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Review: 'Jackie Brown' -- There's no place like homeboy

Jackie Brown January 5, 1998
Web posted at: 12:52 p.m. EST (1752 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Gertrude Stein once caustically (and quite accurately) opined of Los Angeles, "There's no there there." As big a fan as I am of both "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction," I think that "Jackie Brown" is installment number three in proving that (for the time being, anyway) the same can be said of writer/director Quentin Tarantino. For all its visual finesse, this is easily the least imaginative film Tarantino has made thus far, and its emptiness is rather troubling to me. I don't feel like there's a fully rounded human being behind the camera who's trying to tell us anything about the world he's living in, or about the characters he's filming, for that matter. What Tarantino is telling us with "Jackie Brown" (yet again) is that he's watched a whole lotta movies. That makes a couple million of us, and, frankly, the point is not worthy of triple-film belaboring.

Jackie Brown
2 min. VXtreme video
video icon 1.4M/37 sec./160x120
QuickTime movie

I know that there's a Tarantino cult out there that's swallowing their tongues over this opinion, so let me say that I'm not exactly delighted to be writing it. I can remember bursting out of the theater after seeing an opening day screening of "Reservoir Dogs" and running to a pay phone to call my friends. I was floored by the movie and wanted to be the first to announce the arrival of a great new cinematic talent. Tarantino is still a born filmmaker, no doubt about it, but technical proficiency is no substitute for a mature viewpoint in one's work. That part is still missing, and, strangely, is probably further beyond Tarantino's grasp than it was last time around.

Seventies blaxploitation film icon Pam Grier plays Jackie, a struggling flight attendant who delivers cash for a gun runner named Ordell Robbie (Sam Jackson, simultaneously hilarious and terrifying. Tarantino brings out the best in him). Ordell has taken to shooting any of his cohorts who have the slightest inclination toward talking to the cops, so Jackie knows it's time for her to get out of his twisted loop. Once the feds (including Michael Keaton) catch up with her, she pretends to turn traitor and help them trap Ordell in a sting. What she's really going to do, though, is try to switch out a bag full of ill-gotten money and skip away to the good life, leaving the police and her psychotic boss behind.

Complicating this situation is Jackie and Ordell's bail bondsman, Max Cherry (Robert Forster in a winning comeback performance), a tough guy with a gooey marshmallow heart. He falls for the sultry Jackie quicker than a 9-year-old might (in one ridiculous shot), and winds up giving her pointers as to how to properly pull off her scam. Oh yeah, there's also Robert DeNiro as Ordell's slow-on-the-uptake partner in crime and Bridget Fonda, perfectly cast as a beautiful young woman who sits around and does not much of anything.

That "oh yeah" is well-earned because, outside of the last couple of sequences, there's no call at all for DeNiro and Fonda's characters. Tarantino (figuratively) got away with murder in both "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction" when he let everybody stand around and chatter inanely about anything that popped into their often rather dim heads, and DeNiro and Fonda are the main culprits this time. The reason it worked in the first two films ("Pulp Fiction" in particular) is that the movies roll along at a pretty breathless clip when the bursts of chatter subside. Sure, I climbed a wall when Bruce Willis and his cute little French girlfriend decided to talk about blueberry pancakes for damn near 10 minutes, but there was so much going on in that movie you were willing to sit tight for a little while. Plus, most of the extraneous stuff was funny as hell.

Though it has its moments, the same couldn't remotely be said of "Jackie Brown." Tarantino has made a crime movie that, aside from its densely-plotted money switcheroo, could have been dreamed up by a junior high schooler who digs mid-'70s credit sequences. Large chunks of the movie, and I mean lengthy stretches, are taken up with watching Grier walk briskly, drive a car, or stare at the wall while a guitar wah-wahs in the background and Philadelphia soul horns punctuate the visual rhythms.

I kept thinking of the ultra-cool opening for "Shaft," in which Richard Roundtree struts through Times Square while Isaac Hayes' classic theme music slips and slides down Broadway. Unfortunately, Tarantino riffs on a piece of slickly produced pop way too often. A groovy credit sequence is one thing (and "Jackie Brown" has one), but Grier driving to the mall while listening to a soul station in the middle of a 2 1/2 hour movie is infuriatingly self-indulgent. Tarantino may need to take off that delusional Kangol hat he's been wearing and let some blood flow to his head.

You still get a few of the dazzling verbal moments that are Tarantino's signature. I especially enjoyed the banter when Jackson tries to get one of his minions to climb into the trunk of his car for a supposed surprise ambush. However, a lot of the long dialogue scenes consist of characters telling each other, in excruciating detail, what they're about to do. Then you watch them do it, and then there's another too-long conversation about what they're going to do next. Then you watch them do it. After a while, it starts to feel like Tarantino has adapted a bad-guy instruction booklet for the screen. An oft-played Delfonics ballad doesn't make this any more bearable.

The rest is Blaxploitation 101 with a few more intricate sequences than those movies normally had. As long as he obsessed with quoting '70s radio fodder to make his points, I'll have to give Tarantino a piece of advice courtesy of Elton John and Bernie Taupin: "Grow some funk of your own, amigo."

"Jackie Brown" is violent, but there's nothing approaching "Reservoir Dogs'" torture scene. There's a goofy sex scene, a great deal of pot smoking, and TONS of bad language. The word "nigger" (in reference to characters of any color) gets tossed around so much it finally means nothing at all, but I'm not sure that makes it any less offensive. Rated R. 154 long minutes.

 
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