Be Cool… The Trouble With Sequels
That Elmore Leonard should write a sequel to his best-selling 1990 novel Get Shorty was neither unexpected nor exploitational in the sense of cashing in on a trend. Leonard has written sequels of sorts before, taking favourite characters and giving them further adventures - Karen Sisco, Raylan Givens and Harry Arno spring readily to mind. So Be Cool, which looks up loan-shark-turned-producer Chilli Palmer after the success of his movie Get Leo, and the failure of its sequel Get Lost, is a legitimate Elmore Leonard piece, with a text that in no way pre-empts the certainty of it turning into a movie sequel itself.
Leonard has been involved in films for many decades, working as a screenwriter from the 60's through to the late 80's, when he packed it in, displaying a William Goldmanesque jadedness with the task. On his website he says: '…you are an employee working for not just one person, but often several. Everybody has something to say about the script. I don’t write with other writers. I have to be on my own. It can be no other way.'
Get Shorty was Leonard's sardonic take on all that 'movie bullshit', a good-humoured piece of revenge; and with its ingenious fusing and paralleling of the worlds of crime and the movies, it became a breakthrough work, elevating Leonard from a top crime writer to right up the mainstream. Barry Sonnenfeld's 1995 movie adaptation was a credit to the original, keeping faith with Leonard's plotting and feel for character, whilst delivering a popular and satisfying Hollywood product. Get Shorty is full of references to how movie guys mess with a writer's work, and one wonders how, in a dreadful paradigm of that process, those guys could take Leonard's Be Cool, which in book form stands up well as a sequel to Get Shorty, and turn it into such a daft, fluffy and instantly forgettable piece of comedy drivel. That story in itself would make a great sequel to Get Shorty!
From his website we know the man himself is not happy with the movie. He says: 'It’s not my sound; it’s not my attitude at all.' He uses the phrase 'my sound' elsewhere, talking like a musician, and we know instantly what he means. It's in part the snappy dialogue, the street lingo, the demotic rendered so crisply on the page - 'hunnerd' for 'hundred', abbreviations such as 'how'n' and 'prob'ly', and the clever omission of words you still hear, as in 'couple thousand dollars' - but it's also his idiosyncratic take on character, mood and storytelling. As a crime writer Leonard resembles Raymond Chandler in that his books exist in their own distinctive and peculiar world, mirroring this one, congruent in specifications, yet somehow not quite the same. Perhaps this is due to Leonard's history as a writer of westerns, a genre steeped in myth, and his modern day crime fiction retaining something of that flavour. His desperadoes and lawmen often have an Old West feel, and play by the rules of westerns, with their present day settings becoming coloured accordingly.
All this makes adapting his work for the screen a sensitive job. And his list of movie credits is long one, not to mention TV. Back in the 50's his early western stories were turned into films such as Three-Ten to Yuma and The Tall T. Later his western novel Hombre became a vehicle for Paul Newman. In the 60's and 70's he became established in screenwriting, adapting his own work, such as the crime thrillers The Big Bounce (recently remade) and Mr Majestyk, and doing the original screenplay for the western Joe Kidd, which starred Clint Eastwood and was directed by John Sturges. Over the years Elmore Leonard films have got better and edgier. After cinematically run-of-the-mill 80's thrillers like Stick, starring and directed by Burt Reynolds, and 52 Pick-up, featuring Roy Scheider, the 90's brought more prestigious productions with name directors like Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh.
Made two years after Get Shorty, Tarantino's Jackie Brown is the most accurately crafted and best looking piece of screen Elmore Leonard. It was a huge complement to Leonard that an auteur of such rank, with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction then under his belt, should sublimate his creativity in this way. But then again it's easy to see why Tarantino was attracted, as the characters, humour and, above all, the dialogue in Leonard's original novel, Rum Punch, are so close to those in Tarantino's own writing. The vibrant colours and moody lighting of Jackie Brown make a good visual resonance with Leonard's sound, and Tarantino's taste for extemporized passages of dialogue, and his attention to character serve Leonard's material well. Samuel L. Jackson's longhaired, homicidal gun dealer Ordell Robbie is a terrific screen creation, and Robert De Niro is marvellous too in an uncharacteristic and downbeat supporting role.
A year later came Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight, a very different kettle of fish to Jackie Brown. Leonard's thrillers often feature a low-key romance, and this novel uses the classic device of star-crossed lovers, with deputy US marshal Karen Sisco falling for bank-robber and escaped convict Jack Foley. Scott Frank, who adapted Get Shorty, does another good job on the screenplay, but the casting of the lead roles - Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney - is pure Hollywood. J-Lo is not my idea of Karen Sisco, and Clooney is a touch too smooth and urbane for stick-up man Foley. But Leonard's sound still emerges through the mechanics of the crowd-pleasing rom-com, and Soderbergh's artful direction balances the lightness and humour with some neo-noirish cred.
|So we come to Get Shorty itself, which still remains the definitive Elmore Leonard film of the definitive Elmore Leonard book. Following on the heels of Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, it capitalized on the resurrected cool of John Travolta as a gangster character, making that cool more mainstream-friendly in likeable rogue Chilli Palmer. Like real life mobster 'Henry Hill', whose life story furnished the movie GoodFellas, Chilli finds his ongoing loan-sharking activities work up beautifully into the movie Get Leo, and his hustling skills transfer smoothly into the role of producing. It's an excellent idea because it's both tongue-in-cheek and believable - pure Elmore Leonard.
Scott Frank did the intelligent thing with the screenplay - he followed the book closely, as all the ingredients were there for a good caper movie, and director Barry Sonnenfeld pulled everything together with style. There are some differences between book and film, naturally. The film's ending is more cut-and-dried, Hollywood fashion, and the Harry Zimm of the film (Gene Hackman) is more of a buffoon than in the book. The scene where Zimm tries out a Chilli-style wise-guy act on Ray Bones (Dennis Farina) - not in the book - is the film's only really ill-judged piece of embellishment, pointing an uneasy finger towards the type of absurdity that is commonplace in Be Cool.
So what exactly is wrong with Be Cool? Firstly it takes Elmore Leonard's sly, knowing humour and jacks it all the way up to knockabout comedy, where the film loses all grip on credibility as a real world crime story. Director F. Gary Gray has unwisely gone for a cartoon version of Elmore Leonard: the over-bright and snazzy characterization and design, and the constant veering into camp, have the precise feel of a cartoon, and the violence is on the level of Tom and Jerry. Travolta takes his Get Shorty performance and puts it on autopilot, and soon he too is part of the cartoon - a superhero who knows he cannot be harmed.
Secondly Be Cool re-writes and simplifies Leonard's text to the point where meaning is lost, and plot development starts to become two dimensional, schematic. What is crucially missing from the film is that Chilli's whole motivation in pursuing singer Linda Moon, and taking on the role as her manager, is he's using her to help improvise the movie idea that started at the time of Tommy Athens' shooting. Be Cool sets that up in swirl of 'cool' self-referential remarks, and then abandons it! In a single bound Chilli enters the music biz, apropos of very little. The fact that Chilli is still a movie man on the make, trying to find a new project that will restore his status after the flop of Get Lost, is the thread that sustains Be Cool the novel and binds it to its predecessor. Without Chilli's perspective on the subsequent events as potential movie material, they just sink to the level of farce.
Be Cool takes another big wrong turn in the casting of Uma Thurman as Edie Athens, and attempting to build a romance between her and Travolta on the back of their illustrious partnership in Pulp Fiction. The Edie of the book is a minor character, a merry widow who is the equal of husband Tommy in the promiscuity stakes. Chilli sidesteps her advances and finds his love interest in movie exec Elaine - excised from the film, along with most of the other movie biz stuff.
The Be Cool dance sequence between Thurman and Travolta, attempting to 'be cool' in its referencing to Pulp Fiction, is anything but cool, exemplifying all that is wrong about the movie - its ersatz, recycled nature. It is fifty-eight different takes cut together into a tawdry patchwork, with no sense of flow and unity. The Pulp Fiction dance contains three cuts, and the long takes allow us to watch the dancers evolve their routine, develop the interplay. Its sense of cool comes out of character - our insight into the deepening sexual tension between Mia and Vincent, knowing they are out of bounds to one another. The Be Cool dance is meant to mark a key stage in the romance of Edie and Chilli, and it might just have worked if we believed in that romance; but somehow the chemistry is all wrong, and when they finally go to bed together it has a limp, so what quality.
But hold on, you might say, enough of this purist nitpicking, Be Cool doesn't have to slavishly follow the book - it's played for laughs and it's funny. Yes, it is… in parts. The casting of The Rock as gay bodyguard Elliot Wilhelm is particularly inspired. He has both the stature and the campness to carry it off, and that eyebrow-arching act is very droll - it works. But hey, all that was in the book. Elliot's ineffectuality as a bodyguard and his overweening ambition to get into films is the most full bloodedly comic element in Leonard's original. Where the movie goes wrong yet again is to allow that drollery to spill out into other characters.
Pitching the humour element correctly in a violent gangster narrative is difficult, and both Leonard and Tarantino are masters, which is why Jackie Brown struck all the right notes. Odell in that film is a smiley-faced, smooth talker, as indeed are Vincent and Jules in Pulp Fiction; but we never for a second doubt their lethality, and that is so important. Be Cool's rap boss Sin LaSalle (Cedric the Entertainer) is supposed to be another such hard case, but with his string of empty threats, his good neighbour act and his homily about black culture, he comes over more like a character from The Cosby Show. And his blinged-up crew of gangsta rappers, waving their silly big guns around as Kenneth Williams might in a Carry On film, are about as menacing as your granny's sewing circle.
No, you don't have to follow the book slavishly, but if you deviate from it you better be careful, otherwise, like Be Cool, your film might collapse into a pile of poppycock. Leonard's sound it is not, and the man has a problem now in that people might think what's on the screen is representative of his writing - but that's another story.
Oh well, what have we got to look forwards to regarding future Elmore Leonard adaptations? Already greenlighted is a Miramax production of the 1989 novel Killshot. British director John Madden (Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Shakespeare in Love) will helm this tale of ordinary people getting in the sights of ruthless half-Indian hitman the Blackbird - sounds promising so far. Also on the horizon is a Matthew McConaughey-led production of 2002 novel Tishomingo Blues, which is scripted but still needs to find financing. A stunt high-diver witnesses a Dixie Mafia killing, and the protagonists vie to take him out during a Civil War re-enactment. It's vintage Leonard, combining his Old West side and the present in typically artful and amusing fashion. It has the potential to look great on film.
And there are still several good past Leonard novels which haven't so far been committed to celluloid. My own favourite is Freaky Deaky, as wonderful a fusion of crime and burnt-out hippiedom as Get Shorty is of crime and the movie biz. I'd love to see that made into a film - but not in the manner of Be Cool! If you're listening folks, and you decide to do it, then for the sake of Elmore Leonard fans everywhere, please get it right!