Directed by Quentin Tarantino. Starring Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton, Robert De Niro, Chris Tucker, Sid Haig, Denise Crosby. (1997, R, 154 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Dec. 26, 1997
Apparently, it's Quentin Tarantino's mission in life to rescue long-forgotten actors -- good ones, that is -- from the dust heaps of cinema history. He single-handedly restored John Travolta's good name in Pulp Fiction, and now it looks as though he's doing the same for the queen of Seventies blaxploitation films, Pam Grier (Foxy Brown, Coffy) as well as Robert Forster (who, like it or not, I'll always remember from the Lewis Teague/John Sayles shocker Alligator). And Sid Haig (Spider Baby). And Denise Crosby (Star Trek The Next Generation/Playboy magazine). Nice work if you can get it. Based on Elmore Leonard's novel Rum Punch, this is a far cry from the auteur's two previous films; it's practically sedate compared with the blazing mayhem of Pulp, and it has few of the lengthy, witty patches of mano a mano dialogue found in Reservoir Dogs. Instead, it's a straight-ahead caper flick, very cool, and very, very Seventies (although it takes place in 1995), from production and costume design on down to the soundtrack. Grier plays Jackie Brown, a flight attendant for one of the lower-echelon airlines who has a sideline laundering money for arms dealer Ordell Robbie (Jackson). When a zealous ATF agent (Keaton) pops her while she's carrying a bag of cocaine as well, she's sets herself up to play the players off one another. With the help of lovesick bail bondsman Max Cherry (Forster), Jackie sets up not only Ordell, but also his buddy Louis (De Niro, hilariously stoned throughout) and Ordell's pet beach bunny Melanie (Fonda) in a letter-perfect scam that's as ingenious as it is risky. That's the plot in a nutshell, but Tarantino is having so much fun playing fast and loose with Seventies genre conventions that the film plays more like one of his beloved retro-board games than a standard QT film. For one thing, there's precious little gunfire here (though what there is of it is downright deafening -- my ears were ringing for almost an hour afterward). Instead of firefights, Tarantino relies on various aspects of the old bait-and-switch school of heist films, keeping the story rolling along at such a leisurely pace that at times it seems both his most assured film thus far and not a Tarantino movie at all. The casting, however, is vintage QT: Both Grier and especially Forster are spot-on in their roles, trading sexy stares and duplicitous grins every other frame, while Jackson proves once again just how commanding a screen presence he is and Keaton comes out of nowhere with his slyest, coolest turn since he donned Batman's dark cowl. Anyone expecting Pulp Fiction redux -- or even a new litter of Reservoir Dogs -- is in for a surprise. Totally different in style and tact from both of those films, Jackie Brown is nonetheless one cool ride. And De Niro makes an even better stoner than Brad Pitt did in True Romance, to boot.