I remember seeing the trailer for Daniel Schechter’s Life of Crime about four or five months ago and being pretty excited about it. It’s based on one of my favorites in Elmore Leonard’s canon, “The Switch,” which is a prequel to “Rum Punch” (adapted by Tarantino as Jackie Brown). Life of Crime is also significant because it was the last time Dutch was closely involved with an adaptation of his work. He gets an executive producer credit on the film and although he passed away before its release, I have a solid feeling Dutch would’ve been happy as hell with Schechter’s confident, genuinely Leonardesque comic caper.
Life of Crime is far less slick than the most successful Leonard adaptations – Soderbergh’s Out of Sight and Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. It’s also not as quirky as Killshot or as gritty as 52 Pick-Up or Mr. Majestyk. Life of Crime fits somewhere in the middle, deftly balancing Leonard’s fine-tuned blend of comedy and crime while also capturing the author’s snappy street dialogue. What I’m trying to say is Life of Crime isn’t as sleek or gritty or quirky as other Leonard adaptations, but it evokes the master’s work just as strong as any of the others.
Likable small-time crooks Ordell Robbie (Mos Def, under his Yasiin Bey name) and Louis Gara (John Hawkes) kidnap the wife of a corrupt country-club drunkard and demand the money he’s been secretly hiding in a tax-shelter bank in the Bahamas. Their scheme is filled with gaping holes to begin with, but things take a sharp nosedive when they kidnap the disenchanted wife Mickey (Jennifer Aniston) and her husband Frank (Tim Robbins in linen-white sleazy glory) isn’t interested in paying any ransom to get her back. In fact, he just filed for divorce before he left for a “business trip” to visit his philly Melanie (Isla Fisher) in the Bahamas. He could care less what happens to Mickey. While Ordell and Louis wait on their impossible ransom, they hole up at the home of Richard (Sons of Anarchy’s Mark Boone Junior), a gun-hoarding, Nazi-obsessed sad sack who drills holes in the wall so he can watch Mickey go to the bathroom.
Set in the Motor City of the late 1970s, Life of Crime maintains a wholly realistic vibe throughout. Even when would-be seducer Will Forte fouls up Ordell and Louis’ kidnapping in one of the film’s most absurd scenes, the film feels grounded and underplays this absurdity. Like the book, it’s a breezy film. Leonard once said he writes chapters like scenes in a movie, one chapter = one scene. Life of Crime definitely has that pace. It leaves out some of the character development (particularly the relationship between Louis and Mickey – they’re great pot-smoking, beer chugging, pizza-eating moment is cut way short), but any gaps are filled in by the incredibly strong cast.
While she’s the big star of the cast, Aniston (Leprechaun) lets her Mickey character become part of the ensemble (another one of Leonard’s traits captured nicely, the criminal ensemble). Homegirl shows off her comedic timing alongside the always great Hawkes. Their scenes together are some of the best as they display enough chemistry to choke a donkey. Mos Def too shows off some really great comedy chops, with his laid-back mush-mouth delivery. This is easily the most charismatic Mos has ever been on screen. Robbins is devilishly loathesome. He cut his teeth doing comedy, so it’s fun to see him play with it again here. He’s damn good at walking the villainous, comedy line.
Dialogue drives the film and Life of Crime pulls about 95 percent of its lines directly from Leonard’s book. That’s just one of many reasons this one is a massive treat for Leonard fans. It’s a damn shame this puppy was in and out of theaters without so much as a whisper. But hell, regardless of its weak release, the film stands as a wonderfully pulpy swan song as the last adaptation the master was involved with.