Gangster Movie Month: "Get Shorty" Review


Gangster Movie Month: "Get Shorty" Review

-- Rating: R (some language, violence)
Length: 105 minutes
Release Date: October 20, 1995
Directed by: Barry Sonnenfeld
Genre: Comedy/Crime/Thriller

Chili Palmer (John Travolta) is a colorful character who works as an enforcer for a mob boss in Miami. When not collecting money and cracking heads, he spends his spare time watching movies, which is his obsession. When his boss sends him on the trail of B-movie director Harry Zimm (a nearly unrecognizable Gene Hackman), it leads him to several locales, the last of which is Hollywood. It is there that Chili is seduced by the movie industry and pitches his idea for a film to Zimm, whose legs he is supposed to break if he doesn't pay up the money he owes. Chili's transition from gangster thug to potential film producer is at the heart of "Get Shorty," a crime comedy that satirizes the film industry.

Zimm agrees to direct the film, but that is only the first in a long line of steps that need to be taken in order to get the film produced. The studios are reluctant to finance a movie for an unknown like Chili, and the pair have to secure the services of a big name actor in order for the studio executives to sit up and take notice. Zimm is currently bedding Karen Flores (Rene Russo), a two-bit actress who is best known as a "scream queen" in low-budget horror films. It just so happens that she used to be married to Martin Weir (Danny DeVito), a true film star. Zimm and Chili convince her to call her famous ex and see if he will take a meeting with them.

After being ambushed with a pitch for the film, Weir shows some interest. If Zimm and Chili can get him to commit, they know the film will eventually get made. There are lots of obstacles before that can happen, though, not least of which is the line of gangsters who have a vested interest in seeing Chili fail. Chili's boss in Miami is also not happy that Zimm still hasn't paid up.

The film is based on a book by Elmore Leonard, a masterful contemporary writer with a penchant for dialogue. The characters in his books love to verbalize, which means that audiences watching an adaptation of one of his books need to pay close attention to the dialogue. Each character's speech is full of inside jokes and wordplay that is central to the plot. Leonard also knows how to give his characters the perfect balance of smarts, wit, and menace, traits that screenwriter Scott Frank wisely includes in his script. By including most of Leonard's trademark dialogue, the film has an almost lyrical quality to it that transforms it to a level beyond that of gangster comedy.

Travolta plays another mob enforcer role just one year after director Quentin Tarantino revitalized his flagging career with the role of Vincent Vega in 1994's "Pulp Fiction." His character in this movie is much more fun and self-assured than the ill-fated Vincent, allowing Travolta to stretch his acting muscles to portray a character who brings levity to the film. He is believable as a funnyman even though audience knows that he was originally sent out to Hollywood to break Zimm's legs, because no matter how many jokes or one-liners Chili delivers, Sonnenfeld is careful to frame him as someone who is not to be trifled with. It comes across as a great melding of opposing character traits, and Travolta is perfect in his portrayal.

Sonnenfeld worked as a cinematographer for years before turning to directing. He famously worked on the first four films by the Coen brothers, including the fantastic crime drama "Miller's Crossing." After leaving cinematography to direct, he took on much lighter fare such as "The Addams Family" and its sequel, "Addams Family Values." "Get Shorty" marks his first foray into crime films, albeit as comedy rather than the high drama of the Coen films. Sonnenfeld uses great performances and snappy lines to take down the entire movie industry, creating a very different type of brutality than that of the Coens' films. It is no less cutting though, and demonstrates that Sonnenfeld has what it takes to combine comedy and action. This film helped him get jobs at the helm of future megahits such as "Men in Black," the film that helped launch his career into the stratosphere. It never would have happened, though, without the hilarious hijinks of "Get Shorty."

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars