Jackie Brown confirms two things we have always really known about Quentin Tarantino at his best (at his worst he is just unspeakable). One is that he is the most compulsively watchable filmmaker now working in America. He knows how to keep an audience riveted to the screen, and he knows how to tell a story. It is a joy to see the glory of Hollywood’s great days, the fast paced, plot-driven thriller, making something of a comeback under this prodigiously talented young man. The other thing we know about QT, however, is that he really hasn’t anything much to say. Along with his very great gifts, he has the very great failing that seems to go naturally with residence in Greater Los Angeles in the 1990s, which is a moral vacuum at the center of his soul. For the great old thrillers and films noirs to which he pays such elaborate homage always had a moral—often a puritanical—point of view. Tarantino has taken over many of their other characteristics without taking over that, which is what gives them their meaning and context. It is very sad. In place of morality, he has only attitude. Jackie Brown is a very cool movie, and it will certainly appeal to those who, having embraced the radical moral relativism of our time, aspire to nothing more than cool. But its utter lack of a moral sense ultimately makes it not only vicious but incoherent.
Taken from the novel, Rum Punch, by Elmore Leonard, the film tells the story of the eponymous Jackie (Pam Grier), a middle-aged, underpaid stewardess with a rinkydink airline shuttling back and forth between LAX and the Mexican beaches. She is apprehended by two cops, one of whom is an ATF man called Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton), as she tries to bring $50,000 of laundered money back into the country for a small-time arms dealer called Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). They make a deal with her: she delivers up Ordell to them and she gets off with probation and gets to keep her job; she doesn’t and she goes to jail, loses her job and has to start all over again, with a record, as an unattached woman in her mid-40s.
It seems an easy choice, but by this time we have seen Ordell already casually murder another associate whom the cops are leaning on and whom he, Ordell, describes as “not a doin’ time kind of guy.” Knowing that the guy will betray him up rather than do time, Ordell kills him before he has a chance. As soon as he bails out Jackie Brown, just as he had previously bailed out the dead man, we know that he is prepared to kill her as well. But she is smart enough to forestall him. The question is, as she makes separate and, naturally, incompatible deals with both Ordell and the feds, is she smart enough to save her own life, avoid jail and maybe get a little nest egg for herself out of playing them off against each other?
Well, any faithful movie-goer of today will have little difficulty in answering that question. But we also have to count into the mix the bail bondsman, Max Cherry (Robert Forster) who immediately takes a shine to Jackie and who (it appears) becomes her confederate in outwitting both Ordell and Nicolette. Will she find love into the bargain? Ah, that is not so easy to answer.
Tarantino has more success with his character development. Like his fellow Wunderkind, Paul Thomas Anderson (in Hard Eight and Boogie Nights), he is getting a lot of mileage out of the cinematic representation of stupidity. Ordell is shrewd in some ways but, as his girlfriend, Melanie (Bridget Fonda) points out, not smart. His henchman, Lewis (Robert DeNiro) is an ex-con who is very stupid indeed. There is a small post-modern joke in the fact that Lewis is still a recognizably DeNiroish sort of character, a sort of lobotomized Max Cady or Travis Bickel. Melanie is stupid in a different way. Deliberately stupid. She smokes marijuana all the time. When Ordell says to her, rather comically, that that stuff will rob her of her ambition, she replies that “My ambition is to get high and watch TV.” But the stupid policemen have become too much of a cliché. There’s been a slight change of plans, says Jackie as they attempt to set up Ordell: she’s only bringing in $50,000 instead of the half a mill as originally planned. Duh, OK, say the cops. “I sure hope you didn’t do something stupid, Jackie,” says Nicolette hilariously.
But the film keeps you watching right up to the end when it completely falls apart. The closing scenes are more like tableaux wrenched from their contexts and stripped of narrative continuity or plausibility. Why do the characters do what they do? We can only be sure that it has to end the way it does because the characters have to strike the cool poses of those old film noir heroes—the tough dame, the hard-boiled private dick, the confident, conscienceless villain. It is these poses chiefly which Tarantino has really absorbed in all those now-celebrated hours of watching old movies. Maybe he should have spent a little of the time reading about moral and religious thought.