I’m a huge Elmore Leonard fan and have been for four decades. I’ve read every single thing he’s written and paying attention to his writing has been a big influence on my own.
Awhile back, I wrote a couple of posts here where I discussed the television show Justified, based on the Raylan Givens character he’d created, when it first came out. At the time I wrote the post, I hadn’t yet seen the series, but had just seen the promos and instantly knew it was based on Leonard’s work, just from the sixty seconds of the promo. It had that “Elmore Leonard” feel that was instantly visible.
I was excited as in my opinion, Hollywood had never gotten Leonard right. Especially in movies like Get Shorty and most of the movies they’d based on his novels and short stories over the past twenty years. They always… what’s the word?... Hollywoodized his fiction. Tinseltown, in my opinion, had never “gotten” the real Elmore Leonard.
Then, when I saw a couple of episodes of Justified, I posted a review in which I expressed disappointment in the series. The main source of my disappointment was in the casting. Timothy Olyphant as the lead character just seemed too soft. That’s how I described him in my negative review, and it wasn’t exactly the right word, but I just couldn’t put my finger on exactly what was wrong with him as Raylan Givens.
Now, I know what the right word is.
First, I need to give some backstory to show how I came to the conclusion that once again, Hollywood had failed to grasp Elmore Leonard.
My favorite of all of his novels—hands-down—is Killshot. I’ve read this masterpiece over twenty times. I feel it’s the very best of all his novels, bar none, and that’s going some. He’s written an awful lot of masterpieces! But, Killshot is, word-for-word, one of the best novels ever written by anyone. Again, in my opinion, but it’s the only opinion I have to work with.
His opening in that novel is the single best opening in any work I’ve ever read, and, as many of you know, openings are my particular shtick, and I talk about it extensively in Hooked. It does so many things. It creates the particular tone that is only Leonard’s and plunges the reader into the world of that novel completely and absolutely. It’s intelligent—written with Leonard’s minimalism that shows a complete trust in the reader’s intelligence to be able to understand it without the author using a teleprompter. I’ve read the novel at least twenty times—I’ve read the first few pages probably a hundred times. It’s that good.
In my review of Justified, I mentioned Killshot, as I’d read somewhere that they were making a movie of it. I vowed then that if they messed that film up, I’d never again watch a Hollywood version of a Leonard novel.
Well—shame on me—I don’t read the entertainment pages or People Magazine or any publication that talks about movies, so I didn’t realize it until a month ago that the movie Killshot had come out. A couple of years ago! And, I’d missed it!
I ran to the local Blockbuster’s and rented a copy. Viewed it two days ago. Viewed it yesterday. Viewed it a few minutes ago. Later on, I’m going to return to Blockbuster’s and buy it.
This is the first movie they’ve ever gotten Leonard right. It was pitch-perfect. Before I saw this movie, I had two favorite movies. As many of you know, I think Thelma & Louise is the best-written movie of all time. At least for fiction writer’s purposes. My favorite movie for all reasons—script, acting, entertainment value—all of the elements of great film—is The Hustler. For lots of reasons. One is that when that movie came out that’s what I was doing—hustling—and my friends immediately nicknamed me “Fast Eddie.” I was in the Navy at the time, and when I left those shipmates, the nickname slipped into disuse among my new friends. But, The Hustler was loaded with everything I want to see in a movie. Powerful acting performances by Piper Laurie and Paul Newman (Paul Newman, in my opinion, is the best actor who ever lived and I do not want to get emails telling me Marlon Brando or Johnny Depp or somebody else has that title, as I’ll delete them unread…). If you don’t believe Paul Newman is the best actor who ever lived, rent The Hustler and The Color of Money and compare the performances of both Newman and Tom Cruise in the respective title roles. Both are about the same age when they made each movie, and when you watch them together it’s clear that this is a comparison between a man and a boy. Or, an actor and a model…
I learned that the reason I didn’t know it had come out was that it came out direct-to-video instead of as a theater release. This just shows two things. The intelligence of the multiplex audience and the intelligence of Hollywood… The review posted on IMDb mostly panned it. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0443559/ Which… shows the intelligence of the reviewer as well…
Or, perhaps, since everybody else didn’t like it except for me, it may be my I.Q. that is suspect… I've been told that once or twice... Of course, the ones who criticized me and were foolish enough to provide their addresses are now room temperature... (Thanks, Guido, and you know what I mean...)
The movie Killshot was just that. Killer. For the first time ever, I got to watch a film based on a Leonard novel in which every single person involved in making it understood and “got” Elmore Leonard. I’m not sure who the casting director was, since listed on IMDb were four names—Kerry Barden, Billy Hopkins, Diane Kerbel and Suzanne Smith—so I don’t know who cast which parts, but whoever was responsible for which roles, they all did a superb job. Mickey Rourke as The Blackbird was the perfect choice. Every time Rourke makes a movie, I’m the first to buy a ticket. And, this was the best role he’s played since Angel Heart (which, coincidentally, is the only movie set in New Orleans that got the Big Sleazy right…). His sidekick, the smarmy Richie Nix, was played brilliantly by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I was afraid they’d be unimaginative and go for somebody like Steve Buscemi, but intelligence ruled in this choice. It isn't that Buscemi wouldn't have played the part well, but his fame would have overpowered the performance. This role called for a relative unknown. The Wayne Colson and Carmen Colson roles were filled by Thomas Jane and Diane Lane, and whoever made the decision to cast these two understood the novel completely. The “stars” were Blackbird and Nix, and not the husband and wife. Actually, the casting choices for the husband and wife were pitch perfect as they didn’t steal scenes or interest from the true central characters of the story. This is The Blackbird's story, all the way.
Hossein Amini, the screenwriter, did such a great job of getting the story down as Leonard wrote it that I was surprised that Leonard himself hadn’t written it. He completely understood the particular genius that is Leonard. Every single note was spot-on.
As did the director, John Madden. In fact, every blessed person involved in this collaborative effort just nailed Leonard perfectly. They were all on the same page. Which may be why it wasn’t released in theaters and why it got a shitty review. I suspect most movie-goers who don’t read Leonard would have preferred Quentin Tarantino and Danny DeVito to play some of these roles and made it into a comedy with clever dialog.
However, the thing that really made this movie true to Leonard more than anything, was Rourke’s performance. I’m glad that he played this part at his age now than in his younger days. I think if he would have had this role a few years ago, he would have overplayed it, much as did Robert DeNiro in the remake of Cape Fear, with his over-the-top performance where he came across mostly cartoonish with his overacting. Kind of a Jason role without the hockey mask. This kind of thing plays well for the pubescent crowd at the multiplex, but does little for acting subtlety and true acting chops. What makes Leonard such a great writer is not only his dialog (which was everywhere in this film!), but his approach to his characters and the world they exist in, in that they’re amoral to the nth degree. Totally existential landscapes and characters. Rourke played the role with true understated genius, and, by not trying to create a “bogeyman” kind of character, delivered a truly scary guy. He never once gets in his own way by stooping into melodrama. He’s a force in this movie, just as Leonard created him on the page, and he’s so powerful because nothing can stop this guy—certainly nothing moral. He plays the true criminal mind and character better than anything I’ve seen or read in a long, long time. And, I know something about the criminal mind...
And, that’s the key to my reasoning why Justified doesn’t work for me. It’s because Raylan Givens is the kind of character Leonard is almost alone in creating. His characters aren’t concerned about right or wrong, good or bad. They’re just concerned in… doing their jobs, getting through life. Doesn’t matter which side they’re on—the so-called “good” side or the so-called “bad” side. All of the characters in a classic Leonard story are almost totally amoral. In other words: realistic. In other words: pure noir. That’s the Raylan Givens character in the printed story. Not what appears in the series.
But the creators of the TV series didn’t understand that about Leonard’s stories. They made the stories and the characters moral. Compare the Olyphant character in the series to the Thomas Jane role in Killshot. Wayne Colson could give a shit about anything moral in the popular sense at all. He just wants his wife back and for The Blackbird to go away and leave them alone. While Olyphant looks soft and gooey in a white Stetson, Colson looks “real” and much better without one. A great example to illustrate that most audiences like at least a bit of a sermonette in their entertainment. Hollywood's idea of a lead character is to make him or her moral... but with a flaw. Bullshit Writing 101.
And that’s why Hollywood always fucks up Leonard stories. They know the average popcorn buyer isn’t into noir nor do they understand or appreciate it. That’s why they always try to broaden the audience by turning great stories into… shit. People understand crap. Many don’t really understand art.
I know I’m that prophet crying alone in the wilderness. I know that Hollywood will probably never adapt a “true” Leonard story. But, they did once and that’s great. If you love noir, rent this movie. If you like Quentin Tarantino and Danny DeVito in your crime roles, don’t.
This one’s for you, Carl Brush! I’ll be very curious if you agree or disagree with me on my take here.
I’d really be interested to know if Elmore Leonard agreed with me on any of this. Probably not. At least I suspect he wouldn’t agree publicly—but I wonder if he would in private. I know if I was him, I’d be kind of pissed about what Hollywood does with his stories…
Hope you folks found this halfway interesting.