For the past five years or so, I’ve been caught up in a crime fiction haze. Leading up to this seminal moment, I had been wandering the dark aisles of bookstores, trolling for the differences between “thrillers” and “crime fiction,” coming to realize that those labels had little meaning when it came to the actual work. So I followed my own code, one I made up based on the guys David Simon (creator of the HBO series The Wire) tapped to help bring his version of Baltimore to life. He wanted writers who knew oddball, offbeat stories about life on the streets. Nothing slick from either the crooks or the cops, because each side was one decision away from finding himself on the other side, and that knowledge always impacted their choices.
Which means if I hadn’t already, I hungrily devoured Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos and Richard Price. But somehow, Elmore Leonard loomed over them all. I would sneak a book or two of his into the mix. He didn’t feel the need to waste time with narration; he just let his characters talk, let their voices seep in, fill in the gaps, the details. They were far from omnipotent, tragically ignorant, but sometimes — every once in a blue moon — they were blessed with luck. The books were short and punchy, like shots of Yukon Jack that hit your mouth and spread sweet heat through your brain. You had one and, as strong as it was, you slammed the glass down, lifted your hand and accepted the next pour, knowing you were in it now.
In terms of films, I suppose I acquired the Leonard taste early on.
I remember catching the Burt Reynolds adaptation of Leonard’s own take on his novel Stick about a newly released con (Reynolds) who quickly gets involved with old associates and things go sour. This is a staple of the Leonard criminal landscape: hard men looking to score but usually driven by a code of conduct that places them in conflict with other criminal types who lack a similar conduct gene. These are guys who know the world isn’t going to give them a break, so they’ve got to take what’s available, when it’s available. And like the Disney faithful say, it’s a small world.
It is no surprise then that writer-director Daniel Schechter captures the loose, scrappy feel of Leonard’s novelistic style in Life of Crime (based on the novel The Switch) better than almost anyone who has dared to adapt the dearly departed crime-fiction master. He gets how the heat and a few opportunities can make a man bold enough to do strange, dumb or out of character things. His rendering of Leonard is stripped down, a hot mess, in contrast to Quentin Tarantino’s hip stylings in Jackie Brown (which I maintain is the best film in the Tarantino oeuvre by a country-mile). Tarantino gives us adult yearning and the hope of one last score. More than hope, truth be told, which somehow still doesn’t diminish its appeal.
Jackie Brown (based on the novel Rum Punch) is a key reference because, in true Leonard fashion, Schechter cribs a couple of hapless crooks from that earlier installment, men with a bit of baggage. What’s the upside of bringing back Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson) and Louis Gara (Robert De Niro) if you can’t match the performative firepower?
The canny decision by Schechter is to not even try. His Louis (John Hawkes) and Ordell (Yasiin Bey, possibly still better known as the rapper Mos Def) fall somewhere along the characters’ narrative timelines in Leonard’s world, but you don’t need to have any familiarity with their earlier incarnation in Jackie Brown. And like the best of Leonard’s work, while Louis and Ordell hold sway over huge chunks of the screen time, Life of Crime is always a consummate ensemble affair with the page just finding new life on the screen.
Louis and Ordell are a couple of small-time crooks who quickly wind up in over their heads when they kidnap the wife (Jennifer Aniston) of a real-estate developer (Tim Robbins) who has a mistress (Isla Fisher) and little interest in paying a ransom to save his wife. Not quite a comedy of errors or a thriller, but something that feels brand new up on the screen. So new, in fact, that its spark reignites all of the players here, especially Aniston, who shows true grit. Having caught Life of Crime in Toronto during last year’s festival, it stands as a prime example of good things coming to those who wait. (Opens Friday) (R) Grade: B+
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