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If Jackie Brown were Quentin Tarantino's first film, it wouldn't make a splash anywhere near as big as Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction. Jackie Brown is a good movie, but it's not a flashy movie. It's relatively low key. Most noticeably, however, the dialogue doesn't crackle like it did in Tarantino's previous movies.
Samuel L. Jackson as a black market arms dealer gets the majority of the good lines. For example, when he's lecturing buddy Robert DeNiro on the virtues of the AK-47, he says "When you absolutely, positively have to kill every motherfucker in the room, accept no substitutes." And when he's talking to his beach bunny girlfriend, played by Bridget Fonda, who is busy smoking pot, he says "That stuff'll ruin your ambition." To which she says, "Not when your ambition is to get high and watch TV." But other than these moments and only a couple others, most of the dialogue in Jackie Brown isn't particularly surprising. Scenes tend to drag out too long, such as the first scene of the movie when Jackson and DeNiro watch a videotape called "Chicks Who Love Guns." The video itself is the kind of outrageous material we have come to expect from Tarantino (with bikinied-"chicks" blazing away with semi-automatic weapons while extolling the virtues of various gun models), but the dialogue between DeNiro, Jackson, and Fonda drifts lazily. The movie could've used a combination like Pulp Fiction's Vincent and Jules. In comparison, DeNiro, Jackson, and Fonda are a relatively dumb bunch, required in order to get the plot rolling.
But don't despair. Pam Grier and Robert Forester are also on hand, and they make this movie come to life. Forester is a woefully under utilized actor who gets one of the best roles of his career in Jackie Brown. I doubt that it will resurrect Forester's career like Pulp Fiction did Travolta's, but it shows he deserves more than TV movie and B horror movie roles in the future. First attracting serious attention in Haskell Wexler's 1968 political drama Medium Cool, Forester's career never quite caught fire. Meanwhile, Pam Grier's career hit its high point in the mid-'70s, thanks to blaxploitation flicks such as Coffy, Foxy Brown, and Friday Foster. But after the blaxploitation era died down, Grier found fewer and fewer movie roles. Only in occasional roles, such as opposite Paul Newman in Fort Apache, The Bronx, did she get a chance to really act. But now filmmakers who grew up watching her in the '70s are returning their appreciation for Grier by casting her in their movies. In 1996, she appeared in John Carpenter's Escape from L.A., Tim Burton's Mars Attacks, and Larry Cohen's Original Gangstas. With Jackie Brown, however, she gets arguably her best starring role ever.
Grier plays a down-on-her-luck airline stewardess named Jackie Brown who works for a small-time Mexican shuttle service and carries money into the U.S. for Samuel L. Jackson's Ordell Robbie, a black-market arms dealer. Ordell tends to kill off people he thinks might inform on him to the police. "Who's that?" says Louis (DeNiro) as Ordell opens his truck to reveal a dead man. "That's Beaumont," says Ordell. "Who's Beaumont?" "An employee I had to let go."
After an ATF agent (Michael Keaton) catches her carrying $50,000 in her overnight bag, Jackie is looking at spending time in jail unless she informs on Ordell. But how can she inform on Ordell and avoid getting her brains splattered on the pavement? It's not easy, but Jackie's a resourceful woman. Robert Forster enters the picture as Max Apple, the bondsman hired by Ordell to pay Jackie's bail. In one of the funniest scenes of the year, Max watches as Jackie strides toward him from the prison block. He's immediately smitten.
Even if Jackie Brown lacks the bite of Pulp Fiction, it's still fun to watch. At over 2 hours 30 minutes, though, it feels at least 40 minutes too long. But it's not really a matter of editing one scene here and another scene there. The individual scenes themselves frequently lack pacing. This is a big lazy, sprawling movie that never picks up much momentum. And outside of the relationship between Grier and Forster, the movie is only modestly compelling. But Grier and Forster give us one of best one-two combinations of the year.
[rating: 3 of 4 stars]