Like fellow writer Carl Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard has made a nice little career out of creating wacky characters who live in sunny climes and get themselves involved with murders, squeeze-plays, con men, mobsters, small-time hoods, and assorted weirdoes.
"Be Cool" certainly isn't the first book written with a movie in mind, or even a star. But Leonard loosens his tie with this one and self-consciously plays with the whole notion of writing sequels. While it's been tough for filmmakers to capture the borderline absurdist tone of his books—which I don't think even Barry Sonnenfeld did with "Get Shorty," the first book-to-film to feature Chili Palmer—director F. Gary Gray and his all-star cast stick this one like a gymnast's landing.
The action picks up in L.A., where small-time loan shark Palmer (John Travolta) had carted his big-time attitude and gotten into the movie business, which, it amused him to discover, had much in common with the underworld he knew back in Miami. "Be Cool" opens the way so many Leonard stories do—with two characters having a lunch that's suddenly, even violently interrupted. In this case, a record producer (James Woods) who's trying to get Chili to make a film that would feature him and his story gets whacked by someone in the Russian mafia—someone with a hilariously bad toupee that keeps slipping and thwarting his aim.
And how cool is Chili? Well, he stands and calmly stares down the gunman. As the gunman takes aim at his head, Chili lights a cigarette. And as the gunman pulls the trigger and the only noise heard is a "click," Chili just watches as his would-be assassin takes off running. Now that's "cool" Chili Palmer style, and Travolta fits the part as comfortably as he did in "Get Shorty"—maybe even more so. Vinnie Barbarino was sweathog cool and Danny Zuko was greaser cool, but with Chili Palmer, Travolta gets the keys to the Ultra-Cool Club, where maybe Agent 007 is the only other member. As he glides effortlessly from scene to scene, Travolta is fun to watch, especially as everyone else around him tries so hard to be cool and fails miserably. Make that comically.
"Cool" Elmore Leonard style was illustrated in the opening moments, when Chili tells his friend that unless you want an "R" rating (as "Get Shorty" had), you can only use the F-word once. "Fuck that," Chili says. "I'm done"—meaning, in the context of the film's action, through with the movie business. But with that pun, Leonard also takes a playful swipe at movie ratings and settles into a PG-13 film. Quite literally, Chili and the rest of the "players" were "done" using the F-word. That bit of cleverness really sets the tone for a film that isn't afraid to rock the establishment and have fun with stereotypes at the risk of being branded politically insensitive, or even racist. Hip-hoppers and pimp-walkers especially get the rotisserie treatment, and there are plenty of irreverent lines. When cops ask Chili to confirm that his friend was shot by the gunman, Chili responds, "Stevie Wonder could confirm that." The humor in "Be Cool" is much broader and wacked-out than in "Get Shorty," and people are either going to appreciate that or be turned off by it. I found it not necessarily a great film, but a film that was great fun to watch.
There are a lot of nice little touches and gags. When Chili pays a visit to his Edie Athens (Uma Thurman), his friend's widow, a friend of Edie's shows up with pizza and a funereal urn on top of the box. That kind of irreverence runs through the film like a jazz riff, and the offbeat characters take turns doing comic solos.
As bored as I was with Vince Vaughn's character in "Dodgeball," you can sign me up for his "Be Cool" fan club. Vaughn is stand-out hilarious and full of spitfire energy as a wimpy-white wannabe-black record producer who dresses and acts like a pimp. Playing off of him is The Rock as a gay Samoan bodyguard who's hoping to parlay his one eyebrow-raising expression into an acting or performing career. But Elliot has a little problem with his manhood, as demonstrated by his music video (where he croons, in falsetto, "You Ain't Woman Enough To Take My Man") and his audition for Chili (where he does a laugh-out-loud funny "monologue" of two cheerleaders from "Bring it On").
Cedric the Entertainer also gets a funny riff or two as Sin LaSalle, a hip-hop record mogul who is accompanied by his WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) in their matching black Hummers. It's Tony Soprano flashback time when the WMDs bring a tied-up DJ to his home and he's ready to whack him, bathrobe and everything, until his daughter comes outside and the whole gang waves and smiles sweetly—after which Sin just takes a breakfast spatula to him instead. Sin also has a comic sidekick, a trigger-happy bundle of nerves and social faux pas (André 3000, from Outkast, as Dabu). Steven Tyer of Aerosmith even makes an appearance and generates a few poke-fun-at-himself-and-the-industry laughs. There are also plenty of cool cameos, including Woods as Tommy Athens, Danny DeVito as Martin Weir, Wyclef Jean, Anna Nicole Smith, and Sergio Mendes.
Holding it all together is a plot that explains how Chili goes from making movies to making music. At a club where he watches Chicks International perform and pimpish Raji (Vaughn) mistreat one of the girls he apparently manages, Chili comes to her aid and announces she's leaving the group and he's becoming her new manager. That's not a way to make friends, and Raji becomes one of a number of people who are ready to hurt this new musical kid on the block. Chili persuades Edie to go in with him on this, but her late husband's company owes money to Sin, and the Russian mafia is looking to lean on a few people as well, all because of the big money involved in the record business. Christina Milian is perfect as Linda Moon, the diva that Chili and Edie and Sin back, and that American Idol plot thread anchors a film that might otherwise drift off in its own helium-sniffing silliness. Put it all together, and bam, it works—perhaps because African-American director Gray cut his teeth on music videos and knows the music business enough to spoof it down to the last groove.
"Be Cool" is rated PG-13 for "violence, sensuality and language, including sexual references."
Video: The picture quality is as slick as you'd expect a film of this sort to be, presented in anamorphic widescreen (2.40:1 aspect ratio, which actually measures out to be a little larger than that) and with vibrant color.
Audio: Though advance publicity listed this as having DTS, there's no such luck. The soundtrack options are English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround or French Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, with subtitles in English, French, Spanish, Mandarin, and Cantonese. But the 5.1 has a full, rich sound, and when the finale comes and Moon struts her stuff while Elliot gets his big chance to perform the sound is as resonant and energetic as the performers.
Extras: There's no commentary from Gray or anyone else, but a long making-of feature and a gag reel are worth watching because they amply illustrate how successful the director was in throwing "the party of 2004 that everybody wants to come to." He ran a really loose set, with a reel set aside for cast improvisations—and that, Travolta said, led to more energy on the set because people felt like they were co-creating their characters. There's no music video of Milian, but for those who didn't get enough of The Rock in cowboy duds singing country, there's the complete music video.
Fourteen deleted scenes are included, with a play-all option, and they're interesting to watch only because they show how much slower-paced this film would have been had some of the scenes—like a long and dry interview with Linda Moon on The Patti LaBelle Show—been left in. Rounding out the extras are mini-features on Travolta and Thurman, The Rock, André 3000, Cedric the Entertainer, and Christina Milian. Usually these are throwaway features, but each of the performers manages an insight that helps us better understand their character or the film. Dabu and Sin? "That's like Ricky and Lucy," director Gray remarks. Edie and Chili? In "Pulp Fiction," Travolta's and Thurman's characters were "hell-bent for death," Travolta says. "In 'Be Cool,' they're hell-bent for life." And that pretty much summarizes the tone of this film. "Be Cool" isn't the biting satire that "Get Shorty" was. It's lighter, hipper, and, yes, more fun.
Rounding out the extras are the original trailer and previews.
Bottom Line: It's tough to make comic characters fun and funny without going overboard and turning them into caricatures or silly stereotypes. Under Gray's direction, the high-powered cast of "Be Cool" manages to create characters that are somehow individual and believable, despite their goofiness. In short, "Be Cool" captures the tone and spirit of a wacky Elmore Leonard novel, and that's no small feat. And Vaughn alone is worth the price of admission.