Jackie Brown (1997): Tarantino’s Third Feature, Starring Pam Grier, Samuel Jackson, and Robert Forster

Less audacious thematically and stylistically, but also more mature, Jackie Brown, Tarantino’s third feature, pays tribute to two creative influences on his career, crime novelist Elmore Leonard and Pam Grier, star of such 1970s blaxploitation films as “Coffy,” “Foxy Brown,” and “Sheba Baby.”

Tarantino takes the twisty plot of Leonard’s Rum Punch and runs it through his own sensibility, which results in a leisurely-paced, overlong movie. Transplanting the book’s action from Miami to South Bay L.A. means there are jokes about Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles and crucial scenes in the Del Amo Fashion Center.

This time around, Samuel L. Jackson is the star, playing Ordell Robbie, a smooth, garrulous gunrunner who operates out of a Hermosa Beach house he shares with his stoned girlfriend (Bridget Fonda). Ordell intends to get out of the gun business after stashing away 500 grand in Mexico. One of Ordell’s pawns is flight attendant Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) who, as the film begins, is busted at LAX by an ATM agent and a cop, while smuggling $50,000 into the country.

The authorities put pressure on her to turn Ordell in, but Jackie, aided by bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster), decides to play both sides against each other and get a crack at Ordell’s stash. Jackie tells Ordell she’s going to put one over on the authorities by orchestrating an intricate money exchange in which he will get his money back. In the film’s most intriguing sequence, Tarantino stages a 20-minute set piece, showing the same act from three points of view, each revealing different aspects of the transaction.

Revisiting the crime turf, Tarantino examined again the issues of deceit, trust, and cunning among small-time crooks, but he gives the familiar material a distinctive feel through profane street lingo (the overuse of a racial slur irritated Spike Lee), soul and funk music, and other pop artifacts. In a sequence that illustrates Tarantino’s talent for combining comedy and startling violence, Ordell puts an errant associate (Chris Tucker), who has violated his parole, in his car’s trunk, drives away, and coldly shoots him at a vacant lot.

Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s first film about how people really connect to each other through verbal communication–with no violence.  That the persona are all middle-aged figures, trying to cope with their declining faculties and limited opportunities, is all the more remarkable, considering they are conceived by young and hip director.  Problem is, there is too much “small talk,” and not enough sharp or witty dialogue in service of engaging plot.  The film’s quiet mood is both its strength and weakness.

The film is not really about a femme fatale trying to outsmart the cops or the crooks. It’s about her relationship with a beat-up old guy, who falls for her, risks his life to help her, and asks nothing in return. Some critics complained that there is not enough knowledge of Jackie’s past–but what gives Jackie power as a character is precisely this lack of information, the fact that the audience’s only cues derive from her immediate behavior.

Though suffering from lack of dramatic excitement, the picture offers compensations in its imaginative casting and performances. Holding that there are no small or insignificant sequences, Tarantino endows each of the film’s longeurs with humor, color, and observation. And there’s an element of surprise in the mature romance between two unlikely partners, the bail bondsman and Jackie, both of whom at midlife crossroads, which provides a quiet emotional undercurrent.

As in every Tarantino movie, there are explicit references and tributes, here in the form of a sustained close-up of Jackie driving in her car at the end of the movie, which recalls the final celebrated shot of Garbo at the bow of a ship in “Queen Christina.”