Remembering Elmore Leonard: ‘Stick’ is fine pop entertainment

Stick_posterStick

Written by Elmore Leonard and Joseph Stinson

Directed by Burt Reynolds

USA, 1985

Part of the reason that Elmore Leonard’s novels got turned into movies so often is that it was so easy to write the screenplays. Entire scenes full of Leonard’s trademark crackling dialogue would go, verbatim, into films like Get Shorty and Out of Sight. But that wasn’t true for the 1990s only. Leonard’s stellar 1983 novel Stick was turned into a movie as well, a film which served as popular entertainment as much as the films came a decade later. Where Get Shorty was 1995’s Travolta movie, Stick was 1985’s Burt Reynolds movie, and every bit as fun.

Reynolds plays Ernest “Stick” Stickley, a just-out-of-prison car thief who wanders into Miami and finds himself caught between a local drug kingpin (Castulo Guerra) and a bumbling financial planner (George Segal). Also of note: a pre-Murphy Brown Candace Bergen as the love interest; and Dar Robinson, one of the greatest stuntmen in the history of the movies, in his only acting role as the psychopathic albino hitman Moke.

So, yes, this is the sort of story in which there exists a psychopathic albino hitman named Moke. However, as in all of Leonard’s best stories (including many of his Westerns), there is a strong sense of self-awareness in these characters. Stick understands that he is caught in an absurd situation, especially for an ex-con riding the rails at the start of the film. In many ways, Reynolds was a perfect actor for this story, because although he was always a little too cool for his own good, Leonard characters depend upon cool more than anything else.

Reynolds directs himself, which he had done before to some success (Sharky’s Machine), but there’s not a lot of art in his scenes. He was undoubtedly aiming at “sun-drenched noir,” but just because one is shooting on location in Miami doesn’t mean the “sun-drenched” part is a given. Almost nothing about this film delivers the grittiness and grime of a noir picture – even a fight scene in a public bathroom seems too clean. Once Stick shaves off the hobo beard he has at the beginning of the film, the movie is not remotely as noir-ish as the source material.

Of course, the source material is noir enough to make up for Reynolds’ shortcomings as a director. By this point, Leonard had enough influence in Hollywood that he could adapt himself (with Joseph Stinson as a co-writer). As a result, the plot follows the novel almost exactly, and in Leonard style, it cares little for the whodunit or revenge aspects that are set up in Act One. All that matters are the characters bouncing off each other, and the actors savoring the fantastic dialogue.

That’s not to say Leonard didn’t care about action; almost all of the action scenes appear exactly as they were in the novel. This includes Robinson’s famous backwards fall off of a hotel balcony, which was (and still is) one of the most difficult stunts ever attempted in a movie. However, Leonard is not one for action setpieces. All of the action in his stories comes naturally out of the characters interacting with each other, and the violence usually comes in bursts so sudden that neither the characters or the reader are prepared for it.

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The movie’s only major misstep is a big shootout at the climax, which was a departure from the book. It’s not that departing from the book was a mistake by itself. Excessive fealty to source material is a bad thing – not unlike demanding that one’s favorite band sound exactly the same on stage as they do on the CD or MP3 – but the problem with the climax of Stick is that it’s not right for the character. Stick spends 90 minutes of getting an edge by being cooler and smarter than every other guy he’s matched up with, so to put a machine gun into his hands, as though he’s some kind of cut-rate Rambo, makes little sense.

Stick was not a hit at the box office. Although it opened in first place, it faltered quickly and in week two, it grossed less than the fifth month of Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop. Leonard would not have another novel adapted for the big screen until Get Shorty 10 years later, although there were some made-for-TV movies in between. Ironically, it was Rambo who was part of the problem: First Blood Part II came out a month after Stick did; audiences of the 1980s responded to it, and the intense later films from its writer James Cameron, more than Leonard’s breezy crime yarns.

However, Leonard’s earlier adventures in the movie business enabled Get Shorty, which enabled the most successful adventures in the movie business that he ever had. Much as with Leonard’s writing career, which ws in progress for decades before Stick was even a gleam in Burt Reynolds’ eye, the great writing will pull people in eventually. Once it does, even the financial failures make for a great time.
-Mark Young
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