John Travolta returns as Chili Palmer, the Miami loanshark turned Hollywood producer from Get Shorty. This time he’s getting mixed up in the music industry, romancing Uma Thurman and running into dodgier characters than ever, including The Rock, Harvey Keitel and Cedric the Entertainer. Review by Kevin O’Reilly.
Ten years after giving up loan-sharking in favour of film making, Chili Palmer (John Travolta) has grown tired of the movie business. When an old friend of his, a record producer called Tommy Athens (James Woods) is shot dead before his eyes by the Russian mafia, Chili sees an opportunity to try something new. He hooks up with Tommy’s widow, the beautiful Edie (Uma Thurman) and offers to go into business with her. Edie is glad of his help. She owes money to the Russians who killed her husband and even more to gangster rap mogul Sin LaSalle (Cedric the Entertainer). Chili’s killer combination of muscle, brains and charm may be enough to keep them both at bay.
What Chili and Edie desperately need is a hot, new artist. Just before his death, Tommy had spotted a talented, young singer called Linda Moon (real-life r&b star Christina Milian). Linda is already under contract to rival producer Nick Carr (Harvey Keitel) and manager Raji (Vince Vaughn), who have her performing in a tacky girl group. Nick and Raji aren’t about to let her go without a fight but Chili’s never been afraid of confrontations.
The belated sequel to 1995’s entertaining Get Shorty, Be Cool counts as one of the most frustrating films I’ve ever watched. It’s an absolute mess. The story is dire, the direction is slack and the running time is arse-numbingly excessive even by today’s standards of overkill. At the same time, and here’s why it’s so frustrating, it contains scenes and performances which are so good, they make the dross worth sitting through. And it’s genuinely funny – apart from Sideways, it made me laugh more than any film I’ve seen so far this year. Ultimately, the balance of good and bad tilts towards the bad but by no means is Be Cool a total write-off.
Let’s start with the good, which means with the actors. Cedric the Entertainer is a howl as a suburbanite gangsta guru who tells his posse to turn down their sound systems when they come to pick him up in case he loses his standing in the neighbourhood watch. He makes a great double act with André Benjamin (of Outkast), who plays his dumb brother-in-law and the lead singer of his meanest hip hop crew. Vince Vaughn meanwhile takes a worn-out joke – the white guy who thinks he’s black – and somehow milks fresh laughs from it.
Best of all is The Rock as Raji’s sexually ambiguous bodyguard, an aspiring actor whose party piece is raising an eyebrow like Leonard Nimoy. Granted, the character’s not a million miles from Bear, the stuntman-turned-minder James Gandolfini played in Get Shorty but The Rock is so hilariously winning that it doesn’t matter. I’ve been saying the former wrestler is a potential superstar since I saw him in last year’s The Rundown / Welcome To The Jungle and now I’m more sure of it than ever. He has Schwarzenegger’s charm and comic touch, plus a willingness to tweak his image that goes way beyond Arnold’s forays into comedy. Can you imagine The Terminator admiring himself in a pair of tight pants and camply slapping his behind?
Now the bad. The plot, if you can call it that, follows Chili and Edie’s unconvincing adventures in the record business. Neither of them appears to know very much about the industry and nor do the writers. Would you really launch a hot, young r&b artist by putting her on a stage with Aerosmith? The thriller element of the film consists of one of the three sets of bad guys showing up en masse every few scenes, pulling guns and issuing dire threats to Chili, who either talks them around or punches one of them. This scene is repeated over and over until it appears to reach a climax when all three groups of villains pull guns on each other in a confused Mexican stand-off. I say “appears to reach a climax” because no, there’s another half hour and at least two more scenes of heavies showing up with guns to go before the film’s over.
Elmore Leonard isn’t read for his plotlines – the pleasure is in the characters and the dialogue – but his stories always keep you turning the page. Get Shorty’s was one of his best. Not having read Be Cool, I don’t know how faithful an adaptation it is and whether the blame lies with Leonard or screenwriter Peter Steinfeld, who wrote Analyze That. Come to think of it, having just re-read that last sentence, I’ve settled on a likely suspect.
It was a mistake to make the villains entirely comical. Get Shorty also had characters exaggerated for comic effect but Dennis Farina’s Ray Bones and Delroy Lindo’s Bo Catlett did supply some real menace. The bad guys in Be Cool are such bumbling caricatures that there’s no question of them ever getting one over on Chili. This robs the film of any chance of working as a thriller as well as a comedy.
Director F Gary Gray is all thumbs. While he directs individual scenes well enough and he’s good with comedy, his structuring and pacing are terrible – the last half hour crawls to a finish. Gray has proved himself capable in the past of handling suspense and action (Set It Off, The Negotiator, The Italian Job) but Elmore Leonard’s delicate blend of hard-boiled crime thriller and satire calls for a more sophisticated touch and Gray can’t provide it. In his defence, better directors have been defeated by Leonard’s novels. Last year, George Armitage (Miami Blues, Grosse Pointe Blank) made an even more spectacular hash of The Big Bounce.
If the supporting cast sparkles, the leads are surprisingly dull. John Travolta gives one of his lazier performances, affecting a self-consciously cool demeanour and depending too heavily on rehashing his schtick from Get Shorty. Uma Thurman can be magnetic as an actress, especially when Tarantino’s directing, but let’s not forget she can also be deadly bland when lumbered with an underwritten and unbelievable character, as she is here. There’s no repeat of her Pulp Fiction chemistry with Travolta. Their dance scene appears tacked on as just another in-joke.
Another in-joke is the last thing Be Cool needs. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with them – Robert Altman’s The Player is built out of in-jokes. Too often however, they feel like they’re for the benefit of the people making the film, not the people paying to watch it, and they can contribute to an air of smugness and contempt for the audience. Take Chili saying that he sold out by making a sequel and complaining you can only say the F-word once in a PG-13-rated film. We’re supposed to laugh at the irony but why are those statements ironic? Because Be Cool is a cynical and unnecessary sequel and because a PG-13 rating on an Elmore Leonard crime flick is selling the material out to put bums on seats. Are these truths to which the filmmakers really want to draw our attention?
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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