In his famous essay on Casablanca, Umberto Eco contends that its genius lies in the wholesale plundering of clichés from every film genre under the sun. There's something in there for everyone. And, he suggests, had the director and writers chosen to limit the bandwidth of clichés, the film would have been a stinker.
Eco's wise words never rang truer now that Quentin Tarantino has delivered his long-awaited (but not by me) follow-up to Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. Here is a product that is less a film than a medical chart for a skittish child who compulsively strokes off to the flotsam of the '70s. It takes a special talent, indeed, to turn an Elmore Leonard novel into a smarmy, ponderous mess of warmed-over blaxploitation clichés and low-grade jive talking. And Tarantino has it.
Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) is a small-time gunrunner who uses a stewardess, Jackie Brown (Pam Grier), as his money-carrier. Alas, she's picked up by a couple of DEA agents (Michael Keaton, Michael Bowen) hot to trot for Ordell. The flatfeet turn her out in a sting on Ordell, but she hooks up with a bail bondsman, Max Cherry (Robert Forster), and they put together their own little sting on all concerned. Meanwhile, haggard con Louis (Robert De Niro) and mercenary surfer-girl Melanie (Bridget Fonda) sit around her apartment taking hits from a bong until their cue comes to provide the "comedic violence" signature shot that is clearly meant to save the film for Tarantino's devotees.
Tarantino, as usual, turns the cast into hopped-up ventriloquist dummies for his relentlessly tiresome dialogue, conspiciously overloaded with niceties such as "nigga," "motherfugga" and the anti-classic "good lookin' out." Sam Jackson, although always charismatic, seems more like a ghetto cartoon than a viable character. And Tarantino continues his missionary work in the leper colony of washed-up actors.
This time, it's Forster and Grier being offered the cure. But if anyone wondered why Pam Grier disappeared along with the blaxploitation genre that made her a minor star, spend 2 1/2 hours with her as she smiles sheepishly and struts around like a linebacker in a form-fitting, polyester stewardess getup.
The direction can only be described as dreadful, often parking the film in quicksand. The soundtrack of middling '70s pop is mixed far too high. The photography has film-school ineptitude and gratuitous cleverness to it, so much so that one wonders if Tarantino, genius of a generation, isn't just kidding around. Perhaps the whole thing is a put-on, a tongue-in-cheek homage to another decade's dreck.
This is sure to be a bomb, no matter what excuses are made. The Tarantino suicide watch begins.
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