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From Best To Worst: Elmore Leonard Movie Adaptations

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
May 14, 2013 11:57 AM
23 Comments
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Today sees the release of a sparkling new Criterion version of "3:10 To Yuma," the perpetually-underrated 1957 Western that's somewhat overshadowed by the more recent 2007 remake. Even those who have seen the earlier version may not be entirely aware that it's based on a short story by a man that we consider not just one of America's finest crime novelists, but one of our finest writers full stop: Elmore Leonard.

For over 60 years, the now-87-year-old author has been working at a prodigious rate, cranking out countless short stories and novels, often funny, intricately plotted crime tales, frequently set in his hometown of Detroit, and full of eccentric characters, sparkling dialogue and brutal violence. Stephen King called him "the great American writer," and Martin Amis once told him at a live event "Your prose makes Raymond Chandler look clumsy."

It's no surprise, given the nature of his writing, that Leonard has long appealed to Hollywood and his work has been gracing the screen in various forms for over 50 years. We couldn't be bigger fans of Leonard, and so to mark the Criterion release of "3:10 To Yuma," we've gone back and watched every major big-screen Leonard adaptation (excepting anything made for TV -- see the bottom of the piece for more), and ranked them from worst to best. So what came out top? Have a look below to find out and let us know your own favorite Leonard adaptation in the comments section. 

21. "Be Cool" (2005)
You know when a band reunites years after their prime for a cash-grab tour followed by an album significantly worse than anything they did before, which serves only to sully the reputation of their earlier work? "Be Cool" is the movie equivalent of that. A decade after the success of "Get Shorty" revived interest in Elmore Leonard on screen, John Travolta returned to the role of Chilli Palmer in an adaptation of the writer's 1999 sequel novel (itself inspired by the success of the earlier movie), which sees him getting out of the movie industry and helping Edie, the widow (Uma Thurman) of a recently-deceased record mogul pal (James Woods), fend off the attentions of thuggish managers Nick and Raji (Harvey Keitel and Vince Vaughn) and gangster-turned-super-producer Sin (Cedric the Entertainer), while also plotting stardom for singing sensation Linda Moon (Christina Milian). But what seemed effortless when Scott Frank and Barry Sonnenfeld were in charge feels desperately, hopelessly strained the second time around. In fairness, the novel "Be Cool" is far from Leonard's finest hour, but it's a masterpiece compared to the laugh-less script by Peter Steinfeld ("Analyze That") and tension-free direction by F. Gary Gray. Creaky and dated, the moment the sets were taken down (not helped by the presence of the now-forgotten, deeply bland Milian and cameos from the likes of Fred Durst), it seems to have been made by people with no sense of how the record industry actually works or any feel for what made "Get Shorty" so enjoyable. Even the impressive-on-paper cast disappoints; Travolta and Thurman display little of their "Pulp Fiction" chemistry (not least when Gray decides to reprise their famous dance sequence in front of a live performance by the Black Eyed Peas), Keitel is sleepwalking and Vaughn, at the nadir of his pre-"Wedding Crashers" slump, is phenomenally annoying. The sole bright light is Dwayne Johnson, charismatic and funny as Vaughn's gay, country-music loving bodyguard (though the film sells him up the river too). Pretty much a disaster from start to finish. [F]

20. "Freaky Deaky" (2012)
The most recent screen-adaptation of a Leonard novel, "Freaky Deaky" is one of the writer's best-loved stories and was one of the package of options that Miramax picked up in the mid-1990s for Quentin Tarantino (with "Rum Punch," aka "Jackie Brown," the major beneficiary). The rights eventually lapsed, and after cycling through various cast options including Matt Dillon, Sienna Miller and William H. Macy, Charles Matthau (son of the great Walter) finally got rolling on this independent, low-budget adaptation. As you might expect from its Z-list cast, it's pretty dreadful. Transplanting the original novel to the 1970s for no apparent reason, it sees ex-bomb squad cop Chris (Billy Burke) drawn into the world of lunatic heir Woody Ricks (Crispin Glover) after he's accused of rape, just as the millionaire finds himself the target of ex-radical bomb-makers Robin and Skip (Breanne Racano and Christian Slater). There's plenty of other colorful figures knocking around, most memorably Michael Jai White as Glover's Machiavellian bodyguard (and least memorably, Andy Dick as a movie producer), but the cast have such low star-wattage (Burke in particular virtually fades into the background) that it's never especially entertaining, even if Matthau has directly transposed much of Leonard's dialogue, which crackles, but never takes off. More crucially, the writer-director ensures that the wacky dial has been turned up to 11 which 1) doesn't make it any funnier and 2) undermines the more serious elements -- it's hard to take a shine to the ker-azzzy characters when there's a sexual assault sub-plot in the mix as well. The ultra-low production values (most of the budget seems to have gone on music clearance) could be forgiven; a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes Leonard tick can't be. [F]

"The Big Bounce"
19. "The Big Bounce" (2004)
A second film version of "The Big Bounce" wasn't a bad idea, in and of itself. The 1969 film was hardly some unimpeachable classic (see below), the thought of moving the story to Hawaii to add some color wasn't a bad one and director George Armitage had shown plenty of capacity for this kind of thing in the past, as the man behind "Miami Blues" and "Grosse Pointe Blank." But given the result, it's understandable that Armitage has been stuck in director's jail ever since. Owen Wilson takes the lead role this time around, as Jack Ryan (not that one...), a surfer bum/manual laborer/breaking-and-entering specialist, who's just served a little time for thwacking the foreman with an aluminum bat. He's told to leave the island, but comes under the wing of local judge Walter (Morgan Freeman) and the spell of Nancy (Sara Foster), the bonkers mistress of local bigwig Ray (Gary Sinise). All the ingredients are there, but Armitage can't decide on a tone; it's equal part crime comedy, easy-going Hawaii postcard and super-broad comedy. Like the original, it's a bit turgid and aimless (it's not Leonard's tightest-plotted novel in the first place), but Armitage lays on an omnipresent, irritatingly jaunty George Clinton score that just plain murders any tension and the film seems so keen to be ingratiating that it forgets to be interesting. It's also fatally miscast at almost every point: Wilson's quippy-shtick overwhelms the rest of the picture, Foster (a former model and TV presenter in her acting debut as the femme fatale) couldn't act if her life depended on it, and the rest of the cast seem to have been assembled entirely at random: Charlie Sheen! Vinnie Jones! Willie Nelson! The film aspires to a certain effortless, but it's only too obvious on screen how little anyone involved cares about what they're doing. [D-]

18. "Cat Chaser" (1989)
Leonard was increasingly dissatisfied with screen versions of his work as the 1980s continued (rightly so, as we'll see), but "Cat Chaser" must have felt somewhat like the final straw: another bad-tempered production, another picture re-cut by the studio, and another film that barely saw a release (it got a theatrical outing in the UK and elsewhere, but went straight to DVD in the US). Directed by Abel Ferrera (who would bounce back soon after with "King of New York" and "Bad Lieutenant"), the film stars the hot-off "Robocop" Peter Weller as George Moran, an army vet who served in the oft-forgotten 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic. Returning to Santo Domingo to find the teenage sniper who saved his life back in the day, he instead encounters his ex, Mary (Kelly McGillis, who had such an awful time time making the film with Ferrera that she essentially left the spotlight altogether), who's now unhappily married to a psychotic former general. She plans to leave her husband with a $2 million settlement, even as another military buddy of George and an ex-cop (Frederic Forrest and Charles Durning) scheme to rip him off, but the general won't let her go either. In theory, it should be crackling stuff and what Ferrera does pull off is the atmosphere; there's a sticky, sweaty sensuality to the film that suits the film's sensibilities nicely. But the trouble is that Ferrera seems to only prick up his interest when there's sex involved -- grubby, misogynistic sex at that -- and at every other point, he seems to have simply pointed a camera at the actors and let them at it. While the studio did cut Ferrera's film nearly in half by the time it was released, even then, it's hard to imagine that there's some hidden masterpiece of a cut out there. The film is languid as it is, so while Ferrera's ideal version might actually make sense in a way that the released version doesn't, it's unlikely to be any more involving. [D-

17. "The Rosary Murders" (1987)
A rare screenwriter-for-hire gig for Leonard, "The Rosary Murders" was pretty much done as a favor. Robert Laurel, a fellow Detroit native, had picked up the rights to one of William X. Kienzle's novels featuring Catholic priest/detective Father Robert Koesler, was looking for someone to add some local flavor, and who better than its most famous crime-writing son? Yet the film turned out to be a pretty poor match. The picture's a fairly conventional thriller, top-lining Donald Sutherland as Father Koesler, who vows to track down the killer of priests and nuns, but finds himself caught between the right thing and his vows when the killer comes to confession. It's a decent set-up (reminiscent of Hitchcock's "I Confess"), but despite some vaguely interesting inner-church intrigue (Kienzle himself was a priest who left the church in protest of their attitude towards divorce), the film doesn't do much with it. It's a dull thriller with some slightly creaky production values, which for the most part feels like the pilot to some USA Network show. Sutherland is typically good value in the lead, as is Leonard vet Charles Durning as Koesler's conservative nemesis (the actor reportedly apologized to the writer on set for his participation in "Stick"). So something of a washout, but it's hard to treat it as a true Leonard movie: by the writer's account, he took the job for the money, and was mostly rewritten by the film's director, Fred Walton ("When A Stranger Calls"). If you do watch it, it's worth keeping an eye out for a cameo from a young Jack White as an altar boy. [D]

16. "The Big Bounce" (1969)
Though he'd been writing for over a decade and had already been adapted to the screen several times, "The Big Bounce" was the novel that set up the template for much of what we think of as the archetypal Elmore Leonard story -- his first full-length contemporary crime story, it features much of the quirkiness, double-crosses, femme fatales, and everything that's come to figure into his best known work. It's not his most fully realized effort, but on the page, it's a lot of fun and it's not surprising that it's come to the screen twice. As we've seen already, the recent Owen Wilson-starring version was a misfire, but unfortunately, the 1969 original was nearly as problematic. Moved from the Michigan setting of the novel to California, it stars Ryan O'Neal as Jack Ryan, with the "Love Story" actor's then-wife Leigh Taylor-Young as Nancy, James Daly as the villainous Ray Ritchie, Van Helfin in the Morgan Freeman part of the local judge, and Lee Grant, the best thing in the movie, as a tragic local single-mother, a part excised completely from the remake. The two films are an interesting case-study, because they each miss the mark, in entirely different ways -- if you were somehow able to combine them, you might somehow get close to something pretty good. Whereas Wilson is as winning as ever in the 2004 version, O'Neal is charmless and unpleasant. Whereas Sara Foster's Nancy is a virtual non-entity, Taylor-Young is magnetic (if a bit shrill in the closing stages). Whereas the recent film takes nothing seriously, the '69 take is dour and cynical. The one thing the two versions share (other than hideous scores -- in this case, sub-Beach Boys surf-guitar stuff) -- they're incredibly dull, with no real sense of urgency or any real attempt to capture Leonard's voice. Maybe another filmmaker would be able to get it right third time around, but history at this point suggests that they'd be unwise to try. [D]

15. "Stick" (1985)
As far as directorial debuts from a figure such as Burt Reynolds go, 1981's "Sharky's Machine" wasn't a bad effort -- a tough and watchable crime flick that showed the perm-tached 1970s megastar had some talent behind the camera. Elmore Leonard's "Stick," could have been a decent follow-up. Reynolds directed (working from a script by Leonard and "Sudden Impact" writer Joseph Stinson) and starred in the movie, but it coincided with the his creative and commercial decline and has deservedly been swiftly forgotten. Burt plays the title role, a car thief just out of the prison who gets embroiled in a drug swap with an old friend, only to see his pal double-crossed and murdered. Lying low, he takes a job as a driver for an eccentric movie producer (George Segal) while romancing a financier (Candice Bergen) and seeks vengeance on the men behind the death of his friend, drug dealer Chucky (Charles Durning) and the sinister, voodoo-employing Nestor (Castulo Guerra). The film was a tumultuous production; delayed for a year, heavily re-shot at Universal's behest to add more action, and denounced by Leonard as a result. And that's part of the problem; there's little of Leonard's spirit in there, not much in the way of wit and smarts, to the extent that it feels, more than anything, like the kind of Jason Statham movie that disappears from theaters in two weeks. But studio interference can't take the whole blame as there's plenty of poorly thought-out decisions in here to lay at the director/star's door, from an ill-advised hair-metal wig for Durning's villain, to Segal's shrill comic relief performance, to the creepily incestuous vibe between Reynolds and his teen daughter. It's better than "Be Cool" and its ilk by being somewhat watchable, but it's still an immensely forgettable effort. [D+]

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23 Comments

  • VIC | May 24, 2014 5:06 PMReply

    "The Tall T" is my absolute favorite, followed by "Hombre", "3:10 To Yuma"('57), "Out of Sight", "Jackie Brown" & "Get Shorty". Just one fan's opinion.

  • Gig | May 24, 2014 4:48 PMReply

    Always liked HOMBRE and GET SHORTY, but JUSTIFIED tops them all.

  • Jon | May 24, 2014 3:46 PMReply

    The worst is still a "B". Perhaps the list should be called "from the better to the best". I've seen "The Tall T" several times. It's a very strong film. The scene when where Randolph Scott questions Henry Silva ("the Chink") about the fate of the father and son who tended the stagecoach stop, is shocking even by today's standards.

  • Mike | May 21, 2013 11:34 PMReply

    Great list. I love Out of Sight and certainly respect Jackie Brown, but to me Get Shorty is by far the best of the Leonard movies. Hackman, Devito and Lindo are all phenomenal and this is really the great performance of Travolta's career. Surprised the movie didn't get any Oscar love in 1995. Also love the high ranking of Hombre as someone else mentioned earlier. Another classic.

  • john steppling | May 20, 2013 3:41 AMReply

    I wrote the screen adaptation for 52 Pick Up........Leonard wrote none of it but Golem and Globus wanted his name on it. You can ask Dutch, he'll tell you. He did none of it. Of course its totally faithful to the book... and we had wanted it shot in Detroit or Pittsburgh, but Frankenheimer couldnt be away from his favorite restaurants that long.....(its what he said).

  • bwotkun | May 25, 2014 8:44 AM

    That was a great movie man.

  • George | May 19, 2013 2:58 AMReply

    I really think TV is better place to flesh out and utilize Elmore Leonard material. The Arrangement is the name of the pilot on USA but I'm not really optomistic since being done by the people behind Justified. I really would love to see a TV series adaptation of Leonard's novel Swag. That character was ruined in that terrible Burt Reynolds movie Stick. Which was based off the sequel novel called Stick.

  • Bill R | May 18, 2013 11:20 PMReply

    You left out "52 Pickup" starring Roy Scheider , Ann Margaret, & Clarence Williams, exactly faithful to the book.

  • jimmiescoffee | May 16, 2013 7:42 PMReply

    Get Shorty is fantastic. and 1&2 are just pure 90's all time classics.

  • triguous | May 14, 2013 9:11 PMReply

    Out of Sight, Get Shorty and Jackie Brown are three of my favorite films. QT and Scott Frank are two of my favorite screenwriters. Amazing work.

    Skeet Ulrich is great in Touch.

  • TheoC | May 14, 2013 5:54 PMReply

    Also Clooney and Lopez fucking smolder in that movie, so rare to capture such chemistry on screen, and just before she turned into a tool too.

  • TheoC | May 14, 2013 5:52 PMReply

    Fantastic list, I'm no Jackie Brown fan but as adaptations go it deserves its high spot. Out of Sight is a superior movie in my mind. Nice to see Touch get up there too.

    Great work.

    Carla Gugino turned up in Justified last season with pretty much as Karen Cisco but using a 'married name', much in the same sense Stephen Root's speedo wearing Judge is pretty much Maximum Bob with a different name. Maximum Bob was played by Beau Bridge's in a series I've never seen, but the book was good fun.

  • shark | May 14, 2013 5:35 PMReply

    I can see why you put Out of Sight on top, but to me, Jackie Brown is a masterpiece, something Tarantino has never, will never top. And while I love Out of Sight, it's not in the same universe of quality.

  • triguous | May 14, 2013 9:12 PM

    "Jackie Brown is a masterpiece, something Tarantino has never, will never top." Yes.

  • sidneyfalco | May 14, 2013 4:17 PMReply

    Love the list and agree with OUT OF SIGHT...btw - Burt Reynolds directorial debut was GATOR (76) not SHARKEY'S MACHINE (81)

  • RE | May 14, 2013 1:18 PMReply

    Awesome job. This is one of the top ten Playlist lists. You under-grade Get Shorty, but placing Hombre above it is badass for a film critic.

  • Sumo 40 | May 14, 2013 1:10 PMReply

    Out of sight .... Slick, well written a fuckin gem clooney and Lopez just smoulder
    And the soundtrack oft copied never betters David Holmes
    Best work !

  • Xander | May 14, 2013 12:53 PMReply

    Amen! I agree almost completely! Out of Sight is one of my favorite films and Maximum Bob was one of my favorite short-lived shows.

  • C.s. Couch | May 14, 2013 12:53 PMReply

    Must disagree, I disliked the movie version of "Out of Sight."

  • bwotkun | May 25, 2014 8:53 AM

    GODAWFUL NOT GRATEFUL

  • bwotkun | May 25, 2014 8:52 AM

    Definitely agree. I'm such a Leonard fan I love to watch this. The cast is brilliant the script is awesome...but I sure wish a different director had helmed this one. The editing, camerawork and music are grateful.

  • Glass | May 14, 2013 12:33 PMReply

    Wow, great writeup! I always flip-flop on what's better between Jackie and Out of Sight, but I usually agree with you here. Both are excellent pictures, and the Ray Nicolette connection is too awesome.

  • Sad ROckstar | May 14, 2013 12:18 PMReply

    I think you meant Worst to Best.

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