There is much that "Get Shorty" doesn't get -- Elmore Leonard, for one thing -- but it gets one thing right, and that's enough: the star power of John Travolta.
As Chili Palmer, made guy and loan shark, Travolta swaggers through this movie blasting out radiant waves of happy machismo and fearless good cheer, bending the whole thing around him until ugly memories of "Grease" are exiled and "Pulp Fiction" is all that remains. It's not that he's a tough guy -- although he is -- but that he simply can't imagine people denying him anything and that he's so full of confidence, he just takes what he wants.
The venue for Chili's swagger is Hollywood, or rather Leonard's bitter memory of it, as shared by any novelist who has watched his children either die in the rubble of crumbled deals or undergo radical rhinoplasty at the hands of butcher-crude producers and other "creative" types. Leonard has come up with the ultimate writer's revenge: His concept is to unleash a professional shark among all the amateur sharks and watch the big boy feed. One profound pleasure of the movie is watching a real tough guy kick the butts of pretend tough guys.
Chili, sent by over-complicated plot manipulations (I didn't say it was perfect) to L.A. to collect a debt for a bad-tempered thug named Ray Bones (Dennis Farina), discovers that he knows more about Hollywood than any of the players. Cracking skulls and breaking wills with an iron-hard glare has made him perfect material for his next career move: movie producer.
All this occurs to him when he's matching wits with one Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman), a low-rent producer who has borrowed $150,000 from the boys in Vegas and inconveniently forgotten to pay it back. Now, Chili has some heart to him. He could just break Harry's knees, face and pelvis, but instead he seizes on the opportunity that few get: He makes a pitch.
Not the Big Unit Johnson kind of pitch, but this kind: "I have an idea for a movie."
The joke is: It's a pretty good idea.
The second joke is: It's the idea of this movie. It's the one about the loan shark in pursuit of a mark who owes a fortune to the Mob but whose trail leads to Hollywood where, the shark realizes, his professional skills uniquely equip him to swim in this particular pool.
"Get Shorty" spins this way and that in almost typical Leonard fashion. He's not a linear writer, and his sense of plot is random and frequently whimsical. It's as though he sits down each day and discovers along with his readers what happens next.
For example, as Chili and Harry Zimm get excited about Chili's rTC movie idea, they approach Harry's girlfriend, Karen Flores (Rene Russo), who happens to be big star Martin Weir's ex-wife, knowing full well that if Martin (Danny DeVito) says yes, the whole project takes on a magical status known as green-light. These people just sort of come into the movie, hang out for a while, then leave.
Meanwhile, Ray Bones has come to Hollywood in search of the money he is convinced Chili now owes him, and still another player adds himself to the board when a drug dealer named Bo Catlett (Delroy Lindo) tries to get in on the project because he, too, wants to be a producer.
The film is a whirligig of betrayal and deceit as the players joyously back-stab or gut-shoot each other in pursuit of money, not for its own sake, but as the power to make a movie. Added to the take is a $500,000 dope payment sitting in a locker out at LAX that can go a long way toward getting the movie made or getting the person who picks it up busted by the DEA. Just as the film seems to be spinning out of control, it shudders, simplifies itself mightily, and hurtles toward a comic resolution, possibly its best moment.
Director Barry Sonnenfeld has a reputation for seeing the comic possibilities in dark materials, as he proved in his two "Addams Family" productions. Co-star and co-producer DeVito has shown the same predilection, in "Throw Momma From the Train" and "The War of the Roses."
And the material is dark: There are several point-blank killings, and the general conviction that money and career are much more important than life casts a pall of cynicism over everything. Yet the movie somehow dithers; it never reaches the pure concentration of tone that a truly malicious work like "To Die For" achieves almost effortlessly. It's too mainstream, too Hollywoodized (even though Hollywood is the target) to really go to the mattresses.
The performances could work better. Travolta is the movie, no doubt, and whatever he was paid wasn't enough. Hackman, avuncular, shallow, toothy and greedy, is initially quite amusing, but the film loses interest in him as it progresses, as it does in Rene Russo, too.
DeVito is much less amusing than he thinks he is; the more interesting twosome is the grinning barracuda Ray Bones, a showy role that may return Farina to stardom, and the usual powerhouse job turned in by the charismatic Lindo. When the movie is about the two of them, plus the ever unmussed Travolta, it's really terrific.
Starring John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Rene Russo
Directed by Barry Sonnenfield
Released by MGM
Sun score: ***