Pulp Fiction through bulletproof glass. Adapting the 1992 Elmore Leonard novel Rum Punch, Tarantino spins a twisty crime yarn that, on the surface, at least, appears to have most of the qualities that gave his earlier films their wild narcotic charge. He tells the story of Jackie Brown (Pam Grier), an economically desperate 44-year-old flight attendant who has been running cash for Ordell (Samuel L. Jackson), a small-time Los Angeles arms dealer. When Jackie is cornered by a wily ATF agent (Michael Keaton), she figures that the only way out of her dilemma, out of her life, is to double-cross both parties. So she joins forces with a chivalrous bail bondsman (Robert Forster) and becomes, in essence, a criminal undercover agent, crafting a plan to steal half a million dollars from Ordell even as she nails him for the Feds.
Once again, Tarantino’s characters speak in confetti bursts of profanity and ironically literate back talk. The plot is like a souped-up engine, propelling the movie onto off-ramps of duplicity and bloodshed, and there are pungent performances from Robert De Niro as a befuddled sociopath, Bridget Fonda as a jaded surf bunny, and, most prominently, Jackson as the volatile Ordell, who has murder in his eyes and funk poetry on his lips. So why does Jackie Brown, for all its flair, feel less than inspired?
In Tarantino’s earlier pictures, the material, refracted through a prism of pop sources, fused chemically in the filmmaker’s brain. Whatever he put on screen, be it John Travolta dancing or Michael Madsen slicing off someone’s ear, he was so entranced by the mad-scientist power of his own imagination that we shared in his wide-eyed gaze. In Jackie Brown, Tarantino is still entranced, only in a more detached, self-conscious way. The picture is an homage to two of the pop phenomena that formed him: the crime fiction of Elmore Leonard and the underground stardom of blaxploitation queen Pam Grier, who, thanks to Tarantino, is now resurrected. Tarantino doesn’t just love these artists; he’s lost in reverence for them. And, in effect, what he has done is to freeze them in his hero worship.
Jackie Brown is an oxymoron: It’s like a scuzz-bucket film noir directed by Stanley Kubrick at his most static-mesmeric. Each scene is staged methodically, overdeliberately, as if it concealed some payoff zinger. But the zingers don’t arrive. All we see is a reasonably clever Elmore Leonard caper that needed to be treated as fast, trashy fun. It doesn’t help that Leonard isn’t nearly the artist Tarantino is. He’s strictly a genre man, with paper-thin characters and an amiable low-life spark to his busy, lurching plots. Early on, there’s a tasty moment when Ordell, seen in extra-long shot, coolly murders a nattering jailbird (Chris Tucker) in the trunk of his car, the brutal act framed by the spangly strains of ”Strawberry Letter 23.” The scene lets you know how casual it is for Ordell to pull that trigger. But it’s virtually the only moment when Tarantino comes at the action with a funny, sidelong glance.
Pam Grier looks marvelous, with her diamond eyes and sexy half sneer, and though the middle-aged bulkiness of her body gives you a bit of a start, she is, as always, a commanding actress; she blends street smarts and melancholy the way she used to blend street smarts and Amazonian hauteur. The meaning of her presence, however, extends beyond that. In Jackie Brown, Grier is the matriarch of Tarantino’s I-wanna-be-black dream party. In the opening sequence, the camera caresses her as she travels through an airport, and the movie caresses us with the great, lost Bobby Womack song ”Across 110th Street,” with its ghetto lament about ”doing whatever I had to do to survive.” Tarantino has recontextualized Rum Punch as a tale of African-American desperation. He sprinkles the word nigger around as if it were the verbal equivalent of cayenne pepper, and he has Jackson play Ordell as a ruthless badass stud (with streaming long hair, the actor looks like he’s warming up to star in The Miles Davis Story). But this may all mean more to the filmmaker than it does to us. In Jackie Brown, blackness becomes the signifier of Quentin Tarantino’s integrity, his artistic cool. He was cooler when he wasn’t trying so hard to be.