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"Placed properly in the ranks of substandard sequels."
"It knows it's a sequel, nothing more."
"The fastest way to turn cool into drool."
Be Cool  

Cast

Chili Palmer: John Travolta
Edie Athens: Uma Thurman
Raji: Vince Vaughn
Elliot Wilhelm: The Rock
Nick Carr: Harvey Keitel
"Sin" LaSalle: Cedric the Entertainer
Martin Weir: Danny DeVito
Linda Moon: Christina Milian
Steven Tyler: Himself
Review March 2005

In 1995, following the cult sensation that was "Pulp Fiction," John Travolta starred in an adaptation of "Get Shorty," an Elmore Leonard story about Chili Palmer, a Miami loan shark who travels to Los Angeles to collect a debt from a sleazy movie producer. But in an odd twist of fate, he ends up pitching the producer a movie based on his own story, one that details the workings of a shylock, drug dealers, and other insidious characters. And one that explains why he is threatening the producer's own life! Now, 10 years later, Travolta returns as Chili Palmer in "Be Cool," the follow up to the snappy crime comedy. But this time, Chili enters the underworld of the music industry. Directed by F. Gary Gray, known for such sophisticated action thrillers as "The Italian Job" and "The Negotiator," the film retains the cool composure of the original, but surprisingly, lacks the sizzle. Far less original and appealing, "Be Cool" borrows more than it creates, placing it properly in the ranks of substandard sequels.

Chili Palmer has made a name for himself in the Hollywood film industry. Adapting the loan sharking, gangster skills from his previous job, he has become a successful movie producer. But that was ten years ago. Now, with dismal box office receipts from "Get Lost," the sequel to his highly praised first film, "Get Leo," it would appear that the thrill has left Chili Palmer. No longer interested in making movies, he begins to hang out with Tommy Athens (Woods), an old friend and former mobster, who owns his own record label - Nothing to Lose Records. Thinking that music could be a new opportunity to exploit, Chili schedules an impromptu power lunch. But as luck would have it, disaster strikes when Athens is murdered by a group of Russian mobsters, leaving ownership of the company to Athens' wife Edie.

Later that night, Chili encounters a sensational new vocalist named Linda Moon. Moon is under a ruthless contract with Nick Carr as part of a trio of performers, unable to pursue a much desired solo career. And when Chili steps in, Carr's right hand man, Raji, takes out a contract on Chili's life. In the meantime, with a vested interest in helping Moon and a personal interest in a new industry, Chili seeks out Edie. Together, the two must overcome a variety of obstacles - an outstanding debt owed to Sin LaSalle that Tommy left unpaid, murder attempts by the Russian mafia, and cold-blooded negotiation tactics by Nick Carr, Raji, and Raji's bodyguard Elliot Wilhelm. All of this must be avoided while attempting to sign Linda to a new contract, record a new album, and promote the powerhouse singer with the likes of Steven Tyler, front man for Aerosmith.

Like "Get Shorty," "Be Cool" is an adaptation of a novel by Elmore Leonard. It involves a variety of nefarious characters, all with their own agendas and motives. And it satirizes and exaggerates a portion of the entertainment industry by exposing the corruptive nature of the business, a business comprised of high risks and rewards. Equal to the other Leonard novels ("Rum Punch," "Out of Sight," or "Freaky Deaky"), there is a certain flair, a particular language, and a savvy formula that makes each one stand out. And scriptwriter Peter Steinfeld is adept at setting that tone. But where "Be Cool" differs from Leonard's other works is that it exists solely as a sequel. It knows it's a sequel, nothing more. And to its detriment, Steinfeld strings together a series of repetitive scenes without a solitary plotline and without varying character arcs.

My rule of thumb with sequels is that they are only good if they enhance or evolve the characters in some way that is different from the previous film or films. But out of all the colorful characters that appear in "Get Shorty," from the arrogant Ray 'Bones' Barboni to the sleazy Harry Zimm to the seductive Karen Flores, the only returnee is Chili Palmer (Note: Danny DeVito appears as Martin Weir for a nanosecond). And while the lack of returnees isn't necessarily a problem, the lack of character development is. You see, in "Get Shorty," we learn a lot about Chili's character, his no nonsense negotiation style, his obsession with B-movies, and the balance between his serious and sensitive sides. But all of that is washed away in "Be Cool" when he randomly switches trades. In fact, his character becomes far less convincing and somehow, uncool.

With no point of reference, we are made to believe that Chili is really into music, that he has an innate sense of R&B and hip hop, and that he can really help Linda Moon become a star (After all, he suddenly becomes acquainted with Steven Tyler!). In "Get Shorty," Palmer's involvement with Zimm is more than an ordinary assignment because Chili demonstrates knowledge about the genre, the films, and even becomes infatuated with Harry's girlfriend, an actress from those films. But in "Be Cool," there is no connection between Chili and music, no real connection between Chili and Edie. Nor does the film even try. All of this ambiguity, of course, leads to an even bigger problem.

With the motivation and integrity of the main character in question, the scenes have a tendency to exist, not because they have to, but because they fit within a cookie cutter framework. In other words, Chili gets involved with an associate's girlfriend, he gets mired in other people's monetary or contractual affairs, and he exerts his sophisticated gangster mentality. As expected, there are the "look at me" references, scenes involving late night visits to someone's home, and countless sequences that have no purpose other than to create nostalgia or references to other films such as the appearance of Martin Weir or the "Pulp Fiction" like dance sequence between Travolta and Thurman. On paper, these characteristics and scenes may sound plausible, but on screen, they rapidly become tired and tedious.

On the bright side, the film does exercise a certain amount of humor that makes the above seem less obvious. There's Vince Vaughn's Raji, a gangster wannabe who attempts to be black through annoying, but comical language and expression. Says Raji: "Stop hatin', start participatin'. Come on, twinkle twinkle, baby, twinkle twinkle." And then there's The Rock, cast as Elliot Wilhelm, Raji's faithful bodyguard who promotes homosexuality to the extreme without realizing it. His performance is so overdone and particularly awful, from the hair to the eyebrow to the acting and singing, that it's actually amusing. And lastly, it's hard not to laugh at Cedric the Entertainer. His well-educated gangster producer is a riot, especially in contrast to the overly excessive and rambunctious WMDs.

All of that said, "Be Cool" is a sequel that chooses to recycle instead of reinvent. Although it contains some occasional humor and mild entertainment, it ultimately flounders because it doesn't take the right risks. Rather than embellishing pre-existing conditions with new adventures and character growth, it opts for the same exact structure as its predecessor with zero growth in character. Ironically, this is the same approach that spelled failure for Chili's own sequel, "Get Lost." Simply rehashing the same jokes and content without a care for the film's overall intent may make a pretty penny, but not a pretty picture. And it's certainly, the fastest way to turn cool into drool.



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