Be Cool (Collector's Edition) Review

The Film

I wasn't a massive fan of Get Shorty, the Elmore Leonard adaptation of which this is the (long-awaited) sequel. There was something too Tarantino-esque about it, from the obvious casting of John Travolta in the lead role to a plot that surrendered to clever exchanges of dialogue and an overall feeling of style beating substance to a bloody pulp. But that's just me, and importantly I could see the reasons why so many people liked it. Even on the QT-Clone accusation front, Get Shorty was definitely one of the higher quality films out there, featuring a starry cast that didn't act as though it knew it was a starry cast, and so forth. Amidst all bestrode Travolta, overweight and something of a cliche but still dispensing effortless cool in his quest to become a film producer. The plot was well observed; the movie's more comedic conceits were reined in to stop it turning into a farce and the whole was a moderate success.

One thing it didn't do was leave obvious room for a follow-up. In 1999, Leonard returned to the character of Chili Palmer, taking our hero from the movie world and into music production. The resulting flick was no doubt inevitable, even if hopelessly little of the book has been translated on to the screen. What couldn't have been predicted is how awful the latter would turn out to be.

On its own merits, Be Cool isn't that bad. Hardly great, but not utterly dire. There are some typically witty lines, several fine gags and the overall feeling that everyone involved is taking the project as seriously as betting against Chelsea. However, given the talent involved (that cast must surely be a director's dream), the source material and the goodwill created by its predecessor the fans probably felt they had a right to be watching something half decent. Whereas you know some films are going to be bad before you even take your seat in the half-empty theatre (in my case, it involves having Adam Sandler or Vin Diesel in the cast list, and a story by the Children's Film Foundation centering on kids who fight crime), Be Cool could and perhaps should have been a blast. The fact it wasn't makes it all the poorer.

My biggest single issue rests on Travolta's bulky shoulders. As in Get Shorty, his Chili is always one step ahead of the baddies. Here though, he is virtually indestructible, not for one moment looking like he's in any serious peril and ready with a wisecrack in every situation. It's this lack of tension that ruins Be Cool before it even gets going. Those around Chili are killed, threatened and maimed, yet the main man emerges without a scratch. Even when he decides he's going to move into the music business, you know everything's going to fall into his lap. And it almost literally does in the shape of Christina Milian's soul singer Linda Moon, your diva with the voice of an angel and a big heart. The plot (a word I use loosely in this instance) concerns Chili's attempt to turn Linda into a star whilst wresting her contract from the clutches of her pimp ex-manager.

To help him, Chili enlists Edie Athens, widow of a record producer. Edie is played by Uma Thurman, who seems to have undergone some sort of part-choosing lobotomy between Kill Bill and this. It just so happened that after suffering Be Cool, I watched the second volume of Tarantino's revenge-fest. Try as I might, I couldn't see an ounce of similarity between Beatrix Kiddo and Edie, who is called on to do nothing more than laugh at Chili's jokes and take part in an awful dancing scene with Travolta that's supposed to be wittily knowing but is in fact performed so without spark to be embarassing. At other times, she joins Chili in flashing admiring eyes whenever Linda sings, as though proto-Whitney Houston turns are enough to melt even the hardest heart.

A slew of loosely connected stereotypes align themselves against Chili and his faction. Chief amongst these are Vince Vaughn, as Raji, and his bodyguard Elliot Wilhelm, played by an almost unrecognisable The Rock. Raji is Linda's manager, a white man who carries himself as a black pimp. Forgetting for a moment that Gary Oldman did this sort of thing much better in True Romance (Vaughn is very much a 'lite' alternative to Oldman's quite dangerous Drexl), this is one of those Vaughn turns that just doesn't work. On certain terms, he's very, very funny, most notably when taking the straighter role of Peter La Fleur in Dodgeball. Here though, he turns in a wildly over the top performance, crammed with horrible excesses that suggest the director should perhaps have been trying to rein him in instead of collapsing in peals of laughter (as suggested within the extras) whenever he came out with more ridiculous black cliches in that nasal, high-pitched voice of his. Surprisingly, The Rock is fantastic, and by some distance the best thing on display in Be Cool. His character is a gay would-be actor with the sort of killer eyebrow showpiece that even Leonard Nimoy would admire, and he gets full comic mileage out of it. Whether it's his country song or preening before a full-length mirror in his grotesque new suit, this is far from The Rock as The Rock will ever get.

Elsewhere, Chili encounters some blinged up gangsters, a bunch of Russian pawn shop owners and Harvey Keitel as a a sleazy record producer. There are enough characters and sub-plots to make for a convoluted tale knitting itself together by the end, but this doesn't happen. Instead, everything is played for laughs, for tasteless fun being poiked at stock villains and a story that finishes a distant second. I have no idea what Keitel was doing in the movie. He had no part to play, beyond offering the occasional barb, and his presence suggested he was there due to his availability and the 'oh look, it's Harvey Keitel' factor. Andre 3000 from Outkast appears as a ganster in training, and has some decent lines, and Steven Tyler puts in a rather unecessary cameo as himself. The superfluous way in which the latter is shuffled into the narrative all seems to be based on an excuse to get him to crack an 'I'm never going to appear in a movie cameo role' joke, just as... well, you get the general idea. It really does all hang together this loosely.

In the 'Making Of' featurette on disc two director F Gary Gray revealed his set-up during shoots was to get the bare bones scene out of the way, and then let the actors improvise the rest of the time. Clearly, he let this take over the project. There's a flabbiness to Be Cool (not a cruel Travolta barb), a feeling that while everyone involved in the production was busy having a beano, the film was utterly lost. It contains the occasional fine gag, but when you learn the movie's entire premise is based on a joke (Chili is leaving the movie industry after becoming disillusioned when he was forced into making a rubbish sequel - do you see?) the lack of substance I suggested was present in Get Shorty has developed here into a gaping crevasse. Watching it was something of a punishment, largely because everything was there to result in a fine piece of work that lost none of its humour. And yet ultimately, all that remained was the comedy, at the expense of nearly everything else.

The Discs

Be Cool is presented in 2:40:1, and looks great. In many ways, I would suggest the crisp look of the film only brings its failings into sharper focus; in any case it's an impressive effort. F Gary Gray's background was rather inevitably in music videos, and the aesthetic nous is at work here. The fine transfer makes his more ambitious, unusual shots retain their quality, along with his fine eye for colour. Whereas the likes of the recent Star Wars films assault your eyes with a kaleidoscope of gaudy, clashing colours, Be Cool knows what goes well together, coming across as effortlessly stylish. Cool, even.

There's nothing wrong with the sound either. The Dolby Digital 5.1 is as crisp as it should be on a new release, and lets you hear every drawn out note of Christina Milian's Mariah-esque crooning. You can watch Be Cool in English, French, German, Italian or Spanish. Subtitles are available in all these languages, plus Dutch.

The Extras

A wealth of extras come on Be Cool's second disc (after you've had to sit through the irritating warning about DVD piracy, which strikes me as ironic because surely if you're watching it you've already bought the product, but anyway), and fairly self-congratulatory they are too. Beginning with the Making of Featurette: 'Be Cool, Be Very Cool', which is twenty minutes of backslapping amongst the cast and crew. As soon as The Rock introduces things by saying Chili Palmer will go down in history as one of the coolest movie characters ever, you know you're in self-delusional Dreamland.

What you learn from the feature is that the shoot was a fairly random process. In the Deleted Scenes we get a number of moments as funny and yet as hopelessly tangential to the plot as any that appear in the final cut, as though F Gary Gray and his editing team simply allotted scenes by lucky dip. Actually, that would explain a lot. It also makes the Gag Reel fairly redundant. This is an even more chaotically assembled number of outtakes, on-set pranks and the like.

Close Ups offer more detailed profiles on those cast members whose first choice profession isn't acting. My advice would be to ignore Christina Milian (platitudinal) and Andre 3000 (nonsensical) and move on to The Rock. I couldn't help walking away from this film with a growing love for the former wrestler and Scorpion King. His enthusiasm for the project, though ill-fated, is infectious, his willingness to send himself up an absolute hoot. The package is wrapped up with his video of 'You ain't Woman Enough', a fantastically camp piece that ought to ruin his hard man image forever.

Overall

Be Cool gets a point for The Rock, for its humour, for its style and one for trying (the DVD menus are good also). And that's it. There are likeable elements to the movie; its heart is in the right place. And yet for all the good fun and its essential harmlessness, there's no getting away from the fact that what you're watching is simply shambolic. There's little structure to the movie, and what there is is at all times subservient to the cheap gags and self-referential pithiness. Not that there's altogether anything wrong in this, but when you think of the talent involved and the material it was based on, the result has to be a disappointment.

For all that, it makes for a well presented set, which is a kick in the teeth for all those genuinely good films that are released on DVD with less than similarly royal treatment. Be Cool doesn't deserve the quality of its own package.

Film
4 out of 10
Video
8 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
6 out of 10
Overall

5

out of 10

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