Jackie Brown: the glorious last stop before Quentin Tarantino's arrested adolescence 

Am I the only one who misses the Quentin Tarantino of the ‘90s? The one who looked like he had a firm grip on reality?

Back in his prime as America’s most audacious young auteur, Tarantino took genre pictures and instilled them with a realistic, grounded, pop culture-savvy attitude. The reason everyone went gaga for Pulp Fiction wasn't just that it was an epic crime saga full of jaw-dropping twists and violent sucker punches, but that the co-writer-director had left in and fleshed out the downtime surrounding them — and stocked it with the most entertaining, relatable, unusually sympathetic bunch of lowlifes you ever wanted to get down-and-dirty with.

These days, the egocentric Tarantino doesn’t make movies so much as he makes movie mash-ups. Even the most diehard Tarantino fan can’t deny that his recent collection of movies (especially his overpraised latest, Inglourious Basterds) are stylishly vacuous, insanely orchestrated, annoyingly meta clusterfucks, filled with indiscriminately jumbled ideas, preposterously conceived characters and an avalanche of movie references designed to keep self-congratulating fanboys distracted from his fatal lack of originality.

So it's great to be reminded of Tarantino’s glory days, represented midnight this Friday and Saturday at The Belcourt by his 1997 film Jackie Brown. His hugely anticipated (and on arrival, underappreciated) follow-up to Pulp Fiction was a respectful yet distinctive adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel Rum Punch. This was back when the success of the film version of Leonard's Get Shorty — not to mention then-hot Tarantino noting how Leonard was an obvious influence in his films — made everyone in Hollywood start optioning Leonard’s novels for big-screen adaptation. If Steven Soderbergh’s aptly titled Out of Sight hadn’t come out the following year, Jackie Brown would have been the best Leonard adaptation ever filmed.

Yet it’s quickly evident that Jackie Brown is more a tribute to its star, Pam Grier, than to Leonard’s storytelling. Just as he reacquainted audiences and movie execs with John Travolta’s cool charisma by casting him in Pulp Fiction, Tarantino used the title role to remind everyone of the former blaxploitation queen’s awesomeness as a leading lady — and to give her the kind of acting showcase she'd rarely had. (She almost had a part in Pulp Fiction, in the role that ultimately went to Rosanna Arquette.) He certainly gives Grier one of the most entrancing entrances in movie history, having her literally glide through LAX on a motorized walkway like a damn near angelic vision of beauty, brains and strength.

That vision remains throughout the movie, as Grier’s middle-aged flight attendant (originally a white woman in the novel) hatches a scheme where she double-crosses both the authorities (led by forever fidgety Michael Keaton as a gung-ho ATF agent) and a murderous gun dealer (Samuel L. Jackson, at his slickest and most hilariously profane), in order to evade jail time and walk away with half a million dollars in cash. It's material with the makings of caper comedy, but Tarantino rightly saw in it a moving study of aging and facing a lifetime of narrowing options — and he knew exactly the actress who could give it the needed gravity while remaining credible as a gun-toting bad-ass. Although Grier was nominated for a Golden Globe, the fact that she didn’t get an Oscar nod for Best Actress shows up the Academy for the feeble-minded institution it is. (At least Robert Forster, another unjustly overlooked cult favorite, got a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor nomination as the smitten bail bondsman who aids in her scheme.)

Sadly, Jackie Brown remains the last mature film its maker has done. In it Tarantino employed crime-movie archetypes to deal with grown-ups and their mundane real-world problems, instead of retreating from the latter to the former. And he handled it well, creating the sort of fascinating, sophisticated adult cinema the brilliant manchild has shied away from this whole past decade — exemplified by the warmly human give-and-take between fanboy faves Grier and Forster. Quentin Tarantino is undoubtedly a filmmaking savant — but as Jackie Brown demonstrates so poignantly, he would be capable of so much more if he just grew the fuck up.


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