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From Best To Worst: Elmore Leonard Movie Adaptations

by Oliver Lyttelton
May 14, 2013 11:57 AM
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14. "Killshot" (2009)
This adaptation of one of Leonard's best-loved novels was a long, long time coming. Initially optioned (alongside "Bandits" and "Freaky Deaky") by Miramax for Quentin Tarantino after "Pulp Fiction," produced by his partner Lawrence Bender, and initially intended to be "Presented" by QT (he took his name off the film), "Killshot" was in development forever, but finally came to the screen under the unlikely direction of "Shakespeare In Love" helmer John Madden, who started shooting in 2005. Taking four years to make it to the screen, the film was beset by post-production issues, heavy re-shoots, and behind-the-scenes feuding. When it did arrive finally, it wasn't a huge surprise that the movie was a mess. Mickey Rourke (post-"Sin City" comeback, though the film was released on the tail of his Oscar-nominated turn in "The Wrestler") toplines as Blackbird, a half-Native American hitman who, teamed with the reckless Richie (a greasy, kind of terrible Joseph Gordon-Levitt), target a married couple (the pleasantly-rhyming duo of Diane Lane and Thomas Jane) who've gone into the witness protection program. You sense that there's a good film, or at least a half-decent one, tucked somewhere in here: Rourke in particular is strong, giving a nice sense of melancholy to the picture, and it's handsomely shot by the great Caleb Deschanel. But the script (by future "Drive" writer Hossein Amini), at least in the form it takes on screen, takes forever to get going and grinds to a halt every time Lane and Jane's blander-than-bland leads come center-stage. Ultimately, it's not a film that's especially bad (Gordon-Levitt's performance aside) on a scene-by-scene basis, but as a whole, it's turgid and, frankly, boring. [C-]

13. "The Moonshine War" (1970)
A curious entry in the Leonard filmography, based on one of his lesser-known early novels (which also recently lent its name, if little else, to a "Justified" episode), "The Moonshine War" is a sort of 1970s answer to "Lawless" and proves to be just as unsatisfying when it comes to capturing Prohibition-era criminality. The convoluted plot sees corrupt internal revenue agent Frank Long ("The Prisoner" star Patrick McGoohan) come to Kentucky to see if he can get a cut of the moonshining business of his army buddy Son Martin (Alan Alda). The two fall out and Long brings the psychotic Dr. Taulbee (Richard Widmark) into the mix. Director Richard Quine ("How To Murder Your Wife"), working from a script by Leonard himself, never quite gets to grips with the story, in part because the character's motivations often feel nebulous. But that's the least of the problems with the performances. Widmark makes an entertaining villain (backed up by musician Lee Hazlewood, of all people), but McGoohan and Alda are both wildly miscast, struggling with the accents, rarely convincing, and in the former's case, swinging for the hills in a way that comes across as faintly embarrassing. Quine's nodding to Arthur Penn with his direction, but there's little flair here and it feels pedestrian throughout. Lower your expectations and you might have a reasonable time with it, but there's little reason for even the most ardent Leonard fan to track it down. [C-]

12. "Valdez Is Coming" (1971)
Elmore Leonard's career both as a writer and onscreen is roughly divided into two eras -- he started off as a writer of short stories and novels in the western genre, but from the mid-1970s onwards has almost exclusively figured moved into more contemporary fare. His movies have followed that pattern too; most of the earlier adaptations were of western novels or stories, but now, the likes of "3:10 To Yuma" are the outliers. Probably the least of those early Westerns was "Valdez Is Coming," a passable, but creaky vehicle for Burt Lancaster. The legendary star plays the title character, a part-Mexican constable who stands up against Tanner (Jon Cypher), the corrupt rancher who caused him to gun down an innocent man. Valdez tries to raise some money from Tanner for the widow, but the villain responds by forcing the lawman to carry a wooden cross into the desert -- Christ allegories ahoy! But they made a mistake not finishing him off and he recovers, dons his old cavalry uniform, and returns for vengeance. A borderline Spaghetti Western (US-backed, but shot in Spain), it's a neat setup, but its themes of bigotry in the Old West were tackled better elsewhere and the unsteady hand of director Edwin Sherin, a theater veteran whose screen career never really got going, makes it feel awkward, poorly paced and half-cocked. Even the star turn doesn't quite come off. Lancaster's as solid as ever, but time hasn't been kind to his brown-face turn here, leaving Richard Jordan as a bug-eyed villain to walk away with the acting honors.  [C]

11. "Joe Kidd" (1972)
While Leonard's come to the screen many times and often received screenwriting credit on the adaptation (mostly on films where he was heavily rewritten and proved to be unhappy with; it's worth noting that most of the top picks on this list feature no writing contribution from Leonard), the novelist never took to original screenplays in the way that you might imagine for a writer who's so adept with dialogue and plotting. But there are a couple of decent exceptions to that in the early 1970s, the first of which is "Joe Kidd," an original western screenplay that teamed two other giants of the genre: star Clint Eastwood, and director John Sturges ("The Magnificent Seven," "Bad Day At Black Rock"). Eastwood plays the title character, a jail-bound bounty hunter press-ganged into a posse led by corrupt landowner Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall), to capture Mexican revolutionary John Chama (John Saxon). There's certainly a reason that the existence of the film probably comes as a surprise to all, but the hardiest Clint-heads or Western fans: it's a pretty unashamed B-picture, one shot through with the sense of social justice that's so common in Leonard's western work, but ultimately breaks little ground, especially with Clint on something close to autopilot (it's worth noting that the actor's next two westerns were the far-more boundary-pushing "High Plains Drifter" and "The Outlaw Josey Wales"). That said, the film's still a lot of fun, especially when it comes to Duvall's loathsome but textured bad guy and some cracking action, which peaks as Kidd drives a train to a saloon (not exactly at high speed, it should be said...). Hardly an undiscovered classic, but if it was on TV on a Sunday afternoon, you'd be unlikely to turn it off. [C+]

10. "Mr. Majestyk" (1974)
And then there was the second of his original screenplays -- which went on to be turned into a novel by Leonard, entering his canon for real as a result. It's better-known status is also helped in that it's a favorite of Quentin Tarantino (it's referred to in the dialogue of "True Romance," and the poster can be glimpsed on Michael Madsen's wall in "Kill Bill Volume 2") even before he adapted Leonard himself. Originally written by Leonard for Eastwood (presumably Clint lost interest after "Joe Kidd" opened to mediocre reviews and worse box-office), it soon became a vehicle for Charles Bronson, who takes the title role of a Vietnam vet turned melon farmer who ends up capturing a mobster (Al Lettieri) who's behind the protection racket that's been threatening his business. There's a certain amount of (mostly) unintentional humor in Majestyk's obsessions with his melon crop, but it's otherwise a highly competent pretty straight-ahead action flick. Free of the questionable politics of the "Death Wish" series (indeed, its pro-union stance places it on the other side of the aisle in many ways), it gives Bronson one of his best roles of the period, with Lettieri proving to be an excellent adversary for him. And while it takes a little while to really get going, the third act is cracking, with blood and melons flying, and genre specialist Richard Fleischer ("Solyent Green," "Tora! Tora! Tora!") handling the action with aplomb. Leonard wrote the story up as a novel while the film was in production and it hit bookshelves at about the same time as the movie; it's probably better on the page, though it's still not one of his top flight works. [B-]

9. "52 Pick-Up" (1986)
The story behind "52 Pick-Up" must rank as one of the strangest paths to the screen that an Elmore Leonard picture took. Optioned by the legendary (not necessarily for the right reasons...) Cannon Group honchos Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, Leonard turned in a script that was then completely rewritten into the 1984 film "The Ambassador," a political thriller that bears no resemblance to the novel, directed by J. Lee Thompson, and starring Robert Mitchum, Ellen Burstyn, and in his last screen appearance, Rock Hudson. (We didn't include as part of the main list, because, in Leonard's words, "It has none of my characters, none of my situations, nothing.") Then, two years later, Golan and Globus remade it with a rather more faithful adaptation, directed by John Frankenheimer, and with Leonard retaining script credit. The film wasn't especially well-regarded, but given that it's a Cannon Films production, we were pleasantly surprised at what an enjoyably nasty little thriller it turns out to be. Roy Scheider stars as a L.A. industrialist who is having an affair with a much, much younger woman (Kelly Preston) while his wife (Ann-Margret) is distracted running for city council. But he's confronted by a trio of blackmailers (John Glover, Clarence Williams III and Robert Trebor), who ask for $100,000 to keep his secret safe. When he tries to tell them he can't pay up, they kill the girl and frame him for the murder. The film's undoubtedly exploitation fare (barely a couple of scenes go by without a pair of bare breasts), but the sleaziness feels appropriate here in a way that it didn't with something like "Cat Chaser," while Frankenheimer's fine handle on tension was still with him, resulting in a truly taut narrative. Scheider, whose star was fading somewhat, is actually excellent, while the villains, especially Glover, are tremendous foils. The whole thing falls apart at the end and becomes something closer to a traditional '80s action film, but it's a lot of fun until then, even if you do feel a bit dirty afterwards. [B-]

8. "3:10 To Yuma" (2007)
The most recent Leonard-adaptation you actually remember (even if many aren't aware that 'Yuma' is a Leonard tale at all), the remake of "3:10 To Yuma" was in development for years -- Columbia picked up the project in 2003 and people like Tom Cruise and Eric Bana were linked to the lead roles before the studio dropped it. But Lionsgate and Relativity Media picked up the reins and James Mangold finally got to make his western, with the hot-off "Batman Begins" Christian Bale as the hero and Russell Crowe as the bad guy. The script, by Michael Brandt & Derek Haas (and hewing close enough to the first adaptation that they shared credit with original scribe Halsted Welles, who died in 1990) follows most of the same beats, while fleshing out the characters a little more; so Bale's hero Dan Evans is now an amputee out to prove his masculinity to his son (a strong debut from Logan Lerman), while Crowe's Ben Wade has something of a Hannibal Lecter side to him, somehow. There are also a few new characters, including Peter Fonda's grizzled, cantankerous Pinkerton, and a soggy new mid-section featuring an inexplicable Luke Wilson cameo. Some of the changes are for the better -- Ben Foster is terrific as Wade's terrifying terrier of a right-hand-man Charlie Prince -- and so little is broken about the conceit that it's engaging throughout, particularly with Crowe giving one of his better turns and the typically solid Mangold at the helm. But the extra half-hour it has on the lean original sometimes feels too much like padding and an altered "darker" ending is unsatisfying on multiple levels (not least to Leonard, who told Vice a few years later "It's just dumb. In the new one, he shoots his own guys, and then he gets on the train and whistles for his horse! I don't know what that means. I have no idea. Is the horse going to follow him all the way across Arizona?") Still, as present-day Westerns go, it's a decent effort. [B-]

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  • 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


  • 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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