So who's the "Shorty" Elmore Leonard was satirising in his 1990 novel? That would be Dustin Hoffman, who gave the thriller writer so much grief over an abortive adap of 1983 book LaBrava he decided to get his own back by creating pompous screen actor Martin Weir in the Marathon Man’s diminutive image.
The irony is that Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty film is arguably the most satisfying incarnation of any of Leonard’s stories and instigated a renewed appreciation for his work that was stoked by Out Of Sight and Jackie Brown, diminished somewhat by Maximum Bob and then bolstered afresh by Justified. Back in 1995, Shorty was anything but a sure thing.
Travolta turned down the role of loan shark Chili Palmer and had to be talked round by Quentin Tarantino; Gene Hackman had his own reservations about playing sleazy producer Harry Zimm; while Sonnenfeld found the result so dialogue-heavy he thought it “the most boring movie anyone ever made”.
With hindsight, of course, we can see it’s precisely Scott Frank’s adherence to Leonard’s hardboiled argot that makes Shorty soar. But it’s also how it’s delivered. Delroy Lindo, James Gandolfini and Dennis Farina were apparently born to snap, sneer and snarl their way through the priceless, profanity-strewn exchanges.
That Palmer remains Trav’s finest post-Pulp Fiction part makes it all the sadder he should have subsequently sullied Shorty’s memory with 2005 stinker Be Cool. (Leonard despised F. Gary Gray’s flaccid follow-up, although he only has himself to blame for writing a sequel in the first place.)
Ignore its successor, though, and it’s an untrammelled joy to see Travolta’s film-loving hood bring his street smarts to Hollywood, especially in the scene that has him school Danny DeVito’s Weir in the art of intimidation using his “Look at me” catchphrase.
OK, so Rene Russo has little to contribute as the film’s token female presence, while the extended pay-off tests the patience with its multiple double-crosses.
Yet even those with only limited tolerance for Leonard’s low-life milieu will relish the juicy cameos from Bette Midler and Harvey Keitel, Don Peterman’s gliding camerawork and all those little insights into celebrity behaviour that got Leonard’s goat in the get-go.
Tell us, Dustin: do you really have the chef make you something that’s not on the menu every time you eat out? Extras are DVD holdovers, easter eggs and all.