Film Scouts Reviews

"Jackie Brown"

by Karen Jaehne

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In the title role of Jackie Brown, Pam Grier gives Sam Jackson a run for his money. Quite literally, she walks off with his ill-gotten gains, and dramatically. Grier's self-possession is as much a part of the woman she is as of the woman she plays. That is, if Pam Grier is Jackie Brown - and the defiance she brings to the role cuts through the usual misogynism of Tarantino films - she's got a good thing going. She is the best thing in a violence-as-usual movie.

The most telling credit in Tarantino's bid for studio status is his special thanks to Sam Fuller: "Thanks for everything." it says, underlining the *everything.* Jackie Brown is supposed to be like Fuller's down-and-dirty, late-Thirties Warner Bros. pics where bad guys rip off worse guys, and the best you can hope for is that the dame don't shoot you in the back. If she's an honest woman, she shoots you in the front. Nihilism was very big in the Thirties. (The most important trait of nihilism is its economy. Nothing nihilistic should last two and a half hours!)

Well, it's the Nineties: the economy is booming, color is mandatory and attempts to make Sam Fuller movies fall into pretentious vacuity. It's hard to resuscitate the corpse of film noir, because even if you do, it's only a zombie. "Jackie Brown" only springs to life when it seems to turn into a Spike Lee Joint. (That's what Spike's company is called; compare that to Tarantino's company name, A Band Apart, in homage to Jean-Luc Godard.)

A pal at the critics' screening informed me that Quentin Tarantino is an honorary brother, so I didn't need to worry about any politically incorrect cracks in the dialogue. Oh, OK. Just where does he wear that medal? Or is that a magical transformation that makes him think, write and direct like a black man? I doubt that I'm the only person uncomfortable with that notion.

Tarantino has always engaged us with a style that lies outside the mainstream: spare and sharp in "Reservoir Dogs", then psychologically intricate and sly in "Pulp Fiction". But Jackie Brown is just a flabby blaxploitation pic. The music of the Seventies, plus Pam Grier - the now-mature sexpot of blaxploitation - is not enough to guarantee the zip and nerve of the genre. Most disturbing is what Tarantino has done with the character of Ordell Robbie, a recurring character in Elmore Leonard's novels. Sam Jackson makes a valiant effort to give Ordell some soul, but there's only slime to work with, and with the remark "She's white," he nails his character as a racist.

Bail bondsman Max Cherry is great Elmore Leonard creation and he fares somewhat better, as played by the wonderfully natural Robert Forster. After watching Forster for an hour or so, my bearded critic friend whispered, "That's what I look like on the inside." Yes, Forster is a man's man. Forster puts a lot into Max Cherry but leaves us wanting more. Because Max is so much more interesting than the petty criminals he deals with, it's always a relief when he shows up, raising our expectations for insight, depth - anything to relieve the morbid vacuity of the lives of the petty criminals that so interest Tarantino.

I liked Sam Jackson - and Tarantino - better when they had more complexity of thought, and the ironic tension between what was being said and being done kept us guessing. On the other hand, DeNiro plays a role in this movie that has you constantly guessing: who is he, and what is he doing here? Then you find out: another wierdo to go berserk. It fails to stay funny, if you think about the body count. And since it lacks the underlying wit of Pulp Fiction, the social-political context is missing, and the line goes flat.

The characters are simple, the story simplistic. Yet, the worst thing about a film catering to the blaxploitation audience is the way it patronizes. Tarantino trusts nobody to follow the storyline, so he connects the dots by offering titles to tell us where we are, which day it is - he might as well impose large arrows pointing at who-dunnit. Surely, somebody said to him somewhere along the way, "Quentin, your audience is not that stupid," or maybe, "Quentin, you're not that smart." That's the dilemma we're left with, as Jackie Brown sails into the sunset with almost half-a-million dollars of money she didn't earn.

When are we going to see a movie about somebody doing legitimate work for legitimate money that we can actually relate to? As somebody who has to work for a living, I'm waiting.  

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