With his first two features, Quentin Tarantino became Hollywood's most flamboyant young filmmaker, blending intricate storytelling with enough violence and vulgarity to strain the limits of the R rating.
Traditionalists blanched, but "Reservoir Dogs" made him a rising star and "Pulp Fiction" became an international superhit, earning Oscar nominations along the way. Tarantino was launched, with a vengeance.
His next move surprised friends and detractors alike: He took three years off, cooking up his next project at a leisurely pace and filling his extra time with acting jobs and minor directing stints.
Had he run out of ideas after only two movies? Or was he cleverly raising his market value by building a suspenseful interlude into his career? Or was he just plain tired, and successful enough to take a vacation whenever he felt like it?
Whatever the reasons for his hiatus, Tarantino has returned with a typically loud splash. His new picture, "Jackie Brown," resembles his earlier movies with its raunchy language, throwaway mayhem, and playful way of bending time and space into unpredictable new shapes.
Yet it's also different in significant respects. For one, it's not an original story but a faithful adaptation of a popular novel, "Rum Punch" by Elmore Leonard, who shares Tarantino's zest for seedy characters in sleazy situations. For another, it tells a single story from beginning to end, with only occasional detours into high-stepping cinema (split screens, instant replays) for its own sake.
Most unexpected of all, it's designed more to explore the vicissitudes of human nature than to shock its audience or show off the latest plot-scrambling techniques. It's hardly a gentle or subtle tale, but it sends a message that's as welcome as it is overdue: Hollywood's boy wonder is growing up.
The bright side of "Jackie Brown" begins with its casting. In a superb stroke, Tarantino has chosen Pam Grier to play the heroine, a 40-something flight attendant whose life is complicated by three men - an old boyfriend with a murderous streak, a burned-out bail bondsman looking for new experiences, and an ambitious cop who'll put her in jail if she doesn't help him collar the crook he's chasing.
Grier was a leading star of the "blaxploitation" craze in the early 1970s, sassing and shooting her way through low-budget melodramas with inner-city settings and African-American characters. Glowingly filmed by Guillermo Navarro's camera, she emerges today as a mature and savvy actress whose checkered career is paying lofty dividends at last.
Equally impressive is the amazing Samuel L. Jackson as Jackie's dangerous boyfriend, offsetting a mean personality with an ultracool style and the snazziest clothes of the season. The key role of the bail-bond broker is sensitively filled by Robert Forster, another half-forgotten face of the '70s revivified by Tarantino's time-machine casting.
Lending able support are Bridget Fonda as a dope-addled bimbo, Michael Keaton as the bright-eyed government agent, and Robert De Niro reaching against-all-odds brilliance as a character so depressingly dumb he's hardly in the movie at all.
Like any Tarantino picture to date, "Jackie Brown" contains enough offensive material to anger a wide variety of moviegoers. While the violence is restrained by "Pulp Fiction" standards, its very casualness makes some of it appear all the more shocking. Its sex is mercifully brief but outrageously raw. The language is grotesquely foul, and nonstop racial epithets will infuriate people who don't share Tarantino's idea that constant repetition may defuse the words' malignant power in contemporary culture.
"Jackie Brown" will also disappoint Tarantino fans who hoped for something even more bizarre and incendiary than his previous pictures. But this is the movie's best quality. Although the boy wonder still has much maturing to do, he's finally on his way to thoughtful use of his prodigious filmmaking talent.
* Rated R. Contains explicit violence and sex and extremely foul language.