Director : F. Gary Gray
Screenplay : Peter Steinfeld (based on the novel by Elmore Leonard)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : John Travolta (Chili Palmer), Uma Thurman (Edie Athens), Vince Vaughn (Raji), Cedric the Entertainer (Sin LaSalle), André Benjamin (Dabu), Steven Tyler (Himself), Robert Pastorelli (Joe Loop), Christina Milian (Linda Moon), Paul Adelstein (Hy Gordon), Harvey Keitel (Nick Carr), The Rock (Elliot Wilhelm), Danny DeVito (Martin Weir), James Woods (Tommy Athens)
There are probably people in the world much like John Travlota’s Chili Palmer in Be Cool, but surely no one is as calm, collected, and utterly unflappable as he is. Chili is a glorious fictional character, a walking checklist of suave characteristics dressed in an impeccable black suit. Point a gun at him, threaten his life, point multiple guns at him -- and nothing. Amid chaos, he is a smooth-walking cloud of Zen-like coolness.
And that is precisely what Be Cool is: chaos. The sequel to 1995’s Get Shorty, which solidified Travolta’s comeback in Pulp Fiction the previous year, Be Cool is a crime-comedy packed to the point of bursting with entertainment in-jokes, flashy cameos, narrative twists, and more cameos. Nearly every casting decision has some element of jokiness to it, from Harvey Keitel’s natty-looking music mogul who’s constantly talking on the phone with someone named “Marty,” to The Rock’s well-groomed gay bodyguard, to Danny DeVito’s return as the most unlikely action movie star imaginable (although now he’s set to play Johnny Cash in a biopic -- with lots of low angles, of course). Nothing is straight, but the film is never fully warped, either. Just playfully bent.
Be Cool throws you right into the action, assuming the audience is familiar with Chili, a former Miami loan shark who is relocated in Hollywood and is now a successful movie producer. When a slimy buddy of his, Tommy Athens (James Wood, natch), is gunned down by the Russian mafia (in the film’s opening scene, no less), Chili takes it upon himself to help Tommy’s widow, Edie (Uma Thurman), maintain their fledgling independent music label. Tired of the movie business, Chili wants to break into music, but he finds that it is even more corrupt and packed with criminals in fine attire than Hollywood was. Like Get Shorty, the ultimate joke in Be Cool is that the entertainment industry is just like organized crime, only the surface shine is a little glossier.
Chili makes his move by offering to manage an angel-voiced ingénue named Linda Moon (Christina Milian). The only problem is that Linda still has five years on her contract with Raji (Vince Vaughn), a loudmouthed would-be pimp who clumsily throws around mostly outdated black dialect (“Don’t be hatin’!”) and dresses like a bad parody of a rap star. Raji, like most of the characters in Be Cool, is hiding behind an obvious façade, one that he wears with all the grace of a three-hundred-pound ballerina. Surrounded by characters like this, it’s no wonder Chili comes across as being so cool. He’s the one character in the film who is utterly and completely at home in his own skin, which might why he tends to recede to the background a little too much.
Chili’s dealings in the music world also bring him into contact with Sin LaSalle (Cedric the Entertainer), an imposing hip-hop mogul in the Marion “Suge” Knight mold who plays like the world’s most dedicated dad at home with his elementary-age daughter, but has no compunction about using a gun to make a business deal. Sin is surrounded by a comical entourage of gangsta warriors, including Dabu, his wife’s overeager cousin played to the hilt by OutKast’s André Benjamin.
Be Cool offers many pleasures, although most of them are references to other movies, which can be tiresome. The spiral of intertextual nods often reaches mind-boggling proportions, such as the scene in which Chili and Edie hit the dance floor at a club, a moment that clearly relishes the way in which it reunites Travolta and Thurman in an extension of their Pulp Fiction dance floor moment, which itself was a nod to Travolta’s white-suited disco days in Saturday Night Fever (1977).
On the other hand, you have to congratulate some of the actors for playing far against type, particularly The Rock, whose sensitive bodyguard is both the film’s funniest long-running joke and its most sympathetic and likable character. (I’d say Chili is sympathetic, but he’s like an uber-cool Terminator who is never remotely in danger at any moment.)
Fun as it is, the endless parade of cameos from both Hollywood and the music biz -- It’s Steven Tyler of Aerosmith! Isn’t that Seth Green directing a video? Wow, the entire Los Angeles Lakers basketball team! -- can feel suffocating at times. Director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job), taking over for Barry Levinson, tries to keep the story flowing, but it keeps getting choked with all the names and faces and references. Be Cool is ultimately the antithesis of its title, as it is clearly trying too hard from start to finish, but damned if it doesn’t have some good moments along the way.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2005 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer