Sunday, November 10, 2013

Get Shorty (1995)

Director: Barry Sonnenfeld                             Writers: Scott Frank & Elmore Leonard
Film Score: John Lurie                                   Cinematography: Donald Peterman
Starring: John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Rene Russo and Danny DeVito

In the wake of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, studios were scrambling to find similar properties. They found a goldmine in the crime novels of Elmore Leonard. His works had proven their mettle earlier in the film Miami Blues which, though not a huge box office success, nevertheless was an inspired story and showed film executives that his stories had the potential, if filmed correctly, to match Tarantino’s brilliance. So they selected one of his novels, packed the film full of stars, set the whole thing to the music of Booker T. and the MGs, and created a smash hit of their own. Get Shorty is easily the best adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel since 52-Pickup, and was so successful that it eventually inspired Tarantino to adapt one of his novels as well when he directed Jackie Brown.

The film begins in Miami, with John Travolta as a collector for the mob, in a restaurant scene with the great Martin Ferrero. Denis Farina, also in the restaurant, is a Miami mobster who hates Travolta, and when he’s disrespected by him he takes his leather coat. But Travolta has had enough and goes to his apartment, punches him in the nose, and gets his coat back. Farina complains to Miami boss Alex Rocco, but since Travolta works for a New York boss Farina can’t do anything about it. But then the NY boss dies and suddenly Farina owns Travolta. He sends him off to collect money from David Paymer and Travolta eventually tracks him to Las Vegas. After he gets the money the casino head asks Travolta to do a job for him and collect some money from low-budget film director Gene Hackman.

Meanwhile a parallel narrative has Delroy Lindo as a drug dealer who uses a limousine service as a front. He has given some money to Hackman to go in on a film deal and Hackman has used the money already but doesn’t know how to tell him. Then Travolta puts himself in the middle and winds up meeting Hackman’s actress girlfriend, Rene Russo, who also just happens to be the ex-wife of major actor Danny DeVito, who Travolta wants to get to play the lead in the screenplay he’s imagining about his journey to L.A. But Lindo’s drug connection is in town and wants his money, inconveniently stuck in an airport locker with a half dozen DEA agents waiting for whoever picks up the dough. And to make matters worse, Hackman drags Farina into town and unknowingly throws everything into turmoil.

Barry Sonnenfeld does a great job with Scott Frank’s script, and it’s more than just the words. The lighting, the shot selection, the pacing, everything is perfectly done, and in a way that isn’t slavish to Tarantino’s style. The late James Gandolfini has a nice role as a former stunt man working as Lindo’s muscle, and Bette Midler puts in an appearance as the widow of Hackman’s former partner. All of the principals acquit themselves admirably, and do a tremendous job of realizing Leonard’s story. Travolta’s character is also a film buff, and that adds to the humor, as well as the running gags like the Cadillac of mini-vans. Add to that the inspired use of Booker T. and the MGs which, inexplicably, is not on the soundtrack album, and the whole thing adds up to a tremendously entertaining film. Get Shorty captures all of the humor of Elmore Leonard and translates it to the screen in the best of all possible ways. It’s a real winner.

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