Why has Hollywood had such trouble doing right by Elmore Leonard? The man has churned out books for more than 40 years — first Westerns, then the pungent crime thrillers that brought him renown — and none of the many movies adapted from his work have quite captured the books’ slangy, cynical sensibility. It wasn’t until the new-to-video Get Shorty that all the elements finally jelled, goosed by a terrific John Travolta performance. Scattered in Shorty’s dust — and available on video if you’re up for a marathon — are films that have tried to grasp Leonard’s scrungily appealing worldview and have loused it up.
Hombre, the first movie to be adapted from a Leonard novel, is one of the best, mostly because it stars Paul Newman as a white man raised by Apache and thus caught between two cultures. Leonard’s heroes are surprisingly tricky to play on film — they have to be cool without ever acknowledging that they know they’re cool — and Newman is one of the few stars too selfless or ornery to bother with grandstanding. Dryly directed by Martin Ritt, Hombre is very much a ’60s revisionist Western — a downbeat update of Stagecoach — but Newman’s no-nonsense magnetism keeps it watchable. The same, unfortunately, can’t be said for Valdez is Coming, directed by Broadway vet Edwin Sherin, in which Burt Lancaster (wearing brown pancake makeup and a gloomy-Gus expression) plays a Mexican-American lawman who turns vigilante against a corrupt land baron (Jon Cypher). Slow and choppy, Valdez manages an astounding feat: It drains Lancaster of personality.
Seeing the market for Western fiction dwindle in the ’60s, Leonard turned to crime novels, with increasing commercial and artistic success. One of the best-known films adapted from his work in the genre, Stick, looks great on paper: It has a yeasty drugs-and-money plot set in Miami and a star who, at least at one point in his career, knew from effervescent cool. But actor-director Burt Reynolds, as an ex-con tackling drug runners who murdered his friend, makes the mistake Newman and Travolta don’t. He winks at us — and at that moment, the jig is up.
The author himself helped adapt two of his other books in the ’80s, which may explain why 52 Pick-Up and Cat Chaser are so baroquely sleazy. Pick-Up features an atypical Leonard hero, a married businessman (Roy Scheider) whose adulterous fling results in blackmail and murder. If Scheider and Ann-Margret as his wife are cold fish, the supporting actors are hot potatoes, especially John Glover as a dandyish villain and Clarence Williams III as a spaced-out thug. Directed by John Frankenheimer — a long way from The Manchurian Candidate — Pick-Up is reasonably diverting bad-video fun.
And it makes sense, which Cat Chaser resolutely fails to do. Here we have Peter Weller as an ex-Marine shuttling between Miami and the Dominican Republic trying to find the woman who saved his life in the 1965 U.S. invasion while he romances his old girlfriend (Kelly McGillis), who’s now the wife of the local secret police chief. Got that? Chaser was directed by Abel Ferrara — a long way from Bad Lieutenant — and it’s hard to say what’s more ridiculous, the droning narration or McGillis’ bottle-blond ‘do.
The director of Get Shorty, Barry Sonnenfeld, clearly realized what these other filmmakers have not: Elmore Leonard writes comedies. The Hollywood setting too seems to bring out the giddiness in all involved; what fun it must be to make a movie about something you know.
With all that, Get Shorty traffics in the old Leonard themes: a hero whose innate morality raises him above his gangster milieu; a clash of cultures (here, the loansharking biz and the movie biz); and a love of funky language and oddball characters. As Chili Palmer, Travolta radiates the gentle confidence that need never wink. The barely coherent plot aside, Get Shorty is really about the effects of Chili’s natural charisma upon men and women who fake it for a living. After 40 years, Elmore Leonard is still writing about gunslingers, but this one is shooting the breeze, and at last Hollywood has learned to sit back and let him.
Get Shorty: A-
Valdez Is Coming: C
52 Pick-Up: C+
Cat Chaser: D+