Jackie Brown, Quentin Tarantino’s first full-length film since the revolutionary Pulp Fiction, turns out to be not revolutionary or even evolutionary but enormously … methodical. Working from an Elmore Leonard novel, Tarantino has created a gangster fiction that is never larger than life and sometimes smaller. The movie doesn’t so much dramatize the characters as tail them. They come; they go; they meet and talk; they talk again; and finally someone gets shot. Yet Jackie Brown, despite its termitelike pace and thoroughness, is not dull; Tarantino is an entertainer, and he’s written some scandalously funny lines for Samuel L. Jackson, who plays one Ordell Robbie, an egotistical L.A. gun seller. Ordell wears a full ponytail and a little wispy goatee in Chinese-sage style. In the world of taciturn thugs, this hipster-dandy is a brilliant talker; he’s also a mean and dangerous man. Ordell keeps a number of people in his employ, including a libidinous white surfer girl (Bridget Fonda) who sits around getting stoned; a mangy ex-con (Robert De Niro); and a stewardess, Jackie Brown (Pam Grier), who carries cash for Ordell back and forth between Los Angeles and Mexico. Jackie is a tough black woman in her forties; she knows the ropes. The movie is about her attempt to break free of Ordell and fleece him of his money.
Tarantino shows off the lowlife egomania, the endless cadging, cheating, double-crossing. Jackie Brown is often funny (in a squalid way), but it’s generally unexciting, and it lacks the shocks and aesthetic daring of Pulp Fiction. People expecting something ambitious from Tarantino – people who see him as some kind of savior – will be amazed and disappointed by Jackie Brown, which feels like a conscious regression. The picture is actually an elongated and ambitious B-movie – a dogged homage to the kind of atmospheric minor crime picture that Tarantino, having grown up in a video store, enjoys more than he does prestige movies. In Jackie Brown, Tarantino has tried to make the most serious and detailed B movie ever. That attempt has caught him in certain contradictions. He has built the movie around Pam Grier, the strapping, bodice-spilling star of such early-seventies black exploitation movies as Coffy and Foxy Brown. Tarantino has often expressed his admiration for Grier, and in Jackie Brown she does seem a terrifically smart and likable woman. Yet she’s a limited performer, and she can’t really bloom in the realistic, matter-of-fact framework that Tarantino has constructed for her. Revived and made the center of a movie, she holds on to her dignity as if it were a life raft, and the performance doesn’t go anywhere.
Grier has only a scene or two with the volatile, profane Samuel L. Jackson, who jostles her and would have drawn her out if they had butted heads more often. Most of the time, Tarantino pairs her with another B-movie actor, the somber, stone-faced Robert Forster, who was in Medium Cool in 1969 and has worked in obscure movies ever since. Forster plays a tough, experienced bail-bondsman, Max Cherry, who does business for Ordell. In his late fifties, Max is too set in his ways to make a pass at Jackie, but he admires her and possibly even loves her. He’s like a wall, this Max, smart but quiet and self-contained, and when Forster acts with Grier – the scenes are mostly long conversations – we realize what Tarantino is getting at. These two actors, sitting across a table in some dim bar, don’t open anything up; they’re not particularly expressive. But they’re not cheap or flashy either; their strength lies in a kind of impervious power, and it’s possible that their very lack of range and flexibility seems a form of integrity for Tarantino. He lets Samuel L. Jackson run free, but he treats De Niro and Fonda like B-movie actors, too – each of them plays a type, with only limited consciousness, clinging to a little bit of psychological turf. Perhaps Tarantino is saying that this is what people in the crime world are really like – sly, mean, and limited. They make mistakes, and they die with barely a flicker of awareness of what’s happening to them.
At one point, Jackie, trying to steal Ordell’s money, is telling one story to Ordell, another to Max, and still another to a federal agent (Michael Keaton) who’s trying to destroy Ordell. The plot is enormously complicated, and Tarantino wants us to see what’s at stake for each person at each moment. Jackie Brown never speeds up; it never explodes. At the climax, in fact, it slows down: Tarantino shows us the same sequence of events three times consecutively, each time from the point of view of a different character. But he does it only to keep things clear. After the formal bravura of Pulp Fiction, it’s as if he were saying, “Look, no tricks; everything is exactly as it seems.” So it may turn out that Quentin Tarantino is not, after all, the American Godard, not a mall-rat pop genius eager to transform pulp into formally demanding art. He really likes pulp for its stiff, repetitive, bullheaded qualities. He likes it so much, he’s made his own sober version of it.