PAM GRIER IS, as they say, one tall drink of water. “Jackie Brown,” the new Quentin Tarantino movie in which she stars, was made because Tarantino had loved Grier in ’70s blaxploitation pictures like “Coffy” and wanted to find a starring vehicle for her. This adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel “Rum Punch” changes the central character’s name, from Jackie Burke to Jackie Brown (presumably a tribute to Grier’s role as “Foxy Brown”), and her race. Jackie is a flight attendant in her 40s who supplements her peanuts pay by smuggling money into the U.S. for a gun runner named Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). When she’s nabbed by an ATF agent who’s out to get Ordell, Jackie comes up with a scheme that will hand him over, keep herself out of prison and, with the help of a bail bondsman named Max Cherry, enable her to skip away with the half million Ordell has stashed in Mexico.
Grier has appeared in movies since her blaxploitation days, most memorably as the scary hooker junkie in 1981′s “Fort Apache, The Bronx,” but she’s never been the star she is here. Long-legged, cool and with cheekbones to kill for, Grier commands the screen as if it were hers for the taking, naturally, without a trace of showiness. She has the confident magnetism that draws us to movie stars and the yielding quality that causes us to invest ourselves emotionally in them. Facing down the ATF agents or calmly pulling a gun on Ordell, Grier’s Jackie is unshakable. Catching a glimpse of herself in a dressing-room mirror in the minutes before she puts her plan into action, she shows us something much more uncertain and vulnerable. Grier gets the poignancy of a middle-aged woman who’s held onto her looks but is fast realizing she has to trade on her brains to get out of her dead-end life.
In Leonard’s novel, Jackie is a blond dream girl in snug jeans who looks younger than her years. Tarantino doesn’t try to hide the fact that Grier’s figure has become more womanly in the two decades since she first appeared on-screen. I’ve never seen a young filmmaker as alive to an older woman’s beauty in quite the way Tarantino is here. It’s not coarse, but it’s not a chaste appreciation. To put it another way, he’s as in love with Grier’s hips as he is with those almond eyes. Some of the best moments in “Jackie Brown” are when he simply allows his camera to watch her, as she’s carried along a moving airport sidewalk while Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” plays on the soundtrack or simply as she’s sitting enjoying a cigarette. These moments are about how a filmmaker pours all the reasons he wants to make movies into a performer’s face. There’s an ardent devotion to them that goes beyond fan worship and that I would not have thought Tarantino capable of. He wanted to give Grier a role worthy of her, and he has. If only he’d given her a movie worthy of her as well.
Leonard’s novels are so tightly constructed that next to nothing is expendable. So it’s not surprising that it takes two-and-a-half hours for Tarantino to tell this story. What is surprising is that it takes that long after he’s streamlined the plot. The big sequence where Jackie’s plan is executed is a technical marvel: Tarantino keeps replaying the scene, each time adding a new character and showing it from his or her point of view. Watching the scene, you realize he shot the whole sequence from three or four angles simultaneously. But it brings the movie to a dead halt at what should be its most tense moments.
If “Jackie Brown” lost 45 minutes, it might have been a snazzy entertainment. As it is, it wears out its welcome well before the end. But at its best, “Jackie Brown” has a shambling funkiness that I found easier to take than any of Tarantino’s other work. I’ve lost track of how many people have said to me something like, “I don’t usually like violent movies, but I like Tarantino.” It’s easy to see why — Tarantino doesn’t call up the sense of complicity or dread that Sam Peckinpah and Brian DePalma do, or even the kinetic charge that’s John Woo’s forte. Holding most of his characters at arm’s length, Tarantino robs the violence of any emotional force and turns it into the deadpan punch line to a sick joke. For me, the effect of “Pulp Fiction” isn’t much different than the effect of any big, impersonal action picture. The audience knows from the start that everything has been set up for effect and that there’s nothing to believe in or care about.
The put-on quality in “Jackie Brown” didn’t grate on me, perhaps because the material didn’t originate with Tarantino, or maybe because the characters are all scamming one another, or maybe because the violence is quick and discreet (instead of drawn out and lingered over). There’s nothing offensive here, like the rape sequence in “Pulp Fiction,” and much of the dialogue, especially when it’s delivered by Jackson, is undeniably funny (only some of it is from Leonard). Tarantino has an ear for lines that play like gutter-life verbal slapstick (though to get laughs he still relies too much on the word “nigger” for my comfort).
But the troubles here are some of the same as in “Pulp Fiction.” Visually, Tarantino isn’t much of a filmmaker. The photography, by Guillermo Navarro, has a blah, washed-out look, and Tarantino relies either on close-ups or on two-shots (cutting back and forth between two people engaged in a conversation) that kill the actors’ performance rhythms. And though he clearly loves his cast, he’s not very good at directing them. With Bridget Fonda as Melanie, Ordell’s stoned surfer-girl moll, and Robert De Niro as Louis Gara, his slow-witted ex-con accomplice, he’s given his actors notions for characters rather than characters.
There is one actor, other than Grier, whose role and presence sums up what’s likable about Tarantino. That’s Robert Forster as Max Cherry, the 50-ish bail bondsman who helps Jackie fleece Ordell, and whom Tarantino cast largely because he liked Forster in the 1970s TV show “Banyon.” At first, Forster looks like every hard-ass high school gym teacher you ever had, a straight arrow without a surprise in him. Then Tarantino shows Max drinking Jackie in as she emerges from prison while Bloodstone’s “Natural High” plays on the soundtrack. As he looks at her, you see Forster’s stone face admit the possibility of the heavenly romance that song promises — something everything else about the way the man carries himself, the office he works in, even the cheap spy thrillers he reads, tells you he’s excluded from his life.
Tarantino shortchanges Forster by eliminating the romance Leonard devised for Max and Jackie, and by tacking on a sentimental ending not in the novel. But when Max is driving around singing along with the Delfonics, Jackie’s favorite group (Tarantino has great taste in black pop), and glowing whenever she’s around, Tarantino seems to be saying that it’s never too late for the dreams pop can stir up in you. It’s never too late to be transported by the Delfonics singing “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time?” or for Grier to be treated like the star she is.
I don’t know of any young filmmaker who’s used his success to boost the actors and filmmakers he loves as passionately as Tarantino has. That we once again have the pleasure of going to the movies and seeing John Travolta is largely because Tarantino cast him in “Pulp Fiction.” Tarantino wants to repay the pleasure he’s found in the pop music and movies he loves. What he hasn’t figured out yet is a way to translate what he loves into a vision of his own rather than just a fan’s tribute. I respect the enthusiasm and love that motivates Tarantino. I hope someday I can respect him as a filmmaker.