Sorry to disappoint those who longed to see Quentin Tarantino fall on his famously flashy ass, but the overlong, overindulgent Jackie Brown – the Q man's first feature as a writer and director since Pulp Fiction, in 1994 – scores a knockout just the same. Loaded with action, laughs, smart dialogue and potent performances, Jackie Brown is most memorable for its unexpected feeling. Tarantino adapts Elmore Leonard's 1992 crime novel, Rum Punch, without losing the author's compassion for compromised characters who defy the reduced options that come with age.
What's this – the graying of Reservoir Dogs, raunch tinged with rue? A little bit. But before you get medieval on Tarantino's ass, consider the insinuating premise: Jackie Burke, the book's white stewardess, is now Jackie Brown and played by that icon of '70s blaxploitation films, Pam Grier (Coffy, Foxy Brown, Sheba Baby). Tarantino was just 10 years old back in 1973 when Grier, now 48, played Coffy, a nurse at war with the drug lords who hooked her 11-year-old sister on smack. Coffy seduces one drooling pusher by letting her breasts slip alluringly from her blouse; she then blows his head off with a shotgun.
Moments like these clearly had a profound effect on young Quentin. His affection for Grier, and the maverick spirit she brought to films most critics wrote off as gory junk, fill every frame. Jackie is still a looker, but a low-paying job flying shuttles between Los Angeles and Mexico has removed some of her sparkle. Things turn for the worse when the LAPD and ATF agent Ray Nicolet (a twitchy Michael Keaton) arrest Jackie for smuggling in money and a bag of cocaine for gunrunner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson).
And where is Ordell when his courier is facing prison? He's in the apartment of stoner Melanie Ralston (Bridget Fonda), a past-her-prime surfer girl who gives Ordell attitude for showing chicks-with-guns videos to ex-con Louis Gara (Robert De Niro). Of the virtues of the AK-47, Ordell tells dim-bulb Louis, "When you absolutely, positively gotta kill every muthafucker in the room, accept no substitute." Ordell won't accept Jackie sitting in jail, so he arranges for bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) to spring her. That way Ordell can kill Jackie before she rats on him to the feds to save her ass.
Tarantino lets these characters play out their destinies against an atmosphere of seductive B-movie sleaze that is deftly evoked in the cinematography of Guillermo Navaro. Jackson is perfection, combining charm and menace with uncanny brilliance. And Fonda keeps springing surprises. Playing bad liberates her. Tarantino, the screen's leading foot fetishist since the death of Luis Buñuel, has Melanie wiggle her toes to entice Louis. "Wanna fuck?" she asks. "Sure," he says, Three Minutes Later, a title card announces, and they're done. De Niro's performance is one finely calibrated slow burn as Louis withers under Melanie's sarcasm. "How'd you ever rob a bank, Lou- is? " she says, putting a hiss in that final syllable each time she says his name, which causes Lou- is to blow.
The glory of the film resides in the unlikely romance between Jackie and Max. He hears music when he first sees her – it's '70s soul, of course. And she introduces him to the Delfonics. "How do you feel about getting old?" Jackie asks Max, who admits he bought a wig when his hair started to fall out. "My ass ain't the same," Jackie grudgingly confesses. "Bigger?" asks Max, smiling. "Nothin' wrong with that."
Forster (Medium Cool, TV's Banyon) broke into movies in 1967 as an object of lust for both Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando in Reflections in a Golden Eye. Now, at 56, he brings off a personal triumph as a hard case stirring long-buried emotions. Is Jackie using Max in an elaborate scheme to steal $500,000 from Ordell – Tarantino stages the sting in a shopping mall and milks the money exchange for maximum suspense – or is it true love? Max is afraid to look too closely, which gives Forster's scenes with Grier a heartbreaking intensity.
And Grier, a babe for the ages, is a sensation. Jackie can press a gun to Ordell's dick and stare down a cop with the same icy cool. "Are you afraid of me?" Jackie asks Max. "A little bit," he answers. Jackie is scared, too. Driving toward a new life she can't define, Jackie sings along with Bobby Womack's "Across 110th Street" on the car radio. It's a '70s song about busting out of ghettos. Tarantino knows that drill. In this transitional film, he acknowledges his debt to the elegant crime fiction of Elmore Leonard and the crude vitality of blaxploitation. For Tarantino and his protagonist, Jackie Brown crackles with the fear and exhilaration of moving on.
Among the other holiday films hustling your box-office bucks, The Postman should be labeled Return to Sender. The sender being director-producer-star Kevin Costner, who botches up big time with a post-apocalyptic epic whose value is mostly camp. Costner's no-name drifter travels around the decimated Pacific Northwest – Dirtworld? – acting Shakespeare (you heard me), dodging a rogue army led by the evil General Bethlehem (Will Patton) and kindly impregnating a young bride (newcomer Olivia Williams) because her husband's semen went bad. Costner's semen is fine, thank you, as befits a self-adoring hero who finds a dead postman, steals his uniform and heals a nation's wounds by delivering letters of hope on horseback. In his first directing stint since winning a 1990 Oscar for Dances With Wolves, Costner aims for something monumental and achieves something catastrophically cuckoo.
If you want to see a director-producer-star hit the mark in all departments – throw in writer, too – check out Robert Duvall in The Apostle, in which the veteran actor plays Sonny Dewey, a Pentecostal preacher from Texas. After the skirt-chasing Sonny reacts to his cheating wife (a very fine Farrah Fawcett) by killing her lover, he takes to the hills, builds a new church in a Louisiana bayou and leads his mostly black congregation in a "Holy Ghost explosion." Sonny may be a sinner, but his faith is never in question. Duvall is a blazing wonder in a film that ranks with the year's best.
Afterglow, a hypnotic twist on love and loss, written and directed by the ever-provocative Alan Rudolph, is sparked by the sublime Julie Christie. She plays Phyllis, a B-movie star who gave up her career to settle in Canada in a sexless marriage with Lucky (Nick Nolte), a contractor with a penchant for screwing female clients on more than the price. His latest conquest is Marianne (Lara Flynn Boyle), whose workaholic husband ( Jonny Lee Miller) is too busy to impregnate her; Lucky isn't. Nolte acts with force, but this ardent film belongs to Christie, who movingly illuminates the dark secrets of her character. Christie defines "class act."
As Good As It Gets is not as good as all that, but it is hugely entertaining thanks to the artful way writer-director James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News) can spin sitcom dross into comic gold. Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) is a primo bastard, a Manhattan-based romance novelist who rarely comes out of his apartment except to verbally bash blacks, gays and Jews, and to eat at a local cafe with the one waitress, Carol (Helen Hunt), who will put up with his obsessive-compulsive habits. Melvin throws out soap after one use, refuses to walk on cracks and hates distractions, such as the yapping dog of his gay neighbor Simon (Greg Kinnear). In the opener, Melvin throws the mutt, Verdell, down a garbage chute. The cute dog lives, and badass Melvin reforms through Simon's friendship and Carol's highly improbable love.
Yeah, it's sappy, but the compensations are many. Nicholson is in top form – nobody is better at lacing laughs with malice. Kinnear shines by dodging caricature in favor of sweetness. And Hunt (TV's Mad About You ), coming into her own onscreen, deserves a shot at an Oscar. Just watch as Carol reads a thank-you letter to a cringing Melvin – he helped her asthmatic son get medical care. Hunt builds the scene into a tour de force. Her performance is hilarious and heartfelt. At its best, so is the movie.
Oscar and Lucinda, from Peter Carey's acclaimed Australian novel, fuses humor and pain into an enthralling romantic fable about faith, love and other games of chance. As oddball Oscar, a 19th-century clergyman whose need to gamble gets him defrocked, Ralph Fiennes is bracingly magnetic. Oscar loves Lucinda (the gifted Cate Blanchett), an heiress with her own risky business – she owns a glass factory. Fiennes, antic in contrast to his studied cool in The English Patient, makes Oscar fiercely touching as he tries to deliver a fragile glass church through the wilderness. Director Gillian Armstrong can't stop the literary symbols from clanking, but Fiennes and Blanchett cast a spell.
Wag the Dog, besides being outrageous fun, is also a groundbreaker. Stars Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro and Anne Heche have teamed with an A-list director, Barry Levinson, to work for peanuts on a political satire with a whip-smart script by David Mamet and Hilary Henkin. The film was shot in 29 days on a $15 million budget, which means risks can be taken and hit-and-miss jokes are no big deal. De Niro, never as wittily relaxed, plays Conrad Brean, the spin doctor brought in when the president feels up a Firefly girl 11 days before the election. Conrad and aide Winifred Ames (a savvy Heche) turn to Hollywood in the person of Stanley Motss (Hoffman), a producer who creates a fake war with Albania to distract voters. No fair tattling more, except to say that Hoffman hasn't been this acutely hilarious since Tootsie, and the lost art of inventiveness is again stirring the stagnant waters of the mainstream.
The Boxer, a haunting love story set against Ireland's troubles, reunites Daniel Day-Lewis with director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In the Name of the Father). Day-Lewis plays Danny, a Belfast boxer and IRA man out of prison after 14 years. Danny's girl, Maggie (Emily Watson), has since married his best friend and had a son. Maggie still loves Danny, but her husband is now in jail and her IRA-leader dad, Joe (Brian Cox), enforces fidelity. The script, by Sheridan and Terry George, is about codes. Danny's boxing adheres to a code of honor he can't find outside the ring. Maggie's code demands loyalty to a husband she has never loved. Schematic? You bet. But Day-Lewis and Watson, in her first role since Breaking the Waves, ignite so combustibly that you can't fail to be moved.
Kundun details the early years of the 14th Dalai Lama. How does director Martin Scorsese, the cinema's raging bull, tell the story of Tibet's spiritual leader? Easy answer. With the same attention to detail, nuance and emotion that marks all his work, be it the brutal worlds of Mean Streets and The Last Temptation of Christ or the inner turmoil of The Age of Innocence. After the Chinese invasion, the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, but Kundun shuns a traditional plot. Using a Tibetan cast – no Brad Pitt in sight – Scorsese takes us into the head of the child and the man. Four actors play the Dalai Lama at different ages. You'll need to adjust to the pacing, since the script by Melissa Mathison (E.T.) has no narrative thrust. Yet the images, true visions of light in the cinematography of Roger Deakins, complemented by the thrilling score of Philip Glass, add up to a transcendent story of faith. Scorsese's brave experiment rewards the demands it makes. The result is an amazement, a film of beauty and consequence.