Attitude plays a part.
A year ago – to the day – I reviewed one of the coolest movies of all time: Out of Sight.
Not only did it boast the ever-charming George Clooney and a career-high Jennifer Lopez, sizzling with on-screen chemistry, but it also featured the likes of Don Cheadle and Ving Rhames. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, it managed to set a standard of cool crime thriller that could not even be topped by Soderbergh’s later, all-star Ocean’s Eleven.
Oh, and it was based on a book written by Elmore Leonard.
Leonard’s behind some of the snappiest, most-quotable dialogue ever penned, and currently executive-produces and provides material for the excellent TV-series Justified, starring Timothy Olyphant.
Before Out of Sight, he wrote the super-cool Get Shorty, which was adapted into a 1995 film starring John Travolta, himself capitalising on his 1994 Pulp Fiction comeback with one of the best characters of his career. It remains, to this day, a snappy, stylish and extremely cool crime thriller.
“Who the f**k are you?”
“I’m the one telling you how it is.”
Chili Palmer is a loan shark working in Miami. After clashing with another mobster, he’s sent to L.A. to chase up a couple of outstanding debts, one of which is owed by a movie producer. Pretty soon Chili finds himself muscling his way through the film industry, in the hopes of signing a famous movie star and getting a potential hit off the ground, but with his old Miami mob nemesis hot on his tail, and a whole school of local L.A. sharks circling him, he realises that the movie business may be even more dangerous than the mob business. Thankfully he’s quick-witted and has an uncanny ability to see all the angles, something which may just help him navigate this minefield without it blowing up in his face.
To think that Get Shorty was originally due to be Quentin Tarantino’s follow-up movie to Pulp Fiction. Don’t get me wrong, director Barry Sonnenfeld’s adaptation is fantastic, and likely couldn’t be bested, but it would have been undeniably interesting to have seen what a golden-era Tarantino would have done with Elmore Leonard’s material (especially when you consider how well he managed with Jackie Brown).
“You must bring something heavy to the deal.”
“I do. Me.”
The Studios also approached a number of different actors for the lead part of the anti-hero loan shark Chili Palmer; Sonnenfeld’s own top choice was Danny DeVito (who would go on to take a smaller supporting role in the film). I think that DeVito, despite a surprising amount of presence, would have pushed the production too far into overly comedic territory; he may have done superior dramatic roles – he was great opposite Jack Nicholson in Hoffa, which he also directed – but Get Shorty’s innate wittiness could have perhaps nudged him into offering up a more amusing characterisation.
Either way he ended up too busy to accept the leading role, which instead landed on the desk of Travolta. Fresh from his stellar comeback as Vince Vega in Pulp Fiction, Travolta initially rejected the script until Quentin Tarantino himself approached him and told him to read Elmore Leonard’s original novel before he dismissed the part. After reading it, Travolta found that the writers which the Studios had brought on board to adapt the screenplay had actually stripped much of Leonard’s trademark witty dialogue from the story, and left it more generic – hence why he loved the book but was unimpressed by the script. Travolta agreed to come on-board if the Studios agreed to revert to the first screenplay draft, a far less ‘tweaked’ adaptation which stayed more faithful to Leonard’s original prose. And the rest is history.
Leonard himself has frequently remarked that Get Shorty remains the most faithful film adaptation of any of his books, truly capturing the spirit of the characters, the strength of the dialogue and the fantastic, quick-fire wit running throughout, and it’s interesting to think that this is, in a large part, thanks to Travolta’s input in having the script returned to its original form. Honestly, though, who would want to abridge or paraphrase Elmore Leonard?
“I’m not gonna’ say any more than I have to, if that.”
You see there are only a few authors who can write stories and scripts with dialogue which just drives a piece, and commands an audience’s attention – the likes of David Mamet (Ronin, Glengarry Glen Ross) and Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) spring to mind, but Elmore Leonard’s certainly got the edge when it comes to being cool, even if the other two find better success in action-orientated projects.
Peppered throughout this review are quotes from the film which give you a hint of the kind of snappy dialogue that dominates this movie, but, really, Get Shorty is all about the package – not just the fantastic words, but also the quick-edited scenes, the tremendous score (a more playful variation on Out of Sight’s amazing soundtrack), the twists and turns, the colourful characters and the superb performances, all of which come together to create an inspired end result; a very cool crime drama which, whilst played completely straight, is still often hilarious (as with much of Leonard’s work).
It’s ironic because the director balked at the idea of making such a dialogue-driven drama, thinking that the lack of action would turn audiences off – when the reality was that, especially after the likes of Pulp Fiction, audiences were totally lapping up this kind of word-sharp affair. It kept them buzzing and engaged and pulled them along of the ride, without needing wall-to-wall attention-seeking CG explosions. Perhaps things have changed with the proliferation of ADD-tailored films, but Get Shorty remains gripping from start to finish without any ‘enhancements’ – in fact, more happens before the opening credits than you get in terms of actual story for some entire movies!
“Now I’ve been shot at three times before. Twice on purpose and once by accident. And I’m still here. And I’m gonna be here for as long as I want to be.”
For my money, Travolta’s never been better than he was here in Get Shorty. He has the charm and charisma; the screen presence and natural confidence; and both the physicality and necessary pensiveness about him to convince as a character who always thinks before he acts, but is also never afraid of acting. His assured behaviour, calm under fire, and steadfast determination, make him a serious player – and his quick wit – used to both think his way out of trouble and defuse situations, makes you really get behind and admire this guy. Again, it’s not a million miles removed from George Clooney’s character from Out of Sight, although arguably Chili Palmer has far better luck, and his assuredness – almost arrogance – is similarly better tailored to Travolta’s own personal style.
Supporting him we get myriad famous faces, from the great Gene Hackman (Unforgiven), who was another actor to reject the script on first glance, having to be persuaded that this wasn’t a conventional comedy, indeed more than the humour came inadvertently. Hackman plays against type in the role of the film director Harry Zimm, who is in over his head, has debt collectors chasing him, and is basically full of bullsh*t. Indeed some of the best scenes come from when Travolta’s Palmer just sees right through all the lies.
“You’re trying to tell me you f**ked up without sounding stupid, and that’s hard to do.”
Renee Russo makes for a great female component, particularly opposite Travolta’s strong lead male, as she’s not unfamiliar with playing feisty, dominating women who ooze sexuality – from the latter Lethal Weapon entries to the engaging remake of The Thomas Crown Affair. She hasn’t done a huge amount of movies, and actually took an extended break from acting, but has recently been back on the Big Screen as Thor’s mother in the film of the same name.
Dennis Farina (Manhunter) is on reliably despicable form as the idiot mob boss who is after Chili, swearing more than probably any other character in the film, but really using it to great benefit in some instances, particularly when he recounts the line the cabbie had told him about the sunsets in L.A. Stage actor Delroy Lindo, who had a brief high point in his career with a trio of solid supporting roles – Ransom, Get Shorty and Broken Arrow – is also on fine form, and I just don’t know why this guy hasn’t had more success. If you take his work in Get Shorty, and his underrated work in Heist – scripted by David Mamet – you have to wonder why he doesn’t get more choice roles, because he can easily do “smooth and effortlessly cool” and simply nails the razor-sharp dialogue (Indeed Hackman, Lindo and DeVito were all in Heist together, and I’d strongly recommend it to anybody who enjoyed their contribution to Get Shorty).
DeVito, also acting as Producer – he bought the rights to the film before even finishing the novel – plays the actor in the film-within-the-film, Martin Weir, and gets some great moments both acting and mocking actors. His character, in part based upon Elmore Leonard’s experiences working with actor Dustin Hoffman, is often the source (or butt) of many of the movie’s jokes, but DeVito relishes the glorified cameo and celebrity status as a star within the movie’s story.
“Movie stars never pick up the check. They have no idea what things cost. Most of them don't know their zip code and a lot don't even know their own phone number. Also, they can never order straight from the menu. They have to think of something they have to have that isn't on the menu.”
Packing a surprising punch, Get Shorty would end up being such a relatively low cost sleeper hit for the Studios that it prompted them to develop a sequel – with Leonard himself opting to write a sequel book, Be Cool, which would then be adapted into a movie by the same name. Despite another all-star cast, including the likes of Harvey Keitel, Uma Thurman, James Woods, Vince Vaughan and The Rock, the comedy angle was played too far, and the end result felt like an inferior, camp, music-industry-inspired rehash of the first movie, which is essentially what it was. By then Travolta’s star was on the decline once again, and even returning to the best character he ever played – Chili Palmer – he still could not quite save the movie from being a disappointment.
Still, you shouldn’t let that slightly bitter afterthought stop you from enjoying the original 1995 gem; a high benchmark for Elmore Leonard adaptations – and stylish, fun crime thrillers in general – which would only be equalled by 1998’s Out of Sight; a peak in Travolta’s comeback era and arguably his best role to date; and one of the wittiest, coolest movies of all time. Highly recommended.
“Rough business this movie business. I may have to go back to loan sharking for a rest.”
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