First things first : Jackie Brown is nowhere near as entertaining as Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. It's also the best indication that Quentin Tarantino is a director who's here to stay and puts the lie to every criticism that Tarantino is a one-trick pony. Jackie Brown is, paradoxically, both more laid-back and more ambitious than Pulp Fiction. It has a slower tempo and has nowhere near as complex a narrative strategy; on the other hand, it tries to juggle a fairly complicated scam plot with a low-key character study, something that's quite new to the Tarantino ouvrue. There's also a surprisingly low amount of Tarantino-chat; with the exception of the black market gundealer Ordell's discussion on the merits of the AK-47, there's very little that resembles the Madonna and Quarter Pounder discussions of his previous work.
Tarantino's eye for (relatively) untapped talent continues to serve him well : Pam Grier and Robert Forster both turn in superlative performances. Forster (who I've never seen before) is a revelation. Rarely do black actresses get a role this meaty, and Grier makes the most of it. She has the sass and determination of the Grier of the 70's, but it's revealed here as the defensive facade of a normal woman who is (quite rightly) scared shitless of the situation she's in, but determined to get her way out. Forster is even more magnificent - his portrayal of Max Cherry combines the unspoken moral authority of a late John Wayne performance with a sad world-weary gentleness. We know instantly these two are made for each other; they just need the rest of the film to realize it. Their sort-of romance is the high point of the movie, scored to the the Delfonics' "Heart and Soul" -- who would have taken the Quentinssential hipster for a middle aged romantic?
If only the other characters were half as interesting as Max and Jackie. Samuel L. Jackson is pretty much coasting as Ordell -- he's done this character so often, the appeal is beginning to wear thin. It doesn't help he has the most distracting beard in cinematic history. (And then there's the irritating overuse of the n-word.) Ordell's cronies Melanie (Bridget Fonda) and Louis (Robert DeNiro) are dull -- every minute spent with them seems like a waste of time. They're not much different from the thugs of Tarantino's previous films, and they clash badly with the more realistic depiction of Max and Jackie.
Tarantino handles the plot with aplomb, showcasing the final money exchange from three different vantage points, which creates far more suspense than a more traditional telling would have. With the crafty cinematography of Francisco Guerrero and a extraordinarily well-chosen soundtrack, he creates a sense of timelessness -- ostentibly set in 1995, the film has a flat, 70's TV and cheap-film look, creating a convincingly retro air that evokes the seventies more subtly than The Ice Storm or Boogie Nights. Ultimately, Jackie Brown seems like a half-success. It's clearly a transition film, and the new style Tarantino employs here clashes badly with the remnants of his old style he clings to. But I'm looking forward to his next film - here's hoping he does something without a single gun in it.