Ten years ago, the Travolta resurgence continued with Get
Shorty. I don’t remember much about the film — seems like it was an
entertaining piece of fluff, maybe little else. Of course, I do remember the
Travolta picture from the year before. The one that kicked off the mess that
eventually became Michael and The General’s Daughter, not to
mention Battlefield Earth. But those were the halcyon days.
In particular, I remember a conversation with my mom. A few
days after I first screened Pulp Fiction, we spoke on the phone.
Ma, I said, this flick is probably a little too sick for you, but you’ve gotta
see it. Travolta’s actually pretty good. Does he dance, she asks. She just
wants to see Travolta dance again. Yeah, ma, he dances. Go see the movie, OK?
So last weekend we’re on the phone and she asks if I’ve seen
Cool yet. No, I say, but he definitely dances in this one. I know, she
says — that’s why I want to see it. Now I know that she, like Travolta dance
enthusiasts everywhere, should simply watch Pulp Fiction again for
Be Cool picks up some years after the conclusion of Get
Shorty. Chili Palmer (Travolta) has become a mogul after unleashing a
string of hits, each of which seems to be called ‘Get ___’. He’s a Hollywood
fixture. We know this because the film opens with Chili talking to James Woods,
as sure a sign of success as you’ll find. But Woods isn’t playing Woods. He’s
Tommy Athens, a super-successful indie record exec. We know he’s successful
because he’s married to Edie, played by Uma Thurman.
But Jimmy, er, Tommy, is bumped off by the Russian mob, or
maybe just a guy who doesn’t realize that Boondock Saints is a shitty
movie. That’s impetus enough for Chili to try his hand at the
music biz. He sets his sights on Linda Moon, played demurely by Christina
Milian, a promising young singer held hostage by a contract to a second-rate
promotional company. The reins of that group are held by Nick Carr (Harvey
Keitel) but the day to day execution of Christina’s contract is managed by
Raji, a pretentious white boy in urban costume deftly overplayed by Vince Vaughn, who has at
least decided to give acting a try.
The primary action is a complicated series of negotiations,
both cutthroat and above the boards, between Chili and Nick Carr, with Linda
Moon’s contract acting as the brass ring. The Russian mob figures in here
somewhere, but it’s soon difficult to remember what they’re doing in the film
in the first place. And maybe that’s what dealing with the Mob is really like
— you can’t remember what exactly brought them into your life and they just
get in the way like an ugly, violent piece of furniture you can’t throw out
because it was a gift from the mother-in-law.
But there’s a lot more going on than that simple plot. One
of Tommy Athens’ contract producers was Sin LaSalle, a thuggish chap from the
suburbs who travels in a Hummer convoy with his signature hip-hop crew, the Dub
MDs. Andre (3000) Benjamin is on hand as Dabu, the Dub MDs leader who just
can’t wait to finally kill someone.
And then there’s The Rock, sporting tight polyester trousers
and a manicured afro. He’s Elliot Wilhelm, Raji’s bodyguard, and a gay aspiring
actor/singer whose current musical triumph is a camp rendition of ‘You Ain’t
Woman Enough (To Take My Man)’. Elliot pokes fun at that trademark eyebrow
move, prances in red boots and angles for an audition with Chili. He’s also the most visible part of T-Mobile’s Sidekick marketing strategy, which becomes a plot point in and of itself.
Now, I’ve never read any of the Chili Palmer books, but it
seems that I’m not the only one that gets Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy
confused. I know Tarantino likes Leonard because he wrote Mr. Majestyk, and
Hollywood likes him because he relies on the double cross as a standard plot
device. But the stuff flying across the screen in Be Cool feels as if it’s
angling for the deeper complexity of James Ellroy’s books, where dozens of
characters intertwine in what typically becomes a satisfying plot.
Here, the complexities are anything but satisfying —
they’re just complicated. I now know what people were complaining about in Ocean’s
12 because Be Cool often just plays
like a Hollywood fantasy, where actors get lighten up, because their own
personalities are bigger than the characters they depict. Plot threads are all
over the place, like a new rug after the cat’s been at it. Long passages go by
with very little that’s amusing or entertaining, and since that’s the sole
purpose of the film, I have to wonder why much of Be Cool wasn’t trimmed.
The answer is that, beyond being simple fluff entertainment, the script wants
to be far more accomplished than it is.
And despite all the mess, there’s something worth seeing
here, at least for fans of these actors. Typically in a large ensemble piece
something gets short shrift, and here it’s the story. That means, though, that
there’s ample time for the cast to play. Chili Palmer is one of Travolta’s best
characters; he oozes confidence and a wry, knowledgeable wit that’s simply,
well, cool. Of course, if the script was willing to commit to him, Chili would
be far more than that.
And then there’s his support. This is the role I’ve been
waiting to see Cedric The Entertainer play, and he eats it up. Whether he’s
gently lecturing his daughter on the value of pancakes (in a droll suburban
accent) or putting the smackdown on Raji, Cedric is electric. He sends up
every rap mogul personality while managing to respect them at the same time,
and that’s incredible to watch. Better yet, he delivers a monologue that’s the
best response to the word ‘nigger’ I’ve ever heard, and it kills.
Sadly, Uma is reduced to playing a glorified girlfriend
role. But after Kill Bill, any role is going to feel skimpy. She’s got some
fire, though, and lights up a handful of scenes. And Ethan Hawke must really
feel like a dick just about now, because his ex-wife had kids, got dumped, and
transformed herself from reserved beauty into one of the hottest actresses in the game. If only she’d been able to do more than look great, Be
Cool would be a much better movie. (That, if you hadn’t noticed, is the prevailing theme here.)
I can’t exit without giving credit to The Rock as well,
because he deserves it. Elliot doesn’t get a lot of screen time, and there will
be detractors who claim that his prancing is simple caricature. But he’s got
more personality than everyone else in the film combined, and consistently hits
every note. In a movie that’s typically too dry and often plodding, The Rock
steals every scene he’s in. If his career is managed properly, he could become
the biggest name in popular entertainment, and I’d love to see him combine the
highlights of Bruce Willis and Arnold to create a juggernaut that doesn’t need
But he needs films that are more than Hollywood’s version of
public masturbation. As the film wound into its second hour, I began to suspect
that the entire enterprise was Hollywood’s way of knocking the music biz. See,
Tinseltown managed to clean up Chili Palmer. They took his violent impulses and
redirected them into something creative. He’s been tamed. Movie execs tell
stories about shootings, but they don’t engage in them. Now, these music
guys….they’re another story. It’s like they’re stuck in the ’70s, when dope and
guns ran Hollywood.
And I’ve got to wonder what F Gary Gray, as a former
director of music videos, is on about when he depicts the music business. Take Linda
Moon’s video shoot. They’ve hired ‘the Scorsese of the video biz’ — played by
Seth Green, a joke in itself — and the result is a ludicrous mess that looks
like a Chinese restaurant being firebombed. It’s as if Hollywood is saying, ‘Yeah?
You think you know showmanship? All you’ve got is crap. We, on the other hand,
have John Travolta.’
But even that commentary is limp, because the climax handily
rebuffs it. When Linda Moon finally gets her chance to shine, she does so
simply by going out and being herself, no trickery or music video necessary. And
that’s something that Be Cool never manages to do.
5.5 out of 10