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Tarantino Knows "Jack"

Blast San Francisco Bureau

A warning to fans of Quentin Tarantino and Elmore Leonard: "Jackie Brown" is not quite as strong as "Pulp Fiction" or "Reservoir Dogs" and not quite as funny as "Get Shorty." That out the way, "Jackie" is well-crafted crime caper/character study that brings Tarantino's filmmaking to a new level.

Based on Leonard's 1995 bestseller "Rum Punch," this new film pits a variety of shady characters all zeroing in on a pot of dirty money -- even if it means pitting ally against ally. Here, trust and suspicion occupy the same shadows.

The film centers on a black, middle-aged flight attendant, the title character played by '70s blaxploitation star Pam Grier. In order to supplement her low-income job with Cabo Airlines, Jackie smuggles cash from Mexico into L.A. for gunrunner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson). But after getting busted with cash and coke at the airport, Jackie is forced to cooperate with ATF agent Ray Nicolette (Mr. Batman, Michael Keaton) and L.A. cop Mark Dargus (Michael Bowen) to help collar Robbie.

With the help of a tired, aging bail bondsman named Max Cherry (Robert Forster), Jackie comes up with a plan to outsmart the crooks and cops and walk away with half a million in cash. The success of the plot is slightly complicated when Ordell's crew, including mumbling ex-con Louis (Robert, he of The Niro clan) and potheaded, blond, beach bunny Melanie (Bridget), are added to the pot.

The first noticeable departure from Tarantino's earlier films is "Jackie's" slower pace. The thrust of the complicated plot is advanced mostly through dialogue not action on-screen (so pay attention!). But where some may find the pace to be the film's weakness, others may find Tarantino's newest area of growth as a filmmaker. The bulk of the film is devoted to showing us who Jackie is, which is clear from the very beginning -- she's an aging lady scraping the bottom to get by and she's tired of having to kickstart her life over and over again. Thus, she comes up with the scheme to escape all that.

Tarantino's attempt at rendering this character study is noble if not entirely satisfying. Grier is surprisingly strong and at times you sense she was born for this role. No wonder Tarantino rewrote the book specifically with her in mind.

A lot of focus is also drawn to Max, who like Jackie leads a melancholy life. He too, we sense, needs a big kick in the butt, some excitement, something. And Jackie entering his life provides this. In many ways, Max and Jackie enjoy an understated romance as they team up in the plot to get the money. Tarantino uses the soulful sounds of the Delfonics to underscore Max's newfound escape from his dreary day-to-day existence.

The opposing force in this equation is the smooth Ordell, played with the usual magnificence by Jackson. Even while exuding cool and chumminess, Ordell is also creepy, scummy and controlling, ever more telling in his piercing gaze or in the cold way he dispenses death to a suborinate. In Ordell, Tarantino gives moviegoers another memorable, fully realized criminal low-life.

Supporting roles by De Niro and Keaton do the job without overwhelming the screen.

Moviegoers may be misled into thinking the inclusion of '70s pop icons such as Grier and soul/funk music that "Jackie" is a blaxploitation revival of sorts. It's not. There's lots of guns and lots of soul but the focus is mostly on Jackie's plight.

The usual plate of Tarantino treats are in the mix here: the fractured narrative structure found in "Dogs" and "Pulp" is employed here though not as efffectively. The director's fine use of salty street language gives the dialogue some punchy realism, much as it did in "Dogs." Again, the L.A. landscape is not shown just as glitz and glamour but as a sprawling chain of cheap coffee shops; this backdrop works well in this story of a woman struggling to make ends meet. The gunworks this time is underplayed compared to other Tarantino flicks, although there is an amusing scene where Ordell and Louis enjoy a "Chicks Who Love Guns" video.

If comparison's are to be made, "Jackie" lacks the bite of "Dogs" and the juiciness of "Pulp," opting instead for a more intimate focus on a small circle of characters. Compared to the last Leonard book adapted into a film, "Get Shorty" is funnier and has more of a snap to it. Still, "Jackie" proves that Tarantino has real talent as a director, that, given the right script, he can render strong character studies.