This is a movie from a simpler time. Not a Golden Age of film; perhaps not even a Silver Age. But one that is a distinct and good period. One might call it the soft-R, small budget era. It was a time when one could make an R-rated comedy with a bit of a brain that wasn’t just about shocking your audience. Crazy, I know. Will Ferrell might ought to look into it.
This is based on an Elmore Leonard story. Chili Palmer (John Travolta) is a loan shark who chases a “customer” from Miami to Los Angeles to recover money and meets a director (Gene Hackman) and an actress (Rene Russo) in the course of business. Chili decides that he’s had enough of the loan sharking life and that he’d prefer to get into the business of movies, which are the subject of his true interest and passion.
Complicating this are Chili’s mob captain Ray “Bones” Barboni (Denis Farina) who wants both the money and to put Chili firmly in his place as well as local criminals Bo, Bear, and Ronnie (Delroy Lindo, James Gandolfini, and Jon Gries, respectively) who have a financial stake in Hackman. If that wasn’t enough, Chili voluntarily takes on the task of getting the famous actor Martin Weir (Danny DeVito) to sign on to Hackman’s movie. It’s not exactly a walk in the park.
Through it all Chili keeps his cool, his head (in both senses!), his swagger never falters, and while his plans may not always work out, he improvises with such aplomb one could be forgiven for being fooled into thinking he had it all planned from the jump. Travolta makes Chili an appealing and genial crook. Sure, he’s a Shylock and will break your legs if you don’t pay, but it’s not really what he’s into and he’d rather just have a nice chat about movies.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, this is a surprisingly strong and deep cast for a small film like this. Hackman is great as the sleazeball director and Russo is just the right amount of world-weary as the aging horror-flick scream-queen with the heart of gold. Fans of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia won’t be surprised by the quality of DeVito’s turn as the pretentious, self-absorbed, insecure movie star. And that’s without even mentioning Lindo and Gandolfini.
The movie is directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. Granted, his directorial CV is a bit of a mixed-bag in that it has such varied films as this, the Men in Black movies, Wild, Wild West, a pair of Addams family movies, and things that flopped hard enough you never heard of them (RV and Big Trouble). But that he has talent is unquestionable. Before moving into directing and producing he got his break as the director of photography on the Coen Bros. movies. He was their cinematographer on Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and Miller’s Crossing among other movies in the 80s.
While Sonnenfeld hasn’t really directed anything of the same quality since making this film, he’s kept working and seems to at least be successful. (Plus, I’ll bet he’ll get decent residuals off MiB for the rest of his life.) And he’s certainly entitled to be proud of much of what’s he’s done. It might not be art, but it’s certainly an example of craft in a high degree. Get Shorty is not an artifact of lost skills, but it’s certainly not so common as it was 20-30 years ago. Which is a shame, because this kind of movie is great.