This review is part of my Remake Preview series, where I watch the original version (or versions) of a movie that is set to be re-made in the near future.
Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty, adapted from a novel by the late Elmore Leonard, is endlessly fun, funny, and all-around entertaining. Featuring a top-to-bottom cast of stars and character actors, Get Shorty is a crime thriller with a real sense of humor to it, the kind of light film that makes for a perfect watch at any time.
Get Shorty has a clever circular structure – almost everything that happens in the film repeats itself at least once. Not having read the original Leonard novel, I couldn’t say how much credit is deserved by Leonard and how much by screenwriter Scott Frank, but the structure here is a delight, and when I figured out how the film ends, how all the pieces fit together, I giggled in pleasure. However much of the structure comes from Leonard, much of the dialogue is clearly Leonard’s work, and boy is it good. There’s a reason Elmore Leonard is as beloved and iconic as he is, and Get Shorty is proof positive.
It’s no surprise to see the influence of Quentin Tarantino all over Get Shorty (story goes, he even recommended that Travolta be cast as the lead); Tarantino is known for his loving homage of Elmore Leonard, even directing his own Leonard adaptation in Jackie Brown, and his fingerprints are all over Get Shorty. If Get Shorty suffers for not being as iconic or memorable as a Tarantino movie, it makes up for it by not being as insufferable as later period Tarantino and not being as violent as peak Tarantino; Sonnenfeld is no Tarantino, but he’s a more mainstream director to be sure.
There’s a great moment in Get Shorty where runaway debtee Leo Devoe (David Paymer) is shouting threateningly at John Travolta’s Chili Palmer; all it takes is a glance from Travolta to send Leo running. I’d say Travolta here is a revelation, but obviously with Pulp Fiction coming the year before, it’s hard to make that claim; instead, I’ll say that Travolta proves himself a strong leading man in this film, a straight man in a world of fools.
Travolta is faced up against a string of characters with all manners of outsized personality, played both by legends like Gene Hackman (amusing here as a bumbling film director), Danny DeVito (a fun little bit as he satirizes actors and acting as a profession), James Gandolfini (bearish in name as well as look, but he plays his part quite well), and Rene Russo (sly, fun, takes her own initiative but still slightly a femme fatale – maybe could have been given more to do?), as well as charactor actors like Dennis Farina (appropriately menacing, but also willing to make himself look a bit foolish), Delroy Lindo (same), and David Paymer (at perhaps his most weaselly?). It’s a stellar cast, utilized quite well, and if the film leans into a kind of hyper-masculinity and machismo, it can at least be somewhat excused as being a product of its era.
I look forward to seeing the Epix series adaptation of the Leonard novel, which while not strictly a remake, promises to share much of the same style and sense of humor as this. Whether or not it translates, the fiction of Elmore Leonard is always ripe for adaptation and even if Get Shorty doesn’t reach the high bar set by Justified, anything close would be a major success.