Gene Hackman is also perfect as the everyman, dreamer, director-type who goes through quite a development from pushover to tenacious businessman throughout the film, having a hard time finding a balance between the two without one compromising the other. The actor always maintains the vulnerability at the core of his character, which offers some nice surprises along the way. At one point Zimm goes behind Chili’s back and gets himself involved with Bones, but quickly realizes that he had been actually dealing with the nice guy in Chili all along, and that some of the other gangsters don’t play quite as fairly.
Of course, the role that famously got Travolta out of a decade-long slump was Vincent Vega in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction, which many consider to be the best performance of his career. However, he’s much better here. Not always able to handle the large chunks of dialogue and unorthodox asides that Tarantino is known for, Travolta also just seems to understand the character of Chili Palmer a bit better as well. The scene where he’s sitting in the movie theater watching the classic noir Touch of Evil, quoting every line and laughing to himself like a little kid at the cleverness of Orson Welles’ writing, you can just sense he’s tapped into the heart of Chili and gets him on a personal level.
Chili doesn’t play to every mob stereotype. He’s clear-thinking, straight-shooting, intimidating, and aggressive, sure, but he’s also very human and likable with admirable vulnerabilities. He’s without the sort of blind pride that comes with typical movie mobsters and doesn’t feel entitled to people’s attention especially if he doesn’t like them all that much. He admits when he’s scared and even apologizes when he does something wrong. Chili makes friends with everyone, or at the very least earns their respect, realizing that he has to impress and kiss up to get anywhere in showbusiness, even to those who don’t necessarily deserve it.