B y T o m D a n e h y
A QUARTER-CENTURY ago when crime novelist Carl Hiaasen was still a teenager dreaming of a career in journalism and ultra-hot weird boy Quentin Tarantino was a little kid dreaming of God knows what, Elmore Leonard was already churning out kick-ass crime novels, using a bare-bones style which enraptured his readers and quite obviously baffled Hollywood.
Leonard's 32 crime novels all bear his signature style: plots which are intricate but never contrived, dialogue sharp enough to cut paper edgewise and characters thrown into situations where there is much to lose (if not always much to gain), acting on such basic motivations as greed, lust, fear and anger.
But most of all, his novels are marked by Leonard's greatest gift to his readers: He doesn't waste our time. His books are all action and dialogue; none of that "He walks in a room and there's a lamp over there and a table by the window and a couch with a doily on it." As Leonard himself once explained it: "I just leave out the stuff that people don't read anyway."
Crime writers and readers (including Hiaasen and Tarantino) have justifiably crowned Leonard king of the genre, but tin-eared Hollywood has botched several attempts to bring his work to a non-reading public. For whatever reasons, his winning literary formula has met with disastrous results when attempts were made to translate it to the movie screen. That is, until now.
Get Shorty, based on Leonard's 1990 best-seller, is a spectacular success, a winning combination of humor, suspense and delicious insight where the Mob meets Hollywood and the sparks fly off in all directions.
Shorty tells us of a turning point in the career of Chili Palmer (John Travolta in a performance that far surpasses the work that earned him a Best Actor nomination in Pulp Fiction). Chili is a Joisey-bred loan collector for the Mob, currently working out of Miami Beach. When his mentor and protector Momo dies (in a typically hilarious Leonard scene), Chili becomes the employee of Ray "Bones" Barboni, whose face Chili had rearranged in a previous altercation concerning an overcoat.
The two are obviously not going to get along, so Chili heads out west in search of a loan skip who owes the Mob $15,000, but who also may have bilked an insurance company out of $300,000 large. Chili follows him to Vegas, where he picks up another assignment, that of a schlockmeister movie producer who owes a casino $150,000. Both of Chili's targets are in L.A., so it's on to the land where all is fake and glamorous. It's a town where everybody is either in the movie biz or trying to get in, so why should Chili be any different?
Needless to say, he takes the town by storm. It's as if a martian has landed and all the earthlings want to be just like the little green man. The reason for this is simple: He's real and just about everybody he meets is as phony as a $3 bill. They're fascinated with his cocksure swagger, his speech patterns, and his way of dressing. Even a car-rental agency snafu is misconstrued as Chili-cool and is copied with uproarious effect.
Palmer moves effortlessly from one well-drawn Hollywood type to the next, collecting his money along the way while sowing the seeds for his crash into the film industry.
He first tracks down the producer, Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman in his 8,000th consecutive solid performance). Zimm is not only in trouble with the casino, he's also blown 200 grand given him by a drug dealer (played menacingly by Delroy Lindo) who doesn't really want to go legit; he just wants to be in the movie business. (Even when the drug dealer's pissed-off Colombian connection comes to town, he wants to go see the Miami Vice show at Universal Studios before he conducts his business.)
Zimm introduces Chili to Karen Flores (Rene Russo), a B-movie queen who's way too smart to be doing what she's doing but not lucky or good enough to be doing anything better. She and Chili team up to try to produce a movie, one whose success will be guaranteed if they can enlist the services of Karen's ex, Martin Weir (Danny DeVito).
The players bounce off one another, with only Chili in control of himself. Everyone has an agenda. They're all outwardly friendly toward one another, but they'd stab each other in the back if it meant even an incremental career advancement. They're like Killer Smurfs.
Much of the credit must go to director Barry Sonnenfeld and screenwriter Scott Frank. Sonnenfeld read the book on an airplane and upon landing, called his friend DeVito and told him to buy the rights. Sonnenfeld's light-as-air directing style recognizes a good story and gets out of the way.
Frank, for his part, has wisely lifted entire sections of Leonard's perfect dialogue from the book, allowing it to serve as both character development and plot exposition. Every word out of everyone's mouth sounds just right.
Sonnenfeld's original plan was for DeVito to play Chili Palmer. I think the movie is so well-written, it would have worked just fine that way. But with Travolta in the lead, it's more than just fine. Travolta's Chili Palmer is charming and menacing and a huge screen presence. And Get Shorty is hugely entertaining, one of the best movies this year--a most ironic tribute to Elmore Leonard from a medium which has abused and misused his work for so many years.
Get Shorty is playing at the Century Park (792-9000) and Catalina (881-0616) cinemas.
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