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

Directed by F. Gary Gray
/  Written by Peter Steinfeld /  Based on the novel by Elmore Leonard

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 work in PULP FICTION.  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 screen.  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 dialogue. 

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 up well.  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 the best.  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 minutes.  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 the role).  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 of muscle.  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 this role. 

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 city itself.  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 kids. 

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.

There 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.

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