Genre: Crime Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 45 min.
Release Date: October 20th, 1995 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld Actors: John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, Danny DeVito, Dennis Farina, Delroy Lindo, James Gandolfini, David Paymer, Martin Ferrero
n Miami, shylock Chili Palmer (John Travolta, fresh off of “Pulp Fiction” and playing a reminiscent role) sits calmly at a dinner table, talking to his associate Tommy Carlo (Martin Ferrero), when Ray “Bones” Barboni (Dennis Farina) the mobster confronts them to poke fun. On the way out of the restaurant, Ray steals Palmer’s leather jacket, which leads to the gangster getting a broken nose – and later, a grazing bullet to the forehead when he tries to shoot Chili for revenge. Despite regular brushes with deadly thugs, Chili is protected from a more serious assassination attempt thanks to his employer, Momo, a top Brooklyn wiseguy. But when Momo drops dead from a surprise 65th birthday party, Chili’s services are left under the umbrella of Ray’s boss. Although neither one respects the other (and would surely plot an untimely demise if the opportunity arose), Palmer reluctantly continues with his loan shark duties for the organization.
In a larger mission to ultimately collect money from a supposedly deceased dry cleaner, Chili first journeys from Las Vegas and then to Los Angeles to gather a $200,000 gambling debt from spineless movie producer Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman), known for his “Slime Creature” and “Wolfsuckers” franchises. The filmmaker is currently shacked up with B-movie actress Karen Flores (Rene Russo), known for her role in “Grotesque Part II.” With Zimm’s profession on his mind, Chili pitches an idea for a movie, which is essentially his own biography, following his last loan shark ordeal involving the tracking of Leo (David Paymer), who managed to fake his own death out of sheer luck, thereby skirting his obligations to the mob. Zimm gets Chili to help him to not only keep the casino off his back, but also to renegotiate a ticking-time-bomb deal with limo driver gangsters Ronnie (Jon Gries) and Bo (Delroy Lindo), who have invested in a picture that appears perpetually delayed. Meanwhile, Chili continues to pursue Leo, to reclaim the mob’s money and to figure out how to end his movie.
Palmer is a particularly amusing tough guy – one with an affinity for sneaking into people’s homes and waiting on their recliners in the dark to catch them off guard. But he’s also very intelligent. He intimidates with just a glance, remains calm even in the presence of killers, and doesn’t need a gun to be persuasive. Clad in a slick leather jacket and always coolly puffing a cigarette, he woos the lady, confronts the villains, and bargains with stars.
It’s one of the most interesting of movies about moviemaking, showcasing how complex it can be to make a film – including the plethora of people involved, which ties into the intricacies of accumulating finances, and the notion that everyone in Hollywood wants to get into the movie business. The screenplay is brilliant (based on the novel by Elmore Leonard), interweaving fast-paced dialogue with sharp editing and plenty of humor. It satirizes the industry (alongside serious gangster flicks) to expose the eccentricity of actors, the backstabbing and illicit transactions that take place just to obtain a script, and the various fakers weaseling their way into productions. The manner in which the unfinished Chili Palmer story unfolds on the screen, seemingly taking shape spontaneously as the picture progresses, is absolutely hilarious – augmented nicely with specific repetitiveness of several sequences (as if extra takes with alternate actors, to symbolically reinforce the idea of writing based on personal experiences rather than hearsay), played out by different characters hoping to comically evoke the same results as more capable brutes. The casting is spot on and Barry Sonnenfeld’s direction never falters, delivering a consistently thrilling and funny crime-comedy that ends with a deftly-executed bang.
– Mike Massie