Unlikely as it sounds, "Jackie Brown" is Quentin Tarantino's idea of a nice film. Not that it's everyone's idea of nice: This hotbed of industrial-strength profanity isn't headed for the Disney Channel any time soon. But motivating the writer-director here is not his usual impulse toward outrageousness but what has to be called a sweet desire to pay tribute to two key influences in his creative life, writer Elmore Leonard and star Pam Grier.
This is Tarantino's first film since "Pulp Fiction" won the Palme d'Or at Cannes 3 1/2 years ago, a long enough time for numerous imitators to have clogged cinemas worldwide with rip-offs of his cascading blood and brain matter style.
However, those expecting Tarantino to pick up where he left off will be disappointed in "Jackie Brown." Instead of rearranging audience's sensibilities, he's taken the typically twisty plot of Leonard's "Rum Punch" and run it through his personal Mixmaster. The result is a raunchy doodle, a leisurely and easygoing diversion that goes down easy enough but is far from compelling.
A fan of Leonard for years, Tarantino also realized that by changing the race of "Rum Punch's" female protagonist he could also turn this film into a tribute to Grier. For those with short memories, she's the no-nonsense star of over-the-top 1970s blaxploitation films like "Coffy," "Foxy Brown" and "Sheba Baby" the director is an unabashed fan of.
This decision gives "Jackie Brown" a poignant feeling at times, especially in a closing close-up of Grier's face that is in an unnerving way reminiscent of the celebrated shot of Garbo at the end of "Queen Christina." But tribute is a hard act for someone with Tarantino's sensibility to master, and "Jackie Brown" casts doubt on whether he's the the right director to make "nice" an involving quality.
For one thing, at 2 hours and 40 minutes, "Jackie Brown" plainly takes longer than it should to unfold. Along with that too-leisurely pace goes a lack of immediacy, a sense that this is the kind of thing that Tarantino not only might have done in his sleep but in fact has.
Helping keep people awake is Tarantino's trademark wall-to-wall profanity, which can be spellbinding but this time around is so dependent on casual usage of the N-word that fellow writer-director Spike Lee was moved to complain publicly about it.
Most of the hard talk comes from Samuel L. Jackson as Ordell Robbie, introduced in an apartment in Hermosa Beach showing a video called "Chicks 'n' Guns" to the very different Louis Gara and Melanie Ralston.
Melanie (Bridget Fonda) is Ordell's girlfriend, a kittenish surf bunny whose ambition doesn't seem to extend past getting high and watching TV. Louis (Robert De Niro) is an old pal of Ordell's who's just gotten out of prison and is looking for a situation.
Ordell himself is a gun dealer, proud of his merchandise ("the AK-47, when you absolutely positively got to kill every [expletive] in the room") but ruthless and menacing to his employees when he needs to be.
One of those workers is Jackie Brown (Grier), a stewardess with a fly-by-night airline that shuttles between L.A. and Mexico. The government, in the person of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent Ray Nicolette (Michael Keaton), puts pressure on her to turn Ordell in. But Jackie, aided by been-around bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) would rather play both sides against each other and get a crack at liberating Ordell's half-million-dollar stash.
Though it's Jackson who provides whatever energy "Jackie Brown" can manage, it is a treat to see Grier, who has the intimidating physicality of a sexy linebacker, be "too cool for school" and face down any troubles the script throws her way.
While Leonard's original novel was set in the Miami area, Tarantino moved it to L.A., which means lines about Roscoe's Chicken & Waffles and key scenes are set in the Del Amo Fashion Center. Tarantino feels at home in the South Bay, maybe too much so. He's relaxed so much he hasn't given this film more than attitude, and even attitude can wear thin after a while.
* MPAA rating: R for strong language, some violence, drug use and sexuality. Times guidelines: wall-to-wall profanity and violence that is tame by Tarantino's standards.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Pam Grier: Jackie Brown
Samuel L. Jackson: Ordell Robbie
Robert Forster: Max Cherry
Bridget Fonda: Melanie Ralston
Michael Keaton: Ray Nicolette
Robert De Niro: Louis Gara
A Band Apart production, released by Miramax Films. Writer-director Quentin Tarantino. Producer Lawrence Bender. Based on the book "Rum Punch" by Elmore Leonard. Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro. Editor Sally Menke. Costumes Mary Claire Hannan. Production design David Wasco. Art director Daniel Bradford. Set decorator Sandy Reynolds-Wasco. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.
* Opens Thursday in general release throughout Southern California.