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. 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.
Since the end of the last film, 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, 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 an Elmore Leonard novel. It involves a variety of nefarious characters, all with their own agendas and motives, and it satirises and exaggerates a portion of the entertainment industry by exposing the corruptive nature of the business, a business comprised of high risks and rewards. Like other Leonard novels (Rum Punch, Out of Sight, Freaky Deaky), there is a particular language and a savvy formula that make each stand out, and scriptwriter Peter Steinfeld is adept at setting the right tone. But where Be Cool differs from Leonard’s other works is that it exists solely as a sequel. Out of all the colorful characters in Get Shorty, from the arrogant Ray ‘Bones’ Barboni to the seductive Karen Flores, the only returnee is Chili Palmer (although Danny DeVito also reappears as Martin Weir for a nanosecond). And while the lack of returnees isn’t necessarily a problem, the lack of character development is.
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, deeply uncool. In Get Shorty, Palmer’s involvement with Zimm is more than an ordinary assignment because Chili demonstrates a real and profound love of movies. But in Be Cool, there is no connection between Chili and music. Many of the scenes seem to have been shoehorned into the story solely for effect rather than because they further the narrative or develop Chili’s character.
On the bright side, the film does exercise a certain amount of humour. There’s Vince Vaughn’s Raji, a gangster wannabe who tries to be black through his use of totally nonsensical street-speak. And then there’s The Rock, cast as Elliot Wilhelm, Raji’s faithful bodyguard, who promotes homosexuality to the extreme without realising it. His performance is so overdone 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.
Be Cool is a sequel that chooses to recycle instead of reinvent. Although it contains some occasional humour and mild entertainment, it ultimately flounders because it doesn’t take the right risks. Rather than embellishing the original film with new adventures and character growth, it opts for the same structure as its predecessor with no growth in character – ironically, 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.