The quirky but very funny "Get Shorty" lampoons Hollywood through the eyes of a charming, take-charge mobster named Chili Palmer, played by John Travolta.
As the film opens, Chili, a Florida "collector," has a confrontation with his longtime nemesis Ray "Bones" Barboni (Dennis Farina), which sets up a running gag that fuels the film's conflict and ultimately its resolution.
When Bones unexpectedly becomes Chili's boss, he sends Chili to collect on the wife of a local schnook (David Paymer) who has died in a plane crash. But the guy isn't dead after all, which leads Chili to Las Vegas. There, he accepts an additional assignment to collect a gambling debt from sleazy Hollywood movie producer Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman).
Chili, a rabid film buff, heads for Hollywood to collect Zimm's debt, and at the same time pitches a movie idea about a schnook who has supposedly died in a plane crash, though he has really faked his death and run off with mob money. Zimm complains that there's no third act, but Chili calmly explains that he's working on that.
Chili also links up with actress Karen Flores (Rene Russo) and her ex-husband, movie star Martin Weir (Danny DeVito), as well as a local tough guy (Delroy Lindo) who is leaning on Zimm. And, of course, Bones isn't far behind.
"Get Shorty" is overplotted and needlessly complicated, though not hard to follow. And despite being based on an Elmore Leonard novel, there is plenty of evidence that director Barry Sonnenfeld (the "Addams Family" movies) owes a great deal to the eccentric sensibilities of the Coen Brothers Sonnenfeld was their cinematographer for "Raising Arizona," "Blood Simple" and "Miller's Crossing."
Travolta demonstrates his star power quite dramatically here, getting a lot of mileage out of his intense eyes and confident demeanor. He's utterly convincing as a man who can handle any kind of situation though things keep going wrong because others tend to fall apart. He is at all times both intimidating and amusing.
Hackman is also terrific as the sleazeball filmmaker who aspires to create art that is out of his reach, Russo is radiant as a low-rent actress who is too intelligent for her craft and DeVito is hilarious as a self-absorbed star (the scene with Chili giving him an "acting" lesson is hysterical). Others worth mentioning are Lindo, Farina and Paymer, as well as a nice performance from James Gandolfini, who turns his bodyguard/stunt-man character into a funny, surprisingly sympathetic character.
The main joke here is, of course, that a mobster's leap from tough guy to movie producer isn't that big a stretch. And Sonnenfeld keeps the material light, though it certainly could have had a darker edge. He also fills the screen with fine-tuned comic details that provide some extra punch and there are some surprising star cameos that seem to come out of nowhere.
Commercially, "Get Shorty" may prove to be a bit too offbeat for mainstream moviegoing audiences, but if you can get into its rhythms, be prepared for a great time.
The film is violent and has its share of profanity, though it's nothing like Travolta's last film, "Pulp Fiction."
"Get Shorty" is rated R for violence profanity and brief nudity.