The works of famed crime novelist Elmore Leonard are a popular source for directors looking to dip their toes in the genre, but few are able to fully capture the author's snappy narrative voice. A few managed to get it right; Quentin Tarantino with Jackie Brown and Steven Soderbergh's sexy Out of Sight, and some would probably say Get Shorty although for me that film has always been somewhat overrated. Dan Schechter, whose last film was the lively indie, Supporting Characters, brings that same creative energy to Life of Crime, easily the best Leonard adaptation since Out of Sight steamed up theaters sixteen years ago.
The background on this one is as twisty as one of Leonard's plots, although knowing the history isn’t necessary to enjoy the madcap criminal shenanigans at play. Seeing as Leonard's book, The Switch, is the inspiration, and is a prequel to Rum Punch, which Tarantino adapted into Jackie Brown; Life of Crime follows the early exploits of characters we already know pretty well. Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) and John Hawkes are the young Ordell and Louis (played by Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro in Jackie Brown), and the petty crooks have happened upon their next "get rich quick" scheme. That eerily familiar plan involves kidnapping Mickey (Jennifer Aniston) the socialite wife to rich Detroit businessman Frank Taylor (Tim Robbins), and scoring a hefty ransom. But the duo, who we know will have a long history of not thinking things through, didn't bother to research their target. It seems that Frank has been skipping town often under the guise of business trips, when he's actually down in Florida vacationing with his mistress, Melanie (Isla Fisher, played by Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown), who he plans to marry.
So what does that mean for their hopes of extorting $1M in cold cash to return Mickey to her "loving" husband"? It means things are only going to get more complicated, especially as Mickey comes to realize that her supposedly wedded bliss may not be all she thought it was. As her relationship with the clearly-smitten Louis deepens, tensions arise between the two old buddies when Ordell begins to suspect the jig has been compromised. Does he trust his friend to see their scheme through to the end? What if things get ugly and there needs to be violence? The question of just how far Louis is willing to go proves to be the film's driving force, with Hawkes turning in yet another terrific performance. Those used to De Niro's later portrayal may take a little time getting used to Hawkes' quirkier approach, but by the end of the film you can see how and why Louis evolves as he does. Hawkes and Aniston trade barbs and emotional exchanges in equal measure, and while they have good chemistry together comedically they don't share much in romantic chemistry. Schechter, who wrote the script on spec in hopes Leonard would approve (he did obviously), has his sights set on laughs rather than stirring up passion. The film's best bits are the funny ones, and many of them center on Mark Boone Junior as Richard, a racist, Nazi-loving dufus (he likes Ordell, though, just enough) who can't get anything right. He's stupid but dangerous, and when the stakes suddenly ramp up it's because of his dim-witted actions. Ultimately, it's Mickey's beauty that becomes the biggest obstacle as Will Forte plays a wimpy friend whose crush on her threatens to blow the plan up before it's even started. Schechter leans hard on the '70s soundtrack and authentically dated outfits, perfectly fitting for the era even if they seem a little weird on the decidedly modern Aniston.
As much fun as Life of Crime turns out to be it does struggle to conjure up fresh surprises due to the familiarity of a plot we've seen far too often. The characters keep it light and engaging, a testament to the strength of Leonard's writing and Schechter’s direction. The author himself may be gone, but as long as enjoyable films like Life of Crime are out there his work will endure.