2005Director: F. Gary Gray
Cast: John Travolta, Uma Thurman, The Rock
alfway through Be Cool, John Travolta and Uma Thurman are at a Hollywood club. They dance cleverly to a song by the Black Eyed Peas. The editing is crafty, and sexual tension abounds. It’s as if no time had passed between now and 1994, when we last saw them on the dance floor, in Pulp Fiction, twisting to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell.”
At least that’s the connection we’re supposed to make. Obviously, the intervening decade hasn’t been easy on Travolta, who’s now at about the same level of respectability as when Quentin Tarantino resuscitated his career, having channeled most of his formidable screen presence into self-parodic, unintentionally hilarious levels of high-concept poppycock. Really, did you see Ladder 49? Piece! Of! Shit!
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So, how to engineer comeback No. 2? Apparently, the trick is to mine familiar territory. Here, he reprises his Chili Palmer role from Get Shorty, which was released at the height of his original comeback in 1995, when any film that featured Travolta talking tough and smoking awesomely could expect to be a decent-sized hit.
If you can ignore this undercurrent of desperation in Be Cool, you’re likely to be mindlessly entertained without sacrificing too much self-respect, making this the first Travolta film of such distinction since, well, Get Shorty.
Having traded his career as a loan shark for a successful gig as a movie producer, Chili has become disillusioned with the film business and decides to take a crack at music. Luckily, his friend Tommy Athens (James Woods), a music exec, gets gunned down in the first scene. Chili begins moving in on Tommy’s wife Edie (Uma Thurman) and takes over Tommy’s business. Chili also inherits Tommy’s sizable debt to Sin LaSalle (Cedric the Entertainer), who manages a rap group called the Dub MDs, which includes Andre from OutKast. To get out of debt, Chili attaches himself to Linda Moon (Christina Milian), a young singer whose horrid balladry seems like an easy sell. To get control of Linda’s contract, Chili must butt heads with her sleazy ex-manager, the Ebonics-speaking Raji (Vince Vaughn), his gay Samoan bodyguard (The Rock) and the head of Linda’s label (Harvey Keitel). Somehow, Aerosmith becomes involved.
It’s every bit as silly and convoluted as it sounds, which is par for the course when it comes to adapting Elmore Leonard novels. The dialogue and characters sparkle with the same effortless breeziness as any such film, but ultimately Be Cool doesn’t add up to much. It’s one of those parade-of-celebrities movies—think Ocean’s 11 or 12—that merely requires its stars to show up, trade some easy banter and do little besides perform slight variations on their own personas. The script wallows in self-awareness, as we are reminded repeatedly that, yes, we’re watching a movie and that it is, in fact, a sequel. Steven Tyler’s monologue about how little respect he has for singers who try to act, during which he might as well have winked at the camera, is especially ludicrous.
But the film is rescued by a handful of great moments, mostly involving the Rock or, if you can handle a rather nasty racial caricature, the Dub MDs, who are heavily armed and who travel in a parade of ridiculously accessorized Humvees, blaring the gangsta-est of gangsta rap. The Rock (real name: Dwayne Johnson) steals the show as the nice-guy bodyguard who wants to be an actor, displaying a degree of whimsy and comic timing for which professional wrestlers aren’t generally noted.
Travolta, meanwhile, seems uninterested. Reduced to a background character, he reads his lines dutifully and continues to smoke and dance all faded-icon-like. Yeah, he’s cool, but he’s been a lot cooler.