Get Shorty (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The better you know movies, the more appreciation you'll have for the wit and energy of Barry Sonnenfeld's Get Shorty. While it's quite possible for the cinematically unaware to enjoy this film -- it's got a fair amount of readily-accessible comedy and action -- this is a real treat for movie buffs. The story is as much about the love of motion pictures as it is about gangsters.

Scott Frank's script for Get Shorty, which lifts huge chunks of dialogue directly from the book, captures the spirit of Elmore Leonard's work the way no previous adaptation has been able to (The Moonshine War, Stick, Cat Chaser). This film is wry and sardonic all the way through, with the actors and director knowing exactly how to play each scene for maximum effect. Get Shorty is much more a comedy than anything else, and a very funny one at that.

John Travolta, playing his second gangster in a row, is Chili Palmer, a loanshark on a mission to Los Angeles to recover $300,000 gained through an insurance fraud. Once near Hollywood, however, Chili, an avowed movie-lover (he has the lines from Touch of Evil memorized and can recognize Rio Bravo from a sound byte), becomes seduced by the thought of producing a film. So he hooks up with schlock director Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman) and scream queen Karen Flores (Rene Russo). And when Chili starts to pitch an idea, none other than big time actor Martin Weir (Danny DeVito) shows interest. Nevertheless, even as things start looking up for Chili's movie, a host of gangsters try to muscle in on his action -- one way or another.

Not since Saturday Night Fever has John Travolta been this cool. His comeback work in Pulp Fiction may have been effective, but he's better here. Travolta has got Chili down cold, from the mannerisms to the look. With a fine supporting cast that includes Danny DeVito, Rene Russo, and the always-reliable Gene Hackman, Travolta is surrounded by talent. It would have taken a poor director to botch up this production.

One of the great pleasures of watching Get Shorty is that you don't have to turn off your brain while the film is on screen. The script is smart, and makes few concessions to mentally challenged audience members. There's a lot going on beyond the obvious. Take role reversals, for example. As Chili is seduced from a criminal lifestyle by movies, his motion-picture colleagues are drawn away from film by the lure of the gangster experience. Ultimately, it turns out that the common denominator for success in either career is attitude -- a quality which Chili possesses in abundance.

Those familiar with Pulp Fiction may detect hints of that film here, and not just because of Travolta's presence. Much of the dialogue has the same kind of quirky, snappy quality as that which Tarantino writes. (Quentin is an admitted Leonard fan; in fact, his next directorial effort may be an adaptation of the author's Rum Punch.) There's one instance where tough gangsters discuss the meanings of "e.g." and "i.e." On another occasion, Chili lectures Martin on the importance of a stare.

The ending is a little reminiscent of that of The Player, with a couple of big name cameos. It's a clever way to conclude a wonderfully entertaining romp. Get Shorty may indeed be 1995's Pulp Fiction, but this less profane film is likely to find wider acceptance. It's certainly more mainstream, but, at least in this case, that's not a bad thing. With Get Shorty, Sonnenfeld has shown that broad appeal doesn't necessarily equate with stupidity. That's a lesson Hollywood should learn.

Get Shorty (United States, 1995)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 1995-10-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1