The real comeback kid of the mid-'90s is neither a politician nor an athlete. He's an actor named John Travolta, who clearly hopes ''Get Shorty'' will consolidate the resurgence of star-power that galvanized his appearance in ''Pulp Fiction'' last year. This would reverse the neglect he suffered in the low-glamour period after ''Welcome Back Kotter'' and his early movies lost their glow.
Not that ''Get Shorty'' offers the charged-up intensity of ''Pulp Fiction,'' a movie so hyperkinetic that Travolta's comparatively laid-back hit man came off as one of the more relaxing characters. The new picture is cooler in tone, more modest in ambition, less flamboyant in achievement. While it provides another neat spotlight for Travolta's newly mature talents, it surrounds these with story ingredients that aren't quite as clever, surprising, or amusing as they'd like to be.
Based on Elmore Leonard's bouncy novel, ''Get Shorty'' offers the unusual spectacle of a Hollywood satire aimed at Hollywood itself. Travolta plays Chili Palmer, a mob money collector who flies into Los Angeles on the trail of a client who's absconded with a bagful of cash. Among the people he meets are a small-time producer who wants to graduate from Grade Z productions to big-time cinema; the producer's girlfriend, a former leading lady in those Grade Z productions; and a Major Motion-Picture Star who's eager to learn gangster-speak by hanging around with an expert like our hero.
Leonard's novel gets most of its humor from three sources: the raffish rhythms of subtly exaggerated speech patterns, the goofy interplay among folks who embody variegated forms of sleaziness, and the inspired idiocy of the unproduced film script that sparks heated rivalry among the main characters. Written by Scott Frank, the movie version tones down the dialogue, smooths out some character conflicts, and eliminates most details about the fought-over script. This adds to the economy and punchiness of the movie, but it reduces the story's overall impact. It becomes more a smart-alecky trifle than the wicked show-biz parody it might have been with more fidelity to Leonard's vision.
This said, the picture has enough assets to please moviegoers willing to put up with its many four-letter words and the bursts of violence that spring from nowhere at unexpected moments.
Travolta is wry and winning as the discreetly dangerous hero, Gene Hackman is his usual jovial self as the glitz-minded producer, and Rene Russo makes the most of her thankless role as the former horror-flick actress. Danny DeVito is predictably perfect as the character referred to in the title - an improbable star who's more pretentious than profound - and there's good supporting work by Bette Midler and Delroy Lindo, who seems to be in half the pictures now playing. A handful of real-life Hollywood stars juice up the movie with cameo appearances that I won't give away here.
Don Peterman did the colorful cinematography and John Lurie, whose sounds also enliven the current ''Blue in the Face,'' composed the perky music. The picture was directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, who concocted more memorable laughs in the ''Addams Family'' pictures but still shows a considerable flair for comedy. If his next project combines a stronger screenplay with an equally distinguished cast, it will be an entertainment to be reckoned with.
* ''Get Shorty'' has an R rating. It contains much vulgar language and a number of violent moments.