Elmore Leonard is to television and movie adaptations what The Beatles are to cover versions and what William Shakespeare is to – well, everything.
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“Yesterday,” Paul McCartney’s 1965 classic, is widely regarded as the most covered song in the history of recorded music. At last count, more than 2,200 versions of the song have been recorded by artists as diverse as Richard Clayderman and Count Basie. Shakespeare’s plays – themselves often adaptations of pre-existing storylines – have been turned into movies, musicals, television shows and, bizarrely, Disney’s animated feature “The Lion King.”
Leonard’s canon, which includes dozens of novels and short stories, has provided source material for screen and stage almost since his first work was published in the mid-1950s. The first of his novels to be turned into a movie was “Hombre,” a 1967 Western starring Paul Newman and directed by Martin Ritt. More recently, several of Leonard’s short stories were combined and adapted by the FX network and turned into “Justified,” which ran for six seasons.
Among the better-known adaptations of a Leonard novel is “Get Shorty,” a 1995 movie directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and starring John Travolta (who won the Best Actor award at the Golden Globes for his performance), Gene Hackman, Rene Russo and Danny DeVito.
Now, over 20 years later, the Epix network has released a new version of “Get Shorty,” starring Chris O’Dowd and Ray Romano. In this incarnation of the original, O’Dowd – best known as the irascible tech support guy from “The IT Crowd” – plays Miles Daly, the hired muscle for a brutal crime ring in Nevada.
Recently separated from his wife, and fearful of losing contact with his 12-year-old daughter, Daly attempts to turn his life around. Sent to Hollywood to collect a debt or kill the debtor – a struggling screenwriter, Daly begins to take an interest in the movie business, which he sees as a potential exit route from his squalid life.
When the screenwriter is unceremoniously executed by Daly’s Mormon sidekick, Daly takes possession of a script that the freshly dispatched debtor claimed was worthy of an Oscar. Throughout the first episode, Daly carries around the script, which is soaked in the blood of its writer, as he tries to break into the movie business.
Enter Ray Romano as the luckless Rick Moreweather, a producer of low-budget direct-to-DVD movies aimed at foreign markets. With his latest venture on the rocks, Moreweather is about to lose his shirt. Romano brings to the character the hangdog look he perfected as the bumbling husband in CBS’s long-running sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
When Moreweather rejects his attempt to pitch him the script, Daly suggests to the head of the crime family he works for – chillingly played by Colombian-American actress Lidia Porto – that she use Moreweather to launder her ill-gotten cash.
O’Dowd is primarily known as a comic actor, and his affable demeanor makes it all the easier to relate to the Daly character. In the first scene of the first episode, he’s discussing his marital woes with his sidekick, the aforementioned Mormon hitman. It’s the kind of conversation that could take place between two co-workers anywhere in the world, but there’s a characteristically Elmore Leonard twist: The two friends are ruminating on the ingredients of a healthy relationship while disposing of yet another body for their boss.
That scene alone encapsulates what it is about Leonard’s writing that has attracted directors like Quentin Tarantino (who adapted his novel “Rum Punch” into the film “Jackie Brown”) and Steven Soderbergh (“Out of Sight,” starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez). The gritty realism and forceful dialogue easily lend themselves to the little or big screen. Throughout his long career, Leonard lived up to his billing as “the poet laureate of wild assholes with revolvers,” which was how British music magazine New Musical Express once described him.
Providing so much material for others, however, was also something of a millstone around Leonard’s neck. When Burt Reynolds adapted his novel “Stick” in 1985, for example, Leonard complained that it was “very, very theatrical. I do everything in my power to make my writing not look like writing,” he explained, “and when it appears on screen you see these actors acting all over the place.”
While “Get Shorty” is not utterly faithful to the original – the character played by Travolta in the movie is replaced by O’Dowd’s character, for example – the style and feel of the book are very much in evidence. From the opening scene – a sumptuous single shot of an abduction, which ends with the camera moving “through” the window of a diner and onto the face of the crime boss – the direction is slick, the action relentless and the dialogue sharp and clever.
Even O’Dowd’s rather incongruous Irish accent doesn’t interrupt the flow of the show. Unlike many of the non-American actors who have made it stateside (think Hugh Laurie in “House,” Dominic West and Idris Elba in “The Wire” and Damian Lewis in “Homeland”), O’Dowd has shied away from Americanizing himself. Throughout his career, his most prominent roles have all been performed without putting on an American accent, even when it would have made more sense for the character to be American and even when scriptwriters have been forced to engage in some narrative contortionism to explain what an Irishman is doing in Nevada (or a State Patrol officer in “Bridesmaids,” for that matter).
For the first episode, the show’s creator, Davey Holmes, drafts veteran director Allen Coulter, who has a wealth of experience handling violence and bloodshed thanks to his dozen-episode stint on “The Sopranos.” There are some scenes in “Get Shorty” which are definitely reminiscent of that classic mafia show, especially the juxtaposition of almost blinding light and dark shadows. The second episode was directed by Adam Arkin, who directed a couple of episodes of “Fargo,” as well several episodes of another Elmore Leonard adaptation, “Justified.”