For a high-school dropout with a bad temper, Quentin Tarantino has done pretty well for himself. Let's see. In five years he's grown into an ultra-hip icon with the fanatical following of a rock star and an entire school of imitators. He's simultaneously brought Hollywood moguls to their knees and gotten self-appointed moralists up in arms--the most fruitful combination in pop culture. Every time he locks a guy in a car trunk, the audience starts rubbing its hands in anticipation. Whenever his characters take out their bongs and syringes and coke-snorters, the hipsters go nuts. He's the only white man in America who can say the word "nigger" 200 times in a row and get away with it--because his take on black-white relations is held to be the coolest.
Saint Quentin. There's never been a moviemaker quite like him, perhaps because there have never been times quite like these--when violence is a constant undercurrent, when B-movie irony is seen as a necessity of life, when a screen psychopath who slices a bound-and-gagged cop's ear from his head and then talks into it starts to sound like the voice of the zeitgeist.
With Jackie Brown, the party goes on. From the same dustbin of movie history where he found John Travolta, Tarantino has this time retrieved leggy Seventies blaxploitation queen Pam Grier--and cast her as a down-and-out airline stewardess who runs bags of illegal cash out of Mexico. He's given his old running mate Samuel L. Jackson a ponytail, a stash of machine guns and an aspect of comic viciousness as powerful as that of the infamous "Mr. Blond."
Tarantino has recruited Robert De Niro for the smallish part of a scruffy ex-con in a hideous Hawaiian shirt. He's got Robert Forster (recently out of career mothballs himself) as a baffled bail bondsman in league (and love?) with the heroine, and Bridget Fonda as an airheaded L.A. surfer babe whose only ambition is to get high and watch daytime TV. She's called Melanie; you dig her for the sheer depth of her nihilism, and you suspect all movie long that she'll eventually take a bullet in the neck--and that you'll get a major laugh out of that, too.
In other words, Quentin and his gang and his cool postmodern sensibility are back with a vengeance. They're fueled this time around by a piece of pulp fiction, Rum Punch, written by an oft-filmized master of the form, Elmore Leonard. Actually, Miramax Pictures bought Tarantino the rights to four Leonard novels (Killshot, Bandits and Freaky Deaky are the others), and he took his choice.
Pretty good choice. As is his custom, Tarantino has juiced up Leonard's dialogue with his own brand of quirky hip ("The AK-47--accept no substitutes!"), thrown in several hundred repetitions of the N word (this neutralizes its power, our man reasons) and thoroughly Quentinized the characters--installed strong musical tastes in everybody, removed all semblence of conscience and given them a modus operandi in which the likable wiseass turns into the stone killer as if by chance.
When our slinky, 44-year-old heroine, Jackie Brown (Grier's 1974 Foxy Brown born again?) gets popped at the airport with a load of cash and a bag of coke, the feds (Michael Keaton, etc.) lean on her to turn in her boss, Jackson's ruthless gun dealer. Our Jackie plays dumb and scared, but the wheels are turning: Before you know it, all the world is scamming--bondsman, stewardess, gun runner, ex-con, stoned beach girl--in hot pursuit of half a million bucks. Question: Is Jackie pushing all the buttons?
You don't want to know more than that of the plot. Just as Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction sailed along on atmosphere, wisecracks and style, so does Jackie Brown. Yes, there's another funny/ horrifying bit involving a man in a car trunk. Yes, we see old Tony Curtis on TV, blabbing on about the necessity of always keeping a beautiful woman nearby. Yes, we visit and revisit the ultimate Tarantino bar, a Naugahyde-and-orange-lights joint called the Cockatoo Inn. Yes, we see the movie's crucial money exchange not once but four times, from assorted points of view, right there in the dress shop at the suburban mall.
Quintessential Quentin? You bet. No one mingles comedy and violence the way he does. No one has a stranger view of L.A. No one but Q could turn the vintage hits of the Delfonics into a hip running gag. No one but he, in all likelihood, could singlehandedly revive the career of Pam Grier, late of such cinematic masterpieces as Friday Foster and Scream, Blacula, Scream!. Part pissed-off adolescent, part B-movie addict, part revolutionary and all stylist, he's completely unto himself. And neither the moralists who revile him nor the mimics who copy him can do anything about it: They're all blowing spitballs at a battleship.
Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino, from the novel Rum Punch, by Elmore Leonard. Directed by Quentin Tarantino. With Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, Michael Keaton, Bridget Fonda and Robert Forster.
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