The big surprise of Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, his first film since the critically acclaimed box-office smash Pulp Fiction, is that there aren't any big surprises. A modest crime thriller adapted from Elmore Leonard's novel Rum Punch (relocated from Miami to the run-down Los Angeles environs of Tarantino's youth), it's handsomely shot, carefully plotted and amazingly cast. It doesn't have the hiply seductive punch that made Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction into instant cult items, and its storytelling is startlingly straightforward. In fact when, late in the game, one key event is shown three times in a row from the point of view of different participants, the device feels tacked on-as though Tarantino knew his fans expected some razzle-dazzle from him-rather than an integral part of the movie's narrative strategy.

Make no mistake, you have to love the ensemble for its media-geek mix of highbrow talent and trash-culture tokens: Two-time Academy Award-winner Robert De Niro; Pam Grier, bosomy, butt-kicking star of such fondly-remembered blaxploitation pix as Foxy Brown and Coffy; hardest-working man in show business Samuel L. Jackson; Bridget Fonda, coolly funky heir to Hollywood dynasty; and poor-man's Burt Reynolds Robert Forster, star of short-lived '70s TV show 'Banyon.' If bizarrely audacious casting guaranteed a motion picture masterpiece, Jackie Brown would be one for the ages. It's not, but it's a solid picture with a wistful edge that may surprise some of Tarantino's hipper-than-thou followers: Fear of aging and failure are part of the novel's underpinnings, and Tarantino lets his cast's collective age bring that concern to the surface without making it the story's sole focus. You can hear the fan-boy director in Max Cherry's remark that he's sure Jackie looks exactly the same as she did when she was 29, 'except maybe for an afro,' and you can hear Grier in Jackie's reply that her ass sure isn't the same.

The plot is actually simpler to follow on film than it is on the page, where it's easy to spend the first several chapters trying to figure out who everybody is. Jackie Brown (Grier)-you know Tarantino loved the echoes of Foxy-is a hard-luck stewardess working for the cheapest, most unfriendly airline in the skies. A brush with the law when she was younger got her booted out of the upper echelons of flight attendants, and she's facing middle age on a starting-position salary and few prospects for improvement. Jackie's personal pension plan involves Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), a self-aggrandizing gun-runner whose small-potatoes operation has still netted him a half-million dollars that's tucked away in a Mexican bank. Jackie's job is to ferry it back into the US in $50,000 increments, and her cut is the nest egg she's counting on to cushion her otherwise grim future. Unfortunately, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is onto Ordell and wants to use Jackie to bring him down. She's busted and tossed into jail, and Ordell hires aging bail-bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) to spring her, but not before Jackie has had time to do some hard thinking and come up with a complicated plan to get all Ordell's money and deliver him to the ATF. But not only does her plot rest on a series of complicated bluffs and feints, any of which could be punctured by Ordell's paranoia and volatile temper, but Jackie must contend with the machinations of Ordell's back-stabbing girlfriend Melanie (Bridget Fonda), a drug-addled surfer; his unpredictable jailhouse buddy Louis Gara (Robert DeNiro); her scheming ATF contact (Michael Keaton), who's nowhere near as sharp as he thinks he is; and a tentative romance with Max, who's also looking to change his life.

Points to Tarantino for daring to stake Jackie Brown's sex appeal on the 48-year-old Grier, who not only isn't a big star, but was never a big star outside the cult world of '70s exploitation pictures: She strides through the movie with her head held high and her generous booty shaking. The same fans who love the hell out of Grier will get a kick out of exploitation faves Tiny Lister in the role of Max's partner and perennial '60s/'70s sleaze-movie bad guy Sid Haig as the judge before whom Jackie gets hauled.

--Maitland McDonagh