Remember the second half of the 90s, when Hollywood cracked the Elmore Leonard code? The author’s crisp and snappy prose had proved famously and surprisingly difficult to translate onto the big screen for much of his career, until Get Shorty came out in 1995, followed swiftly by Jackie Brown (an adaptation of Leonard’s novel Rum Punch) and Out of Sight in 1997 and 1998, respectively. Their critical receptions at the time called forward to the comic-book adaptation boom, in that each successive movie was greeted with cries of “no, THIS is the way to do it!” Barry Sonnenfeld’s version of Shorty, with a post-Pulp John Travolta spouting similarly electric dialogue, was considered the most right-on Leonard translation yet, until Tarantino’s Jackie Brown made it look a little superficial with its focus on older, less flashy characters, which was then supplanted by the jazzy cool of Soderbergh’s Out of Sight. With distance, it’s easier to see the three adaptations both as a very loose trilogy (Michael Keaton appears in both Jackie and Sight, playing the same character) and very particular expressions of their directors’ sensibilities. The films weren’t outdoing each other; they were building on each other, consciously or not (most likely not, as they all probably went into production without much time to pay attention to their predecessors).
This is all to say that it’s easy to circle 1995 through 1998 on the timeline of Leonard adaptations as their peak period. More followed, but maybe not as many as you’d expect (then again, only Get Shorty was a big hit), and rarely very good: a second shot at The Big Bounce yielded little; a second shot at 3:10 to Yuma was better, but then the original was already well-regarded and the story is one of Leonard’s earlier Westerns, not one of his signature crime novels; Be Cool brought back Travolta’s Chili Palmer to little good effect; and no one saw Kill Shot after its long stint on the shelf. Leonard did find some success on TV, with his Raylan Givens character (who appeared in several short stories and novels) forming the basis for the excellent Kentucky crime saga Justified. But film adaptations of his work were at a low-ish ebb when he passed away last year.
Leonard manages an executive-producer credit on Life of Crime, which made its Toronto Film Festival debut just a few weeks after his death and is making its inauspicious theatrical debut this weekend. It’s the best Leonard movie in a while, in part by default but also due to its capturing of the author’s rhythms and way with characterization. It’s not on the same level as that late-90s trilogy, but it recalls them—not least because it shares three characters with Jackie Brown. Ordell Robbie, played with menace by Samuel L. Jackson back in’ 97, turns up in the form of Yasiin Bey (better known as Mos Def); his sidekick Louis, Robert De Niro in the Tarantino film, is John Hawkes here; and Melanie, the semi-special lady friend played by Bridget Fonda, is now Isla Fisher. (Criminals keep getting older; low-level molls stay the same age.) The younger versions of Ordell and Louis meet Melanie when they kidnap Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston), the wife of a rich asshole (Tim Robbins) who’s about to file for divorce, and maybe doesn’t care so much about paying to get his almost-ex-wife back (Melanie is one of the reasons for the divorce). Being a Leonard ensemble, there are other well-realized losers like white supremacist Richie (Mark Boone Jr.) and the smitten Marshall Taylor (Will Forte!).
Though the timeline seems to more or less work out—the movie is set in the 70s, with enough time for Robbie and Louis to age into their older selves twentysomething years later—Life of Crime isn’t really designed as a prequel to Jackie Brown. If anything, it leaves room for plenty more teeing up before Ordell, Louis, and Melanie can reach their positions at the beginning of Tarantino’s film. Nonetheless, it’s hard not to think about Jackie Brown during the movie, even as writer-director Daniel Schechter makes the characters his own (or, I suspect though I haven’t read the two novels in question, makes them closer to Leonard’s own than the Tarantino versions).
Aniston does her umpteenth variation on her wearisome specialty, the put-upon woman disappointed in the life around her (the subtext of most Aniston movies: “Aw, poor Jen!”), but she makes good use of it here as she becomes an object of sympathy for Louis, a somewhat less ruthless figure than his partner. The Hawkes version of this character seems a little less dim than De Niro’s take, and Bey’s Ordell feels sidelined in favor of the sympathy he generates (there’s a section of the movie where it’s actually difficult to account for Ordell’s whereabouts). But the whole cast does smart, convincing work, particularly Fisher as Melanie, whose sweet, even tone masks real cunning.
The performances get an assist from tight editing that cuts between the various characters with precision; though the movie’s central kidnapping scheme and accompanying complications feel low-level even for Leonard characters, the movie allows little slack. What keeps it from knocking the cartoonier Get Shorty out of the Leonard on Film Trilogy, solidifying character connections between three movies, is, well, nothing in particular—as in, the movie is about nothing in particular. I mean, it’s about human nature and criminal strategizing, the way so many Leonard texts are, but Schechter doesn’t push that basic material into light satire, meditation on aging, or hard-won romance, the way the earlier films did. Without any thematic heft or genre elevation, Life of Crime has a technically punchy ending that also feels a little wan. It’s a very well-made, very well-acted, very amusing diversion. Schechter’s versions of these characters differ from Tarantino’s, but the movie ultimately makes them subservient to their doppelgangers anyway.