John Travolta is getting good. He's dumped the lovable bad boys that he immortalised in the Seventies to play a new character, forged in Pulp Fiction and now Get Shorty, and it's replacing the old tart-with- a-heart as the staple of American crime movies. Meet the new John Travolta, crowned with a halo: the Hood Who's Good. In Get Shorty, he plays a Miami loan shark named Chili Palmer, and we're never allowed to forget how honest and decent he is, despite the fact that he breaks someone's nose before the opening titles.
With his elegant widow's peak and a smile as sharp as his suit, he is Chili by name and chilled-out by nature. The camera swoons, complying with his catch-phrase, "Look at me". And in case we haven't got the message, someone tells him, "You're a good man, even if you are a crook."
Chili has been dispatched to Los Angeles to collect a debt from a weaselly movie producer, Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman), and he's thrilled to be on this errand. He pitches Harry an idea; it has spark and imagination. Although it's only the true story of an insurance scam, it's the way Chili tells it that has Harry hooked. The wheels of a deal begin turning, and Chili secures the services of Harry's leading lady, Karen Flores (Rene Russo), and Martin Weir (Danny DeVito), the biggest (and smallest) star in town.
There are complications involving a drugs boss (Delroy Lindo) and the milquetoast who's scarpered with the insurance-scam money. Luckily, Get Shorty (adapted from Elmore Leonard's novel) is breezier than its plot. There's a governing slickness to it, in the economical editing, and the way the camera coasts dreamily through airports and down boulevards. And despite the rustle of music filling out every scene, it's not a noisy picture - it has Travolta's quiet confidence. John Lurie's score nails the mood: a funky stroll with brassy blasts of jazz and samba.
The humour isn't so subtle. The director Barry Sonnenfeld labours over the physical comedy, and the gaps he leaves for our laughter are often awkwardly over-optimistic. With Leonard's writing, you can get short of breath trying to keep up, but you always feel a step ahead of Sonnenfeld.
I'm not sure Gene Hackman is pitched right, either. The role is clearly a breather for him: after impersonating a pit bull in Crimson Tide, he gets the chance to act like a chihuahua. And he has a ticklish moment: coming off the telephone after badmouthing a mobster, he could be a geek who has just challenged the school bully to a scrap and is wondering how to duck out of it. But he becomes vaudevillian, playing with one eye on the audience, and it's a relief when he's silenced by an uncredited Bette Midler, who blazes in and gives the film a pleasant lift.
Yet Sonnenfeld is still the best thing for the material. As his Addams Family films proved, he has a knack of using enthusiasm to make a picture seem larger and funnier than it actually is, and that's just what Get Shorty needs - it's a shaggy-dog story at heart, bolstered by the sort of characters and coincidences that are the stock-in-trade of the bar- room orator.
Chili taps the plot's dominoes into motion; he's a street-smart Prospero. And as someone remarks, he's a fine actor. Like the heroes of Yojimbo and Miller's Crossing, he gives the impression of absolute assurance even when he has no idea which of his enemies is lurking around the corner. He's keen to bring the insurance fraud story - in which he plays a part - to the screen, and his involvement makes the relationship between art and crime more subtly complex than it was in Bullets Over Broadway. In a culture of hoods and hacks, Chili becomes Hollywood's only genuine auteur.
You just wish that the screenwriter Scott Frank would stop hammering home Chili's love for cinema. Frank raises the humble film buff shoulder- high: those who are passionate about movies get to live and prosper, while the mobster who's only in it for the cash meets a nasty end.
Get Shorty itself would be a little incestuous for Chili's tastes. Sonnenfeld thinks that the star cameos are pay-offs in themselves, when in fact they need the thump of a punchy gag to substantiate them. But it's an amiable picture, and when all else fails, the Casino-esque crimes of fashion keep you grinning: there are more palm trees on the shirts than in the Miami Beach locations.
Another half-comic crime thriller embellished with movie references opens this week. But Kaizo Hayashi's black-and-white CinemaScope oddity, The Most Terrible Time in My Life, is a different barrel of bullets altogether. It starts as a spoof, centred around Mike Hama (Masatoshi Nagase), a Yokohama gumshoe whose office is perched in a cinema balcony. The peculiar first reel has a warm Python-esque aura, as Mike gets a finger severed in a brawl and his friends attempt to rescue the stray digit from the jaws of a hungry pooch.
Then out of the blue, a cumbersome noir-ish plot takes hold. It's as though Hayashi (who made the haunting Circus Boys) began shooting while drunk, and then sobered up halfway through - the last 50 minutes are anchored by the sort of sombre resolve that befalls a sorely hungover souse. The characters communicate solely through indiscriminate acts of violence, and when you discover that two more Mike Hama films are in production, you know how they feel.
n Both films are on release from tomorrow