It should be a rule of filmmaking that when the plot fizzles out, the film should end. Actually, it should end before any signs of fizzle appear, but that, perhaps, is asking too much. In any case, it is the sin that afflicts BE COOL, the sequel to GET SHORTY, a film that did not have that or any other problems worth noting. That Elmore Leonard, on whose book the first film was based, is also the author of the book from which the sequel is derived makes the results all the more disappointing.
Once again John Travolta is Chili Palmer, the exquisitely non-plussed ex-wiseguy turned film producer with a stringent, though not entirely legal, sense of justice and an oddly zen-like ability to be the master of any one or any situation, even when the situation is a gun pointed at his head. That’s where the loopy chain of events begins, as Chili is explaining to record label owner Tommy Athens (James Woods), that sequels, such as the one his studio talked him into, never work. Fed up with the film biz, he’s setting his sights on the music industry, hence the meeting with Athens that turns deadly when a hit man with bad aim and an even worse toupee takes out both Athens and Chili’s Cadillac.
A lesser man would crumble, but Chili is undeterred. For him, obstacles not so much a problem as an illusion, which comes in handy as he courts, professionally, the widow Athens, Edie (Uma Thurman), a rock laundress turned co-owner of a record label, discovers a diva in the making (Christina Millian), tangles with her unscrupulously clueless manager, Lowenstein (Vince Vaughn), who suffers from the delusion that he is black and a playa, and gets into a whole peck of trouble with both the Russian mob and a rival record label whose owner (Cedric the Entertainer), is trying to live down his Ivy League MBA and the antics of his wife’s trigger-happy cousin (Andre Benjamin).
So far so good. Leonard has the gift when it comes to creating characters that are at once larger than life and deliciously off-kilter. The script, though, by Peter Steinfeld, fails to take flight and soon falters as it becomes a string of barely connected oddball moments in a story that is drawn out so far as to be all but transparent by the time the credits roll. And it lacks the finely honed satire of GET SHORTY. Then there’s director F. Gary Gray’s pacing. Even with something that plays best with a distinctly low key approach, is at least as important as the eccentrics that inhabit this universe, and the lack of it is the flaw that makes this a pale echo of its predecessor.
Don’t blame Travolta, whose Chili is as enigmatic and charismatic as ever. Milian is feisty, camera ready, and has an impressive set of pipes. As for Thurman, she’s more a vapid fashion victim than quirky, in a role that is distinctly underwritten. The Rock, on the other hand, as a half-black, half-Samoan, all gay actor wannabe making the rent as Lowenstein’s bodyguard shows again that he has on-target comic timing and a fearless approach to fun. He preens, he prances, and all without ever crossing the line into parody. Steven Tyler and Steve Perry are thrown into the mix as device to advance the plot, the latter looking a bit cadaverous as, playing himself, he states categorically that he hates rock stars who play themselves in movies. Harvey Keitel is thrown in as Lowenstein’s boss for no good reason other than to have Harvey Keitel in a film, which is never a bad idea, especially when the part is even more underwritten than Thurman’s.
BE COOL has its share of laughs, and Travolta, of course, but even without the shadow of GET SHORTY, it’s an unfulfilling experience. I so wanted to like it and it so wouldn’t let me, at least not enough to recommend it. For every genuinely clever moment, there were a dozen dull ones (Lowentstein’s black-like-me bit gets old real, real fast) thudding along tip the scales the other way. Darn. My advice, buy the soundtrack and rent the original.