Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown , from a screenplay by Mr. Tarantino, based on the novel Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard, is too good an action movie to be dumped in Santa’s bag with all the impossibly numerous movie bonbons and stale fruitcakes of this holiday season. Mr. Tarantino has returned after a long directorial hiatus with his wisest, warmest, subtlest and most suspenseful effort without sacrificing his patented outrageousness and his exhilaratingly clever narrative strategies.
For Pam Grier, it has been an even longer hiatus. Her glory days were in the lead roles in Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974) and Friday Foster (1975) and as a female counterpart to Richard Roundtree, the title character in Shaft (1971), and to Ron O’Neal, the title character in Superfly (1972), both so-called blaxploitation thrillers directed by Gordon Parks and Gordon Parks Jr., respectively. Then a black-white liberal coalition of thought police began protesting the bad image of blacks purveyed by black filmmakers themselves. Since there were few opportunities to lure even black audiences to tasteful biographies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Bunche, the fledgling black producers were driven out of the lucrative action market, and gifted black actors were reduced to Tonto parts as sidekicks to the big-bucks white Lone Rangers. I still recall Leroi Jones denouncing me in The Village Voice for “romanticizing” the thuggish behavior of black action heroes.
Now almost a quarter of a century later, in a masterstroke of casting, Ms. Grier reappears on the screen as a 44-year-old stewardess on a two-bit airline with one last chance to make a score for her old age. All that stands in her way are an efficiently homicidal gun runner, played with terrifying authority by Samuel L. Jackson; his moronically single-minded associate, mumbled into existence by Robert De Niro; and the Federal Government’s Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms unit, embodied in Michael Keaton’s expert in sting operations. Jackie’s only ally is an aging, love-struck bail bondsman, played with unobtrusive heroism by an almost forgotten 56-year-old actor named Robert Forster, who back in 1967 performed Stanley Kowalski on the stage in a production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire , and that same year appeared as Marlon Brando’s covert love object in John Huston’s and Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye . Bridget Fonda provides the final bit of sparkle as Mr. Jackson’s sassy girltoy.
What makes the plot work so magnificently, for all its witty and farcical digressions, is the metaphysical urgency of a 44-year-old working woman staring down those two impostors, destitution and death, without flinching, but without taking anything for granted, either. Miracle of miracles, Mr. Tarantino, of all people, has provided us with truly joyous entertainment.
Jim Sheridan’s The Boxer , from a screenplay by Terry George and Mr. Sheridan, may or may not be as successful as the team’s previous My Left Foot (1989) and In the Name of the Father (1993), but it is, strangely, more depressing. I suspect, without any hope of corroboration, that the movie got away from its makers in the midst of their reported improvisations. It is a story about boxing, about a politically forbidden love and about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and that may be one or two themes more than this particular film can handle. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Danny Flynn, an ex-Irish Republican Army fighter newly released from prison after 14 years, determined to resume his interrupted boxing career, and somewhat less determined to resume his old romance with Emily Watson’s Maggie, now married to his best friend, with a son, Liam. Maggie’s husband is in prison, and she, too, is imprisoned by the unwritten code that I.R.A. wives must remain faithful to their imprisoned husbands. It is a triangle with one side unseen and unloved. All that keeps Maggie and Danny apart is the very real threat of an I.R.A. bullet in the head.
The ring action is rousing and authentic-looking. Mr. Day-Lewis actually looks in good enough shape to earn his living as a fighter, but the fights themselves, clearly the stylistic centerpieces of the movie, neither solve any of the problems of the characters nor resolve any of the issues that have festered for centuries between the different factions of the Irish as well as between the Irish and English. Somehow, the bombings and shootings within the parameters of the movie’s otherwise fragile narrative reduce even the love story to rubble. Still, the eloquently expressive glances exchanged between Mr. Day-Lewis and Ms. Watson are alone worth the price of admission.
James Brooks’ As Good as It Gets , from a screenplay by Mark Andrus and Mr. Brooks, seems to be following a recent trend of girl-guy-gay romances, with P.J. Hogan’s My Best Friend’s Wedding and Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy as its most illustrious predecessors. Here the girl is Helen Hunt, who is terrific; the guy is Jack Nicholson, who is about as amusingly charismatic as ever in his wickedly demented way; and the gay is Greg Kinnear, who does about as well with a tricky and too often near-maudlin part as can be imagined. Shirley Knight, as Ms. Hunt’s mother, continues her remarkably memorable off-center career into middle age with a wonderfully relaxed performance in the midst of sometimes exhausting-to-look-at, sweaty improvisations by the top-billed players. There is a cute dog character that makes a merry metaphor indeed. As might be expected from a justifiable winner of 13 Emmys, Mr. Brooks gets about as well-timed line readings from his cast as you are likely to hear all year. Why the release date was held up past summer and fall is anybody’s guess.
Robert Duvall’s The Apostle is so much a one-man, one-character show that it makes Woody Allen look like Anton Chekhov. There is hardly a frame of the film in which Mr. Duvall’s hardscrabble preacher is not present, at least in spirit. I can’t remember a movie on the subject with so much of the running time spent at one revival meeting or another. Mr. Duvall the director and Mr. Duvall the actor are not lacking in generosity to the other players, but Mr. Duvall the writer has not provided parts of any depth or duration for such potentially explosive talents as Farrah Fawcett, Miranda Richardson and Billy Bob Thornton. On the plus side is a deeply felt commitment to interracial communion on the altar of the evangelical movement. The tone of the film is uncertain because of Mr. Duvall’s virtuosity in wiping away any suggestion of satiric intent. But I can’t help it. I just don’t like either the character he plays or what I consider the false hope he engenders with his histrionic religiosity.
Martin Scorsese’s Kundun , from a screenplay by Melissa Mathison, transposed Tibet to Morocco and made Tibet’s graphic essence come to life as a cause. It is a film one can respect and admire, and yet remain skeptical of its spiritual claims for one’s own life. Kundun is much more than a historical pageant, but much less than a human drama. Since the “text” consists of extended interviews of the 14th Dalai Lama by Ms. Mathison, the screenwriter, there is no room in the film for a dissenting opinion or even a sympathetic stranger to Tibetan Buddhism. For contrast, there are only the Chinese Communist Army officers and soldiers of Mao Zedong. Mao himself appears as a character in a chilling scene with the Dalai Lama in Beijing. As much attention is paid to Mao’s shiny black shoes as to his anti-religious rhetoric. Yet was not Mao’s China a secular theocracy at first embraced by liberal and leftist intellectuals in the West as a thrilling experience for the Chinese people? That may be why the brutal rape of Tibet in 1950 aroused so little outrage around the world. Now, almost half a century later, Tibet has been reduced to a moral abstraction, reconstructed as in a dream by Mr. Scorsese’s resourceful production apparatus in Morocco. Kundun is, in its way, a postmodernist work, enriched by Mr. Scorsese’s perceptive eye for the classical cinema, as in the procession of horseman on the horizon line out of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and the nightmarish scene in the Dalai Lama’s troubled mind of a canvas full of slaughtered Buddhist monks, reminiscent of the ascending crane shot of the Confederate wounded in the Atlanta train station from Gone With the Wind (1939).
Alan Rudolph’s Afterglow has won a best actress award for Julie Christie from the New York Film Critics Circle, and I must confess that I have been one of her most ardent admirers ever since John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar (1963), which leads me to suspect some Dorian Gray secret to her enduring beauty. I wish I were as favorably disposed to Mr. Rudolph’s clunky romantic comedy-dramas, with Ms. Christie on a sexual merry-go-round with Nick Nolte’s amorous plumber, Jonny Lee Miller’s neurotic organization man and Lara Flynn Boyle’s restless wife. Mr. Miller’s grotesquely studied line readings reminded me again that it is easier for a square to play a hipster than for a hipster to play a square. Ms. Christie’s character at least knows who she is, and enjoys it.