In this follow-up to 1995's Get Shorty, which are both are based on novels by Elmore Leonard, Be Cool tries desperately to be hip, dangerous and funny. Great films make that ambition look easy--this one reminds us of how hard it is to spin all those plates.
Mobster-turned-movie producer Chili Palmer (John Travolta) decides to shift over to yet other creative, albeit dangerous, terrain: The music industry. He's spurred along by the murder of his friend, small-time music maven Tommy (James Woods), who leaves behind a beautiful widow, Edie (Uma Thurman) and a massive debt to a dangerous rap music mogul, Sin LaSalle (Cedric the Entertainer). Chili tells Edie about Linda Moon (Christina Milian), a gifted singer he decides to manage after seeing her perform. With her raw talent, Linda has the potential to bail them out. But first they have to get her out of a nasty contract and abusive relationship with her former manager, Nick Carr, (Harvey Keitel), his right-hand man, Raji, (Vince Vaughn), and his right-hand man, a bodyguard with the unfortunate name of Elliot Wilhelm (The Rock). Complicating things are the Russian mob, and a bevy of cops keeping Chili in their crosshairs. This all feels tacked on, as the nameless, accented characters serve the same purpose as robots in a science fiction movie--they can get blown away without sacrificing any stars or feeling any emotion (prioritize those considerations as you wish).
John Travolta, who has barely aged in the 10 years since the first film, is in top form in Be Cool. He lives up to the title and his character's name. No matter how dire the circumstances, no matter how much he's outnumbered, and no matter how many gleaming, pistols he has aimed at him, he never, ever, loses his even-keeled demeanor. But maybe that's the problem--because if Chili doesn't ever break a sweat, then why should we, the audience? Thurman isn't exactly showing her years either but has little to do as Edie. Vince Vaughn is the best he's ever been--he's amped up, thinks he's black, and sports a high-pitched laugh that is instantly annoying and hysterical. As Raji's gay bodyguard, the Rock has a great time lampooning himself (at least the raised eyebrow bit) and revealing terrific comic timing. Cedric the Entertainer would have been better off as more of a reluctant menace, to play toward his skills instead of against them. Even the young up and comer Milian does a nice job playing the ingénue singer. But have you ever thrown a party and realize that you've actually invited too many of your good friends? And you don't get to spend enough time with any of them? Well, adding the following to the list above is: Andre Benjamin, of the hip hop grou Outkast, plays Dabu--a klutzy, overeager trigger man for Cedric the Entertainer; the late Robert Pastorelli, as a deli-sandwich eating hit man; Danny DeVito, in a cameo reprising his character from the original; and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler playing himself.
Director F. Gary Gray's understated style and clarity is what made a movie like The Italian Job so entertaining. But with Be Cool that style is mostly absent. There is a flatness to the direction; specifically, there are a lot of close-ups for one-liners and many scenes go on just a few beats too long (one that comes to mind is an otherwise funny scene where The Rock models impossibly gay threads for himself in a mirror). In some cases, jokes are simply repeated, instead of building. Those are heavy sins for a comedy. Plus the kind of breezy cinema that Be Cool, and its predecessor Pulp Fiction have traded on has now become a little worn out. It's just not enough anymore to have a black-clad Travolta confidently stride across a room toward danger, even if he does it better than almost anybody else. Or having charismatic tough guys oozes the cool, all while discussing things like the merits of a Burger King sandwich. What's needed in Be Cool is a slightly fresher perspective. The convoluted plot, with its meaningless table-turning, doesn't help matters. It's a series of entertaining moments rather than a coherent movie.
It's hard not to love the performers in Be Cool, and you won't find this much talent for the price of one movie ticket, even if they do get in each other's way. But if you're looking for substance as well as style, you'll have to go to the video store and Get Shorty.