The novel Be Cool, written by Elmore Leonard in 1999 while the ink was still wet on the publisher's advance, existed only because the beloved writer of seedy thrillers and Westerns knew it was guaranteed gold -- the sequel to the 1991 hit novel Get Shorty that, in 1995, became a hit movie starring John Travolta as shylock-turned-movie-producer Chili Palmer. Nothing about the book, or the subsequent film written by Scott Frank and directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, warranted a sequel. They had satisfying endings that left you wondering nothing, and they took so long to end -- zigging and zagging like a drunken teenager when a straight line would have sufficed -- both book and movie already felt like two works crammed into one. But at least they had the benefit of being entertaining, which counts a lot in the, whatchacallit, entertainment business.
Be Cool, the novel, was Leonard at his slightest -- one long wink at the reader, a failed sequel all about failed sequels that barely could muster the energy to be self-loathing. Between the flaccid lines recited by returning characters (Palmer, most notably) and ones who only felt familiar, the novel reviewed itself; "I was against doing a sequel in the first place," Chili says on page two, groaning about how greed and unoriginality make lousy playmates. But since it read like a screenplay, as most of Leonard's novels do, all it needed was a suitor to take it to the multiplex. Unfortunately it wound up with dates far less clever than Frank and Sonnenfeld: Be Cool claims as its director F. Gary Gray, maker of the fun but slight-as-wet-tissue The Italian Job, and writer Peter Steinfeld, whose most notable credit is the drab Analyze That, another sequel scribbled on the back of a canceled check.
Be Cool, the movie (but also the book), is redundant to the point of being absolutely pointless, a sequel that is almost a note-for-note, beat-for-beat redo of its predecessor, but with all the entertaining stuff left out. Its milieu has been altered slightly -- Chili is left trying to get into the music business, after his sequel closed on opening weekend -- but nothing else. Be Cool has the drab look and cheap feel of used product. Even Travolta seems lost and uninterested, playing Chili Palmer like a guy imitating John Travolta imitating Chili Palmer. The spark he possessed in the first movie, shot just after he was reborn in Pulp Fiction, has been smothered by too many movies like Lucky Numbers, Domestic Disturbance (with his Be Cool costar Vince Vaughn), Swordfish, Basic, and Ladder 49. The cockiness has worn off, the charm worn thin, the welcome worn out.
The whole endeavor feels like a sham Chili might have cooked up to dupe the dopes out of their hard-earned. It's a hustle and a cheat, front-loaded with recognizable faces (James Woods as the record-company owner offed in the first scene, Harvey Keitel as the payola-grubbing promoter, Vaughn as the white music-bizzer who thinks he's blacker than Quentin Tarantino, Cedric the Entertainer as Ivy League-educated rap mogul Sin LaSalle, OutKast's André Benjamin as an inept gangsta, Danny DeVito reprising his role as actor Martin Weir, Aerosmith (as Aerosmith) caught in an endless loop of double-crosses and triple-threats without a single brand-new thing. Worse, they're interacting with doppelgängers, shadows of characters we've seen and heard from before.
Remember Bear, the sweet and sensitive bodyguard played by James Gandolfini in Get Shorty? He's now a gay Samoan bodyguard named Elliot, played by the Rock. (In the book, incidentally, Elliot is known for lifting one eyebrow; Leonard clearly had the former wrestler in mind, or perhaps a big poster of him over his writing desk.) Perhaps you recall Karen, the B-movie actress who really wanted to produce, played by Rene Russo? She is now Edie, a widowed former Vegas showgirl who really wants to produce, played by Uma Thurman. (In the book, Edie is a minor character at best; in the movie, she's Travolta's costar, cast if only to re-create their dance number from Pulp Fiction in a listless, dreary sequence that looks to have been lifted from the videotape of someone's bar mitzvah party.) The list is endless, much like Be Cool itself, which has more fakeout finales than Return of the King. Toss in some Russian mobsters and a wannabe pop diva named Linda Moon (played by dancefloor diva Christina Milian), and there's barely enough room left to breathe, much less find a character worth caring about or plot strand worth worrying over.
Scott Frank was the first screenwriter to adapt Leonard with any success; his Get Shorty screenplay popped like a champagne cork, a warm-up to his sumptuous adaptation of Out of Sight. Frank, like a jazz drummer working the after-hours gig, latched onto the melodies of Leonard's lines and gave them an extra beat; he got not only what was said but why, and it was all studio pro Sonnenfeld could to do keep pace. (He revealed the depth of his descent into hackdom with the 2002 adaptation of Dave Barry's Big Trouble, itself Leonard-lite.) Gray and Steinfeld have no feel for this material, but it's not entirely their fault; they've been asked to remix the sound of silence -- no easy feat. Still, you gotta blame somebody. Okay, blame everybody.
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