Chili Palmer, a loan shark based in Miami, clashes with another mobster, Ray "Bones" Barboni over a stolen coat. They have several confrontations, one of which leaves Barboni with a broken nose. But after Palmer's boss, Momo, dies of a heart attack, he finds himself working for Barboni, whose first order is for Palmer to collect a debt owed by Leo Devoe. Devoe was believed to have been killed in a fatal commercial airliner crash, but had actually gotten off the plane, and failed to re-board. After the plane crash, Devoe's wife identified his personal effects, and the airline offered her a check for $300,000. Chili visits her and discovers Leo is still alive, partying in Las Vegas.
While in Vegas, Palmer picks up a job from a casino manager to collect a debt from B-movie producer Harry Zimm. Palmer goes to Los Angeles and locates Zimm at the home of actress Karen Flores, breaking into her house. Zimm agrees to pay the money he owes in 90 days. Film fan Palmer then pitches an idea: a thinly veiled story of his own life, including the scam by Leo.
Zimm is interested, but he has financial problems: He owes $200,000 to drug dealer Bo Catlett, who also wants to be in the movie business. Palmer says he will help Zimm take care of it. Palmer tracks down Devoe and collects the $300,000 in insurance money. He hides it in an airport locker.
Palmer returns to Karen's house, where he asks Karen on a date. Karen is the ex-wife of actor Martin Weir, which gives Palmer the idea that Weir should star in his movie. He and Karen go to Weir's home to pitch the story idea, Chili giving the actor tips on how to act like a loan shark.
Catlett comes to Zimm's office for a progress report about the film he is supposedly financing. Waiting for him there instead is Palmer, who tells Catlett that Zimm has a different project he needs to finish first. Catlett and his sidekick Ronnie proceed to threaten Zimm, saying they want their money back and to get rid of Palmer or else.
Zimm makes a call to Barboni in Miami, telling him Chili has recovered the money from Leo Devoe and speaking to him rudely on the phone. Barboni promptly flies to Los Angeles, confronts Zimm in his office, and beats him mercilessly when Zimm does not reveal the location of Chili and the money. Ronnie walks in and Ray shoots him, then puts the gun in Zimm's hand.
Doris, Zimm's girlfriend, whose late husband wrote "Mr. Lovejoy," calls Karen and tells her that Zimm is in the hospital. When he is eventually released, Zimm must wear a neck brace and remains in agonizing pain, even as he endures Weir's arrogant behavior in a brief lunch meeting with Chili and Karen about their movie project. At another restaurant, Zimm claims he doesn't need Chili's money anymore. Catlett's bodyguard, Bear, a movie stuntman on the side, is thrown down a flight of stairs by Chili.
Desperate for money, Catlett kidnaps Karen and demands the money that Chili has gotten back from Devoe. But after Chili gives him the money, Catlett reneges on their deal. Chili cuts a deal with Bear to double-cross Catlett. On a balcony at Catlett's home, where Karen is being held, Bear pretends to give Chili a beating, but it's a set-up. In the struggle, Catlett is pushed over a balcony rail that was previously loosened, falling to his death.
At his hotel, Barboni confronts Palmer, demanding the money. He finds an airport locker key and assumes the money is hidden in the locker. At the airport, upon opening the locker, a shocked Barboni is confronted by DEA agents.
On a Hollywood studio set, a film is being made. Harvey Keitel is playing Barboni and Martin Weir is playing Palmer. Penny Marshall is directing, with Zimm as executive producer, Chili and Karen as co-producers. Bear is a technical consultant. Chili and Karen are arguing with Weir's agent about Weir's appropriateness for another role.John Travolta as Chili Palmer
Gene Hackman as Harry Zimm
Rene Russo as Karen Flores
Danny DeVito as Martin Weir
Dennis Farina as Ray "Bones" Barbone
Bette Midler as Doris Saffrin
Delroy Lindo as Bo Catlett
James Gandolfini as Bear
Jon Gries as Ronnie Wingate
Renee Props as Nicki
David Paymer as Leo Devoe
Martin Ferrero as Tommy Carlo
Miguel Sandoval as Mr. Escobar
Jacob Vargas as Yayo Portillo
At the beginning of the film, Ray Bones has two thugs with him; one of them is played by actor Ernest "Chili" Palmer. Palmer was author Elmore Leonard's model for the character in the book. According to a newspaper article, he claims not to have been involved with gangsters or loan sharking. When the filmmakers found out from Leonard that there was a real "Chili" Palmer, they gave him a bit part in the film.
The movie features an acid- and soul-jazz themed soundtrack with songs by Us3, Morphine, Booker T. & the M.G.'s, Greyboy and Medeski Martin & Wood alongside original compositions by John Lurie. The soundtrack was nominated for a Grammy Award (1997 - Best Instrumental Composition Written for a Motion Picture or for Television).
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film received an 86% "Certified Fresh" rating, based on 51 reviews, with an average rating of 7.8/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "With a perfect cast and a sly twist on the usual Hollywood gangster dynamic, Get Shorty delivers a sharp satire that doubles as an entertaining comedy-thriller in its own right." On Metacritic, the film holds a score of 82 out of 100, based on 22 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim". The film was entered into the 46th Berlin International Film Festival.
The film opened at #1 upon its release (10/20-22) with $12,700,007. Get Shorty remained #1 for three consecutive weeks before being overtaken by Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls.
For his role as Chili Palmer, John Travolta received the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. The film also received a nomination for the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy.
American Film Institute listsAFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs - Nominated
AFI's 10 Top 10 - Nominated Gangster Film