Film Reviews

Black Like Him

If Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown hadn't arrived weighted with post-Pulp Fiction (1994) 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 best seller Rum Punch, with the location shifted from Palm Beach to the beach communities located south of Los Angeles -- Tarantino's boyhood environs. Leonard's Jackie Burke, a white flight attendant, has become the black Jackie Brown, and she's played by Pam Grier, the kick-ass icon of such blaxploitation films as Coffy (1973) and Sheba Baby (1975). The centerpiece of the action is the Del Amo Mall -- "America's largest mall," as an on-screen note tells us -- and that seems fitting. Tarantino's work, for all its neocool, has always seemed like the apotheosis of mall culture.

He offers up a prefab world chock-a-block with marketable "attitude." Everything from the black and white Blues Brothers duds in Reservoir Dogs (1992) to the gory fandangos in Pulp Fiction seems designed to wow the trendoids. He mixes black street talk and noir pulp and Hong Kong chopsocky 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 original. 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 unauthentic. He shows you all this wacked-out stuff, but it arrives emotionally 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 notable 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 butt although she also carries a world-weariness that seems like the real thing. She's more soulful now, and she's become, in the twenty 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; acting as a cash courier for gun merchant Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), she's busted at Los Angeles International Airport by a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agent (Michael Keaton) and an L.A. cop (Michael Bowen) for smuggling in 50 grand and some coke. Jackie enlists the help of the valiant but tired bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) and attempts to bring down both the cops and Ordell while nabbing a half-million in cash.

The way in which Jackie maneuvers her scam -- the feds think she's working for them, Ordell thinks she's working for him -- 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 zigzags, Tarantino's storytelling is numbingly linear. Given the film's running time of two hours and 35 minutes, it often feels as if 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 deep only by previous Tarantino standards. The casting of Forster opposite Grier is a double whammy: It's like watching a wholesale reclamation project. Like Grier, Forster has already enjoyed his heyday -- in his case, on TV -- but has been out of the public eye 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's Max has a straight-arrow look that bespeaks something wiggier and more offbeat beneath his bail bondsman's deadpan demeanor. 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 that suffuses Jackie and Max. It's resonant but doesn't cut very deep. Essentially it's a romanticized hard-boiled convention, like the ennui of over-the-hill mobsters in noir crime thrillers. This borrowed romanticism may be Tarantino's way of opening up. But he doesn't open up very far; he's still locked in to a pulp formula -- even more so than Elmore Leonard. Tarantino hews pretty closely to the plot of Rum Punch, going so far as to replicate some of its dialogue, but for the most part he doesn't avail himself of the characters' backgrounds, which are at least touched on in the novel. We don't find out much about where these people came from, and when Tarantino disposes of a few of them, their passing is barely noted.

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 that 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 Seventies blaxploitation, but somehow the energy of both genres has eluded him.

He tries for a deliberately unslick look, but he hasn't really stylized the plainness. In blaxploitation films, with their sallow lighting and cheapo decor, the stylization came from the outlandish actors, the costumes, and, of course, the soundtracks. Blaxploitation films survived the Seventies 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 have wanted to bring back the swagger and pomp of blaxploitation, but all he captures is the bleariness. Who needs that? He's paying homage to bad junk and missing the good junk.

In Pulp Fiction and especially in Jackie Brown, Tarantino appears to be setting himself up as a Nineties version of Norman Mailer's White Negro. In a recent issue of 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. But there's something phony 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 dopehead surfer-chick girlfriend (Bridget Fonda) is just sassy decoration. After so many movies in which black characters have had roles subservient to whites, there is some justice and humor in seeing the racial tables switched. 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 as if 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; with Pam Grier, Robert Forster, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, Michael Keaton, and Bridget Fonda.

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Peter Rainer