Quentin Tarantino made Jackie Brown after Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction and the segment in Four Rooms in which a guy got his finger chopped off. At 34, Tarantino had become a rock-star director for his inimitable dialogue, ingenious plotting and fondness for shocking violence. And then he surprised everyone by making a movie about two people confronting middle age and realizing they haven't done too much with their lives, and their future is less than bright.
That's a strange way to summarize Jackie Brown, which is based on Elmore Leonard's Rum Punch, is populated with colorful characters and has a nearly hour-long sequence in which the same event is re-enacted from three different points of view. There is also a smattering of violence, although not nearly as much as in Tarantino's previous work (one murder in particular, however, makes you gasp and laugh out loud at the same time: I've never seen anything like it in another film.)
But Jackie Brown (which looks outstanding on Blu-ray) is populated by characters who are richer and more deeply written than those in any other Tarantino film. Think about Bridget Fonda's perpetually suntanned sex bunny and Robert De Niro's none-too-bright ex-con: Their scenes together, in which they smoke pot out of bongs and talk about nothing, are so beautifully directed that you think of them as people you knew, not impossibly cool movie characters like John Travolta and Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction.
Samuel L. Jackson has always fared better than anyone with Tarantino's dialogue, but his portrayal of a murderous gun runner in the film doesn't have any cartoonish edges or a single moment where he behaves like a movie bad guy. He's just a businessman trying to keep his scheme afloat: If he has to kill the occasional person to do that, then so be it (in order to avoid glamorizing Jackson's villain even the slightest bit, Tarantino films one of his murder with a crane shot at a far distance, so you can't really see what's going on). And Michael Keaton has rarely been more alive and compelling than as the ATF agent eager to nab Jackson. The character could have been just another cop, but Keaton gives him heart and dimension: You can tell he's a genuinely good man, in both heart and spirit.
The heart of Jackie Brown, of course, belongs to Pam Grier, who has never been better or more beautiful. Grier makes a fantastic entrance walking horizontally across the screen (a shot repeated later in the film at a critical juncture) as Across 110th Street blasts on the soundtrack. Tarantino, who has always made great use of pop music in his films, has rarely done it better than he does here, using songs to define characters. Just from our first look at her, we know Jackie is an independent, resourceful woman who is a natural-born survivor: She's a 44 year-old with a conviction record, she's stuck at a dead-end job as a stewardess for a rinky-dink airline making $13,000 a year, but she makes do with what she has - and when she finds herself in an impossible situation that will either send her back to prison or get her murdered, she figures out a way to outwit everyone and come up a winner.
Grier's relationship with Robert Forster, a bail bondsman who is 56 but let life opportunities pass him by - romantic and otherwise - is Tarantino's first attempt at a genuine love story, and it's a remarkable mature and touching success. You want to see these two end up together, but Jackie Brown is street-wise enough to know that life doesn't always have happy endings. The fact that these two loners meet at all - and recognize their mutual interest in each other - is enough to give them hope to go on.
I've watched Jackie Brown more times than any other of Tarantino movies (including Inglourious Basterds, which I now believe is his masterpiece) not for its pretzel of a plot or for that climactic master class in editing, but because I simply love spending time with these flawed, all-too-human characters, who are trying, like all of us, to do our jobs and live as happy a life as possible. The fact they don't all succeed - or succeed in a compromised way - is part of the beauty of the film. Tarantino has never again made a movie this mature or realistic, but he doesn't need to. How could he possibly top this one?
Jackie Brown will be released on Blu-ray on Oct. 4.