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Charismatic cast finds synergy in Get Shorty

Chili Parmer (John Travolta) and Karen Flores (Rene Russo) cut a movie deal in Get Shorty.

Get Shorty

Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld.

Written by Scott Frank.

Based on the novel by Elmore Leonard.

Starring John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, Dennis Farina, Delroy Lindo, and Danny DeVito.

Sony Copley Place.

By Scott Deskin

Strange as it seems, John Travolta has dredged his career out of the slime of anonymity -- a nameless, faceless morass of one-time Hollywood studs, now turned has-beens, purveying a career in crap (like Perfect or the Look Who's Talking! series) -- to reclaim his throne as a full-fledged movie star. After years of toiling, it took Quentin Tarantino's inspired script for Pulp Fiction to recast the one-time star of Welcome Back, Kotter and Saturday Night Fever as a slick, pop-culture-spewing, heroin-shooting hit man and all-purpose icon for the 90s. Travolta still has the same charisma he carried in his late-70s features, but now he's older, wiser, and having more fun.

And his latest feature, Get Shorty, is fun. Some naysayers may dismiss it as a Pulp Fiction knockoff, but its the film's story is based on a novel by Elmore Leonard, written at least two years prior to Tarantino's debut feature, Reservoir Dogs, in 1992. It involves a Miami loanshark, Chili Palmer (Travolta), who incurs the wrath of local mafia hood Ray "Bones" Barboni (Dennis Farina, reprising his hoodlum persona from Midnight Run) after Chili breaks his nose for taking Chili's jacket. Once Ray gets Chili under his thumb, he makes sure to send his nemesis on an assignment for him: to find a small-time operator who drew over a hundred grand from his own life insurance policy. Chili eventually works his way out to Los Angeles, as a favor to a friend in Las Vegas, in search of bigger quarry: a B-movie producer named Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman).

Harry ingratiates himself to Chili -- partly because Chili breaks into his home to inquire about an unsettled debt and wakes him from slumber with Karen Flores (Rene Russo), the dishy star of Harry's horror films -- but also because he shares a kinship with Chili, a love for film that is evident once they trade ideas for screenplays. In particular, Harry pitches a screenplay that he's trying to bring to the big screen, but is causing him grief: The deceased screenwriter's wife (Bette Midler) wants to squeeze half a million dollars out of her husband's story; drug-dealing investor Bo Catlett (Delroy Lindo) wants Harry to deliver the goods on a existing project, or else; and the main star Harry wants for the picture, Martin Weir (Danny DeVito), has a reputation for "flipping out" when it comes to committing to a project. No problem, Chili insists. The rest of the film finds the characters all scrambling to get a piece of the action on this studio-bound venture. The way most characters see it, in this film, you're not anything in Hollywood if you don't want to be a producer.

The comedy lies therein, the metamorphosis of Chili from a steely-eyed loanshark to a shrewd investor, seeking to move around some of his reclaimed cash to make a deal. The main obstacle isn't gaining Harry, or even winning over Weir, but preventing the heartless, manipulative Bo from invading Chili's territory. Naturally, there's a romantic subplot between Chili and Karen that occurs in response to the stress of the deal.

The multiple plots and characters may seem gratuitous at first, especially when compared to the slam-bang approach of Pulp Fiction. Get Shorty is more subtle than that, but if you stick with the story, you'll reap some satisfying comic rewards, mainly from the richness of the dialogue and the performances. It's not the tour de force for Travolta that Pulp Fiction was, but it helps to reaffirm his status near the top of Hollywood's A-list. The ensemble acting is also good, especially Farina's merciless, expletive-spewing hood and Hackman's clueless producer.

The main gripe I have against the film is that it may seem a trifle inconsequential. Also, the love of film that is such an integral part of Travolta's character seems a little forced and untrue. But everything else in the film is a treat: It's rare to see such a production come together and run with such fluid, mechanical precision (due in part to Addams Family director Barry Sonnenfeld). Sure, it's a glitzy piece of product, but it's an enjoyable ride and it doesn't violate your sense of the world as (you think) it ought to be. Of course, if you're John Travolta, you can be a petty thug with grandiose ambitions and still come out on top.