Jackie O!
Director Quentin Tarantino's new movie is disturbing, edgy and thoroughly self-aware.

With Pam Grier, Robert DeNiro, Samuel L. Jackson
Based on a Novel by Elmore Leonard
Screeplay and Direction by Quentin Tarantino

IN JACKIE BROWN, Quentin Tarantino finally makes the movie that everyone seems to believe he made a few years ago with Pulp Fiction. Set in the 1990s, but weaving in and out of a sophisticated and funny 1970s pop-cult sensibility, Jackie Brown balances so many elements that it's a miracle it all makes sense. The hyper-active boy director has apparently grown a few gray hairs: His movie has a romantic malaise that transcends the flashiness of his last few crime dramas, yet it's still disturbing, edgy and thoroughly self-aware.

Jackie Brown revolves around some Los Angelenos who are mostly on the wrong side of the law. Ordell Robbie (a monumentally intense Samuel L. Jackson) is a street-wise black guy who sells AK-47s to brothers, who covet the weapons because they see them on television. He shares a bungalow with Melanie (Bridget Fonda), a sullen blonde whose sole ambition is to watch TV and get stoned. His sluggish ex-con buddy Louis (Robert DeNiro, brilliantly dry) seems content to sit on Ordell's couch watching whatever Melanie has on--usually B-movies from the '70s with out-of-synch dialogue.

Enter Jackie Brown (Pam Grier), a 44-year-old career flight attendant who works for a cheesy Mexican airline. Jackie smuggles Ordell's dirty money from Mexico, but when an aggressive federal agent (Michael Keaton) catches her, she agrees to help the feds trap Ordell. Jackie, however, has bigger plans: With the help of Ray (Robert Forster), a veteran bail bondsman who is pathetically smitten with her, she devises a clockwork plan to outwit them all and walk off with the cash.

Tarantino adapted Jackie Brown from Elmore Leonard's comic novel RumPunch, changing Jackie's race so he could hire Grier and imitate the mood of black urban B-movies from the 1970s. It's brutally modern and cozily retro, with a look that resembles a faded print of an old TV detective show--a little grainy, with washed-out colors, and almost none of Tarantino's visual panache.

The Motown soundtrack is a running joke that's perfectly suited to the characters. (One brief scene features a black woman who stuffs herself into a blue sequined dress and sings "Baby Love.")Even the movie's opening titles make you feel like you're watching Mannix or Barnaby Jones.

Tarantino cast Grier--a '70s demi-star in "blaxploitation" flicks like Foxy Brown, Coffy and Black Mama, White Mama--because he'd long admired her sassy Afro-feminist image. She gives a cool introspective performance in Jackie Brown,and her engulfing brown hair goes through a half-dozen styles (so does Jackson's for that matter).

Her character is fascinating: A confident-cum-weary middle-aged black woman who walks both sides of the line; looks foxy in a business suit or a snug red mini-dress; and doesn't own CDs because she has so much invested in vinyl. She's part of a gallery of loners, losers, killers, dopers and hopeless romantics who occupy a world of duplicity between friends and betrayers, past and present, movies and reality.

Jackie Brown ispaced more slowly than Tarantino's other movies, and its characters talk about things you'd expect--like guns and money--instead of more stylized things, like philosophy or a Royale with cheese. Tarantino packs his script with hilarious vulgarity and movie in-jokes--for example, real telephone numbers, instead of ones that begin with 555, the universal movie phone number prefix. Still, there's a palpable melancholy to much of it, though Tarantino forbids you to take it seriously for too long because he's so busy routing popular culture, making you laugh, or wondering what will happen next.