Review by Richard Kirkham
This summer has been a cruel one for fans of “Get Shorty”. In June, James Gandolfini who played Bear the enforcer for Bo the Drug Dealer/wanna be movie producer, passed away at a relatively young 51. Last month, Dennis Farina who played Ray “Bones” Barboni left us at 69. This last week, Elmore Leonard the novelist and screenwriter responsible for the story and characters in the first place, left us at age 87. I’m not suggesting there is a curse or anything, but if this film does not get included before anyone else from the cast dies, I will feel terrible. “Get Shorty” is a star vehicle, and it featured John Travolta in a great part immediately after his comeback role in “Pulp Fiction”. In spite of the obvious star driven nature of the film, there is a great ensemble cast that adds to the quality of the movie and makes it something I think everyone will be glad to have seen.
For movie fans, this is a film that should give them a warm feeling in their dreams. This is a gangster movie about gangsters who want to make a gangster movie. There are dozens of colorful characters both in the crime world and in Hollywood as the story gets told. The crime stuff may be accurate, someone with a better sense of that can judge for us, but the movie end of the story cuts incredibly close to the bone that is the film making process. Last year in the movie “Argo”, John Goodman’s character summed it up this way:
John Chambers: [after hearing of the plan to get the hostages out] So you want to come to Hollywood, act like a big shot…
Tony Mendez: Yeah.
John Chambers: …without actually doing anything?
Tony Mendez: Yeah.
John Chambers: [smiles] You’ll fit right in!
That is the plot of this movie. Everyone thinks they can be in the movie business and they are right. Yet being in the movie business does not always mean making a movie, sometimes it is about talking about making a movie. Our lead character Chili Palmer, played by John Travolta is good at talking.
Chili is a loan shark from Miami, who ends up in Hollywood while running down a customer who has tried to outsmart the mob. He is not a thug but he is not a pushover by any stretch of the imagination. Chili is the kind of guy who is usually too smart for everyone else in the room. He is also a movie fan and like many other fans of film, he thinks he can do better than the people who are currently making it in “Tinseltown”. The plot involves him trying to find financing and a star for the movie he has in his head. That’s right, the movie in his head. There is a screenplay for another movie that is pivotal to the plot, but most of what we see on the screen is the movie that Chili sees turning into his own film. It’s a movie about a loan shark who comes to Hollywood in pursuit of a bad debt. He is making up the movie out of his life story as he is living it. That is a pretty awesome way of creating a screen story, if only all of us could lead an interesting enough life to do that, we would be able to get rid of all the remakes and sequels that come out of the film world today.
Travolta is a walking advertisement of “cool” in this film. He dresses in a sharp manner that doesn’t seem ostentatious, he looks great in sunglasses and finally, he may be able to set the anti-smoking cause back by ten years. When he lights up and stares down an adversary, it is a moment everyone in the business will want to emulate. Travolta was at the top of his game in the moment this film was made. He was natural, charismatic and he had an everyman touch despite the fact that it was clear he was not everyone. Warren Beatty was apparently offered the role, and from the looks department and the cool factor you can understand why he seemed a good fit, but Travolta has a sense of humor in his eye that makes the part work, and when he drops the veneer of friendliness he feels dangerous in a way that I think Beatty would not have been able to match.
In addition to Chili Palmer, there are a dozen other characters that flicker around the flame of Hollywood success. Delroy Lindo, a charismatic presence himself, plays Bo the drug dealer. Bo wants into the business of movies and sees an opportunity to leverage himself in because a director owes him a large sum of cash. Another debt that Chili is trying to recover is owed by that director and Chili manages to insert himself into the process of making movies ( or more accurately movie deals) by trying to extricate the director from his entanglement with the drug dealer. Bo has a partner and an enforcer. The enforcer is a giant of a man who was once a stunt guy in the movie business. “Bear” is played by the late James Gandolfini as a menacing but ultimately ineffective threat. Muscle alone will not be sufficient to put Chili Palmer out of the deal. This is the first time I remember Gandolfini from a movie role. He had a sweet disposition for a thug and his wardrobe was California casual to the max. The big beard and long pony tail he came equipped with was authentic for the times, I know because I saw it in the mirror every day in the 1990s.
Every comedy has to have a fool somewhere, otherwise everyone would just act in their best interests and reason would dominate rather than laughter. “Get Shorty” has the biggest self deluded fool in Hollywood; low budget exploitation director/producer Harry Zimm. Harry wants to play with the big boys but we know he doesn’t have what it takes from the beginning. Harry owes a Vegas casino, he owes a drug dealer, he has a script he can’t quite get control over and a girlfriend who is way too smart for him. Casting gives this movie another secret weapon, Gene Hackman. Pound for pound, movie for movie, I would put Hackman up against any other actor of any time, but he was not always thought of as a comedian. That makes no sense in light of the Superman movies where he was the antagonist and the comic relief at the same time. His three minutes in “Young Frankenstein” may be the highlight of one of the greatest comedies ever made. He turned down the part originally because he did not usually do comedies. Zimm is a funny character not because he makes jokes but because he is a parody of the movie business itself. Hackman just had to play a character who was so clueless and yet so certain that he could really be a Hollywood figure. He nailed it. One of his funniest lines comes when he can’t even speak because of a beating that he took. Crawling out of the hospital to make it to a lunch with the potential star of his breakthrough quality picture, Chili and Karen, Harry’s girlfriend, wonder what the hell he is doing at the lunch meeting at “The Ivy” in his condition. Harry can only croak out the phrase “My project” through his jaws that have been wired shut. That is a true sense of commitment from a producer protecting his interests.
So far our focus has been on the Hollywood element, let’s not neglect the gangster part of the story. Bo and his partners have problems of their own, a South American drug lord has come in search of money and a lost nephew. The FBI is watching money that has been stored in an airport locker, and Bo tries to trick Chili into exposing himself to get at the cash. Harry’s big mistake in addition to not listening to Chili earlier and getting more deeply involved with Bo, is that he thinks he can big shot his way around the mob. Harry makes the mistake of trying to go it alone and contacts Chili’s gangland connection in Miami, hoping to shake loose some cash for his film. Enter Ray “Bones”, played with the usual gusto by Dennis Farina. Farina played gangsters in dozens of projects (he also played cops pretty well being a former Chicago cop himself). Farina had a poetic way of delivering a line with complete disdain and superiority. His conversations with just about everyone in this film suggest a barely contained rage at how idiotic he thought everyone else was. From the start of the film, he was the east Coast version of Harry Zimm, too big for his britches and not able to really stand toe to toe with Chili despite his elevated position of power. The scene where he and Harry meet is a high point of comedy in the movie. It is violent and abusive in the way that modern gangster films are wont to be. It is also hysterical.
Rene Russo is Karen, a b-movie scream queen, and Harry’s girlfriend. It doesn’t take long for Chili and Karen to connect because they are the two most intelligent characters in the movie. Whenever Chili is confounded by some stupidity in Hollywood, Karen is right there to to interpret for him. Russo is completely believable as a working actress who should know better and has greater ambition than originally seems. As the ex-wife of movie star Martin Weir, she connects Chili and Harry to some real power in Hollywood, a major star. Danny Devito seems like an odd candidate for the role but he channels his friend Jack Nicholson and creates an actor who is serious about his work but indifferent to how it effects others. In the film “The Player” Tim Robbins’ character orders a different kind of fashionable water at every meeting, and then he never drinks. Martin Weir special orders food and then never takes a bite. It is one of the irritating ways that the pecking order in Hollywood might be measured.
In the background of the story are several other perfectly cast characters. David Paymer does nervous and combative at the same time. Bette Midler, who was unbilled in the film, does sexy and smart ass. Miguel Sandoval has made a living playing drug lords and government officials. Here he is menacing as he discusses taking in the Universal Tour and then maybe murdering some of the other characters in the movie. There is a long line of character actors who all bring this movie some realism and personality.
The director Barry Sonnenfield should get a lot of credit for making the movie play so well. There are great tracking shots that don’t call attention to themselves but make the movie feel even more movie like. The look of all the locations is also important. Martin Weir’s arrival for lunch at “The Ivy” is staged like a red carpet moment for an every day Hollywood activity. Harry’s office looks rundown, over stuffed and heavenly to a movie fan who would love to have those kinds of film mementos on the walls and bookshelves. Bo’s house in the Hollywood Hills is both pretentious and strangely attractive.
The real hero of the movie though is the creator of all of these characters, the late Elmore Leonard. His book is really the script for the movie. Scott Frank is credited with the screenplay and he and Leonard shared the same relationship on another project “Out of Sight” a couple of years later. Leonard’s plotting and dialogue keep us involved. The actors bring the characters to life and it all comes off as a good natured poke in the eye to the movie business that is responsible for putting this out in the first place. In light of all the recent passings, it is a good time to embrace the quality of this film and remember how much a talented cast of professionals can do to entertain us. “Get Shorty” may have been a star vehicle for John Travolta, but it was a project that showed us that real stars are found in every well cast part.
Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.