In the mid-90s, I had a healthy (or perhaps unhealthy) love of what I thought of as “tough-guy” movies. No doubt inspired by Reservoir Dogs, I sat through as many films of guys talking tough to each other as I could find. This was a brand-new genre (or new to me), and in the Nineties, a ton of these movies were made. Tarantino was the king of this kind of cinema, with his charismatic bad guys rattling off profanities before shooting each other. But there were dozens of lesser writers and directors out there churning out pure schlock.
I would add Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers to that short list of filmmakers capable of making excellent tough-guy crime fiction. GoodFellas and Casino are the height of the genre, while Fargo and The Big Lebowski represent a more domesticated take on “Tarantinoland.” (The bad guys are dumber and the good guys a bit more reliable.)
Into the uncomfortable center of this period stepped Get Shorty, a flyweight genre caper based on a book by the late-great crime writer Elmore Leonard. Leonard, who primarily wrote Westerns, was always a bit of an acquired taste for me — though he could apply nifty phrases and whip-smart dialogue to a wisp of a plot, I never felt any of his books represented a good investment of time.
That can certainly be said of Get Shorty the movie, which, 25 years after its release, is a complete waste of time. It was a box office hit for John Travolta, whose career had been revived a year earlier by Tarantino and Pulp Fiction. His performance is the only reason to see it, and not much of one, at that. Travolta is all tough-guy manner and surface, but he’s no Robert De Niro in Heat, or Michael Madsen in Dogs. He’s essentially a nice guy who wants to break into show business, even if it means breaking a few necks.
Travolta, as “shylock” Chili Palmer, struts through his scenes finding all kinds of wacky, self-conscious ways of holding a cigarette. He’s a smooth talker, charming, funny and deceptively calm — he’ll kick the kneecaps out from under you in a heartbeat. The plot sends him from Miami to Los Angeles to find a schlub who absconded with a lot of money that someone else wants (schlub played by the squirrely David Paymer, back when movies cast him). But Chili isn’t really interested in the film’s main plot, as the movie itself is not. No, he’s more interested in a completely boring character played by that most unappealing of actors, Danny DeVito. The title refers to the fact that DeVito’s movie-star character is, in fact, short. That’s it. Get Shorty. Ha.
The film also stars Rene Russo in a vaguely amusing turn as a seen-it-all fading star, and Gene Hackman in a somewhat comedic turn as a hapless movie producer. There are nominal bad guys out for someone else’s money, played variously by Dennis Farina and Delroy Lindo. Oh, Bette Midler turns up in an uncredited cameo.
None of this sticks. It’s directed by a mediocre special effects hack named Barry Sonnenfeld who also directed Men in Black and the career-killing Wild Wild West. This is depressing, unfunny, Tarantino-lite schtick that wishes it had a fraction of Scorsese’s savage humor or the Coen Brothers’ technical skill. It’s too profane to be taken lightly and too frivolous to rank anywhere near the greats.
Oddly enough, Tarantino, who made a name for himself writing genuine tough-guy dialogue in his first two films, adapted a Leonard novel for his third feature film. The result was, unsurprisingly, much better than Get Shorty.
Jackie Brown (1997) was known as Rum Punch under Leonard’s byline, but Tarantino does what Kubrick did with The Shining by making the whole thing his own enterprise. I suppose the bones of the Leonard novel are still there, but Tarantino made the lead character a female — played with spectacular gravitas by Pam Grier — and gave it his own time-hopping spin a’la Pulp Fiction. By casting other heavyweights like Robert De Niro, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson and Oscar-nominated Robert Forster, Tarantino made a film that is infinitely more hard-hitting than Get Shorty. Jackie Brown is a hangout movie in much the same way Leonard’s books spend leisurely amounts of time getting to know the characters. They talk and talk and talk and talk, usually in profane sentences, their dialogue spelling out who they are and why they are the way they are. Thing is, Jackie Brown has aged so well that I would make it a Top 5 Tarantino film, while Get Shorty now plays like weak sauce.