A film review by Craig J. Koban
2005, PG-13, 110 mins.
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
Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1995 Hollywood caper comedy – GET SHORTY – was arguably one of the very best of the Elmore Leonard film adaptations. Top prize for that honor would most certainly go to JACKIE BROWN followed by OUT OF SIGHT, and the worst would most definitely go to last year’s travesty that was known as THE BIG BOUNCE, a witless Owen Wilson vehicle that lacked all of the classic Leonard charm, style, and scatological wit.
GET SHORTY was a bit of a sleeper hit in
’95, and provided a great follow-up film to John Travolta’s career high
FICTION may have started Travolta’s comeback, but it was his slick,
moody, and irrepressibly cool performance as a Miami Shylock turned film
producer in SHORTY that solidified it.
I remember SHORTY as a film highlighting one of Travolta’s
finest screen characters.
He was not a “good man” by any definition, but he was well realized
and a true original – a man that once worked breaking bones for a loan
shark and then turned his eyes to Hollywood to make it in the movies.
Hey, if his collected and forceful charisma and style works for
loan sharking, then why not in the cutthroat world of entertainment?
GET SHORTY was a great caper comedy that
headlined the importance of adapting Leonard correctly for the big
Previous film adaptations lacked the style, mood, and dry and droll
satirical temperament that permeate his work.
SHORTY got that all right, in a film that balances satire,
self-referential laughs, and a slick and stylish crime story involving the
usual who’s who of lowlife scum.
The success of that film can be attributed to the winning
performances, the spot on attention to the details of the contemporary
Hollywood scene, the careful and polished direction by Sonnenfeld that was
neither too whimsical nor too serious, and finally the screenplay that did
an exemplary job on translating Leonard’s razor-sharp and clever
Now comes the inevitable sequel – BE COOL –
that in turn is based on the sequel novel of the same name by Leonard.
Obvious comparisons to the prequel are completely unavoidable, and
GET SHORTY was undoubtedly a very tough cinematic act to follow and follow
Ultimately, BE COOL is a rather tough film to dissect critically.
The final product is largely a hit-and-miss affair.
As a sequel to SHORTY, BE COOL is
negligible to a large degree and definitely lacks the punch, manner,
cleverness, and narrative cohesiveness that made the original a winner.
The characters are mostly the same and are put through different
motions this time, but there is an air of familiarity to the proceedings
that kind of wears thin as the film progresses.
As a Leonard adaptation, it’s not quite the worst and not nearly
BE COOL has its moments of scathing and sarcastic lampooning of the
entertainment industry, even more self-evident and self-aware laughs as
GET SHORTY, and an array of slick supporting performances, but it also
lacks the crude and fowl banter and dialogue (this film a PG-13 sequel to
an R rated universe) that gave SHORTY a sort of perverse personality.
As a stand-alone comedy, BE COOL generally
works and is full of big laughs.
To the fans of the original film and of Leonard’s work, the film
might appear as a bit of a dull letdown.
To lay filmgoers, BE COOL is an entertaining and whimsical 100
Hell, even to fans of PULP FICTION, there is no denying the fact
that this is a subtle reunion film of sorts with all kinds of overt
and subtle references to that crime film, and that’s okay.
Sure, the film is banking on some of its success on FICTION, but
the other critics are fools for thinking that this film is trying to be
another Tarantino copycat.
BE COOL never has any intentions of being the iconic work that was
Tarantino’s, but rather just a light and enjoyable romp.
BE COOL essential takes place shortly after
the events of the first film.
Former loan shark turned film producer Chili Palmer (the cool as
ever Travolta) has just be recently riding on the success of his
latest producing venture GET LOST.
You may remember from the first film that he was trying to get this
film from pitch to production, all with lofty aspirations of scoring the
great Martin Weir to act in it (played by Devito, who was very funny in
Well, it seems that the film was made after all and was a huge hit,
even managing to be made into an inferior sequel called GET LOST.
BE COOL has a humorous moment early on where Weir and Palmer
re-connect outside of The Viper Room and Weir proclaims that his next
project will involve him playing the man in black himself, Johnny Cash.
When Chili expresses concerns that Weir is about a foot and a half
too short for the role, Weir proudly deadpans, “Hey, camera tricks these
days can do anything, man.”
Needless to say, the once film fanatic in
Chili has slowly started to dissipate.
At one point in the film he ironically proclaims about his desire
to get out of films because they are becoming too “corporate.”
Fans of SHORTY will fondly reflect on the purity and innocence of
Chili’s film tastes (he loves everything from BRIDE OF THE MUTANT to A
TOUCH OF EVIL) and sort of grows to despise modern fiction.
In BE COOL, after a terrible tragedy ensues that costs the life of
one of his acquaintances, Chili decides to leave the film business and
tackle an even more sadistic and dangerous beast – the music industry.
Within no time, Chili is able to use his relative appeal, inner strength, and flamboyantly frank and matter-of-fact approach to successfully lure a young up-and-comer singer named Linda Moon (the lovely Christina Milan) away from her current contract holder Raji (played with that perfect level of deviant annoyance by Vince Vaughn) and a sleazy record producer named Nic Carr (the underused Harvey Keitel). Raji is the supreme embodiment why white men, in no physical, mental, or verbal shape or form, should ever, ever try to pass themselves off as a black hip-hopster.
To make matters even more embarrassing, he
has a gay Samoan bodyguard named Elliot, played very affectionately and
amusingly by The Rock.
Well, Raji is such a dope that maybe he never clued into the fact
that when your bodyguard has posters of RHINESTONE in his place on the
walls, likes wearing silky western clothing and wants to sing and dance
his way into the movie industry, then maybe he is not an effective piece
Vaughn is as hilariously inept as ever, and The Rock is at his
best, effectively playing off of and mocking his own inherent image with
Chili not only manages to snag hot singer
away, but he eventually becomes embroiled in the hip-hop climate as well.
While he is doing this he becomes involved with a recently widowed
record mogul, Edie Athens (Uma Thurman) and uses her and her connections
as a springboard to launch their new star.
Things, unfortunately, get excessively complicated for the trio
when a big time music baron named Sin LaSalle (Cedric the Entertainer, who
effectively balances laughs and menace here) comes out with his huge
entourage and demands that Edie’s company pay him the $300,000 that she
owes him, some serious cash that she does not have.
Not only that, but
the Russian mafia wants Chili dead because he can rat out and
identify one of their hitmen, all while Carr and Raji have called in all
of their respective peeps to help drive him away from Moon and the
All of this spirals together into a labrynthian plot that only
Leonard could dream up that leads to the obligatory double-crosses,
stand-offs, and, yes…Steven Tyler, the latter which occupies the film’s
biggest laugh when he realizes to his surprise, after a colorful and
modest explanation by Chili, that “Sweet Emotions” is actually about his
BE COOL has an awful lot going for it. Firstly, there are the wonderful supporting performances, especially by Vaughn, the “scorchin'” Rock, and by Cedric the Entertainer. I especially love one moment where Cedric goes off on an impassioned monologue, with a gun pointed at a Russian mobsters head, after he has been called by him the mother of all racial epitaphs. His speech single-handedly gives a sort of crazy credence to just how much African Americans have contributed to white culture. I also found his one clumsy henchman, played by Andre 3000, to be a rather large riot in his small role. Christina Miller is fetching and pleasant in her role as the singer who wants to make it big.
is no lack of chemistry between Uma and John, who create some scenes that
are superficial PULP FICTION knockoffs (an extended dance sequence is
proof of that) but nevertheless work on their intended levels.
The dialogue in the film, although not as smart as the original,
also does have short moments of intelligence and craftiness, especially in
one self-aware and quaint moment where Chili, lamenting on his current
disdain with the film industry, states that you can only use the “f word”
once in a PG-13 film, to which he later adds “F- - k that!”
Yet, it’s the kind of sanitizing of the characters and the world they live in that kind of turned me off to BE COOL. Palmer in GET SHORTY was a foul mouth, rough and tough go-getter, but in BE COOL he’s more agreeable and reserved (imagine Vinnie Vega without all of his colorful usages of colloquial language and you’ll get the idea). The film seems pigeonholed by its PG-13 rating in an effort to be more audience friendly, which is counter-productive because SHORTY was an R-rated film about R-rated lowlifes.
The direction of the sequel also lacks the
quirkiness and sly sense of style that Sonnenfeld’s film did.
BE COOL was directed by a competent filmmaker, F. Gary Gray, who
made the terrific THE NEGOTIATOR, but here he films BE COOL a bit too
straight, considering its tone and atmosphere.
The film also lacks the pacing that SHORTY had. Despite the
fact that the screenplay does a fairly good job of effectively jumbling
together the various convoluted threads of the plot, it still is a film is
a bit too long for its own good, takes a bit too long to really get going
and build momentum, and also seems to take a bit too long to develop some
of its secondary and tertiary characters, like Nic Carr, in a performance
by Keitel that has some life and then appears kind of lifeless.
Ultimately, BE COOL is a film that I can’t altogether and wholeheartedly recommend, but I say so rather reluctantly. I liked much of it, like The Rock’s gay narcissist, Vince Vaughn’s insidiously funny antagonist, the always low-key and hip and confident energy of Travolta’s Chili Palmer, and the manner in which the film pokes fun not only at the music and movie industry, but at itself as well. Yet, the film lacks the eccentric flair and allure of the first film, and definitely needed to have a more polished narrative that flows with a relative cadence. F. Gary Gray does what he can with the characters and turns out engaging performances and the plot is involving enough, but he forgets to infuse the whole project with the attitude and rhythm that made Sonnenfeld’s earlier work stand out. BE COOL will probably appeal to those looking for a respectable comedy outing, but for those of us with truly discerning tastes for the work of Elmore Leonard and for a terrific follow-up to GET SHORTY, the film just does not come off with the cleverness that you’d want or expect. BE COOL is a chilly, brisk, and good intentioned misfire. It definitely ain’t no GET SHORTY, but its generally fun and never lifeless. With more focus and edge, it could have been more.