The Big Picture: Tarantino wises up

A middle-aged man and woman sit at a kitchen table on a drab morning, drinking coffee and discussing their feelings about impending old age. She is in her dressing gown; he has a face like an unmade bed. The camera observes from a reverent distance, while a ripple of music plays in the background. No, this is not Tokyo Story. It is one of the best scenes from the new film by Quentin Tarantino. Perhaps you will need to read that sentence again. I'll give you a moment.

Jackie Brown is a warm and wonderful movie, though you might hesitate before recommending it to anyone who can quote more than three lines of dialogue from Pulp Fiction - it's more like a balm to Tarantino's critics than his fans. Although he has previously directed just two pictures (as well as scripting three others), his work has quickly come to define a very specific style of film-making - jumpy, fast-talking, incestuous.

The crossover points between Jackie Brown and Tarantino's earlier movies are scarce enough to be negligible. The role of Jackie, a flight attendant who delivers drugs and dough for the gun-runner Ordell (Samuel L Jackson), is taken by Pam Grier. A star of the 1970s black action thrillers known as Blaxploitation films, Grier's name cropped up when the crooks of Reservoir Dogs were sifting through their pop culture memories. Apart from that, you can leave your Tarantino checklist at home. The picture makes a virtue of its scuzzy shopping-mall blandness, and even violence is relegated to the status of `noises off'. In Reservoir Dogs Tarantino famously pulled away from a scene of torture, but in Jackie Brown the camera is not so conspicuous. Death happens in the distance, or out of the frame altogether.

It's not only Tarantino's approach to screen violence that has changed. Here and there you are alerted to stylised turns of phrase, such as Ordell remarking that Jackie is "too cool for school" or reflecting that a man he has shot was "an employee I had to let go", but most of these are true to the characters involved. Perhaps the taut narrative demands of the source material, Elmore Leonard's coiled novel Rum Punch, have disciplined Tarantino. Perhaps he fitted his PC with a program which automatically deleted from the script any monologues that could be quoted in pubs.

The most significant alteration that Tarantino has made to Leonard's text is to change the heroine from white Jackie Burke to black Jackie Brown, introducing a frisson of racial tension which manifests itself in some very subtle ways. When Jackie is arrested after $50,000 and a sachet of cocaine are found in her possession, the white FBI agent politely but pointedly reminds her that, as a 44-year-old black women with grim career prospects, she has no option other than to strike a deal. If she were younger, whiter or male, the prognosis would be healthier; she has been compromised by age, race and gender.

When Ordell wanders into the office of the white bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) to fix Jackie's bail, he notices a photograph on the wall: it's Max with a stocky black colleague, Winston. Ordell asks if Max and Winston are tight. Max says they are. "But you're still his boss?", Ordell persists. "And I bet it was your idea to take that picture." It's bold and even a little foolhardy of a white film-maker who draws so heavily on black culture to be quite so critical of the surreptitious manipulation of blacks by whites.

This aspect of Jackie Brown might be more problematic if the distinctions between the film's communities weren't so fluid. Ordell might be alert to white strategies but he's not above employing subterfuge himself. Arriving at Jackie's house intending to kill her, he is surprised by her quick- wittedness, and blames the FBI for making her paranoid: "They've turned black against black!" Even Ordell's multi-purpose word "nigger" loses its connotations of racial kinship when applied to his white accomplice Louis (Robert De Niro). Brotherhood has broken down, but sisterhood isn't exactly thriving either. During the film's centrepiece, a complicated sting operation in which a bag of cash is dropped off by Jackie and collected by Ordell's gofer Melanie (Bridget Fonda), Jackie does something unexpected. She slips a wad of notes to Melanie, whispering "What did Ordell ever do for us?" When it is revealed that this apparently generous gesture was calculated to corroborate a story about Melanie dipping her hand in the cookie jar, the audience is forced to reassess its opinion of Jackie. Hard-nosed avenger or gender traitor?

While it rejects any sense of racial or sexual loyalties, the picture ultimately bows to love. The touchingly unforced relationship between Max and Jackie cheerfully violates most of Hollywood's commandments regarding screen romance, most notably "Thou shalt not show physical attraction beyond the 16-35 age bracket, unless thou playest it for laughs".

Jackie Brown may feel overlong, but I can't see how it could be cut without diminishing the film's luxurious characterisation. A ruthless editor would have excised the scene where Max stops by a record store to buy a tape of Jackie's favourite band, the Delfonics, but we'd lose our sense of what makes Max tick. The detail has the zest of truth - dip into your own record collection and you'll find a significant proportion of the albums there were purchased to bridge the gap between your tastes and those of someone loved or admired by you. It's an unexpected bonus that when Ordell gets to drive Max's car, he finds the Delfonics tape in the stereo. "You like these?", he asks, surprised. "They're pretty good", says Max, cool as Philly soul. The racial boundaries shift again.

Samuel L. Jackson brings a tinge of unpredictable menace to Ordell - he's not at all the chump that his stringy Fu Manchu beard would suggest. And throughout the cast there are surprises that give you a lift, including De Niro, whose place in the film doesn't make sense until he has to perform an act of impulsive violence, and then you realise that he's one of the few actors who could convince as a human timebomb.

What's most startling about Jackie Brown is that a director who has exhibited so few reference points outside of cinema should be responsible for a film that feels so wise, so lived-in. When Jackie tells Max, "I'm more scared of having to start my life again than I am of Ordell", it's as though it has just dawned on Tarantino that even people who never fool around with gangster's molls or botch jewellery heists still get frightened and desperate. His work is the better for that realisation.

RYAN GILBEY'S TOP 5

1 Jackie Brown

2 As Good As It Gets

3 Gattaca

4 The Man in the Iron Mask

5 The River

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