MGM // 2005 // 120 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Mitchell Hattaway (Retired) // July 8th, 2005
Everyone is looking for the next big hit.
What is it with John Travolta and sequels? Four of his hit films have had sequels, and each one of the follow-ups has been a colossal misfire. (In his defense, Travolta wasn't in Grease 2, but for the sake of my argument, I'm still counting it.) You'd think by now someone in Hollywood would have caught on to this. Alas, apparently no one has, so we end up with stuff like Staying Alive, or Look Who's Talking Now, or the movie currently in question -- Be Cool. Dear God, is someone somewhere currently planning a sequel to Moment by Moment?
After being forced into producing a crappy sequel to a hit film, Chili Palmer (John Travolta, Battlefield Earth) decides to leave the movie business. Opportunity knocks when Chili's friend, Tommy Athens (James Woods, The Specialist), is murdered by members of the Russian mafia. Tommy owned a faltering record label, and Chili sees his buddy's demise as his chance to enter the music world. He cozies up to Edie (Uma Thurman, Paycheck), Tommy's widow, and recruits a promising young singer named Linda Moon (Christina Milian, Torque). There's only one problem: Linda is already under contract with an agency run by a hood named Nick Carr (Harvey Keitel, Rising Son), who doesn't appreciate Chili's poaching. Nick orders his business partner Raji (Vince Vaughn, Pauly Shore is Dead) to take care of Chili. Raji and his bodyguard Elliot (The Rock, The Scorpion King) hire an idiotic hit man named Joe Loop (Robert Pastorelli, Beverly Hills Cop II) to rub Chili out, but the plan doesn't work so well. On top of that, the Russian mafia guys want Chili dead because he can identify them as Tommy's killers; Chili also has to deal with Sin La Salle (Cedric the Entertainer, Johnson Family Vacation), a producer who wants the 300 grand Tommy owed him. Other than that, things aren't so bad.
After the release of Martin Ritt's screen adaptation of Hombre, there was a period of almost thirty years during which it seemed nobody, including the author himself, knew what to do with Elmore Leonard's books. Films based on Leonard's early western novels and stories had fared okay, but adaptations of his crime novels, with the exception of John Frankenheimer's 52 Pick-Up, always seemed to fall flat. Then along came Barry Sonnenfeld and Scott Frank, who cracked the code with Get Shorty, and after that we had the one-two punch of Jackie Brown and Out of Sight (we'll just forget about Touch). Yeah, those were some good times, and it looked like the curse had finally been lifted. Well, I guess somebody better call Dr. Bombay, because, after The Big Bounce and Be Cool, it looks like the curse is back on.
I guess this movie never really had a chance. Sonnenfeld wasn't coming back, so the producers signed director Brett Ratner, who had exhibited a deft hand for satire and black comedy with Money Talks. Ratner later bowed out, which opened the door for F. Gary Gray, who had exhibited a deft hand for satire and black comedy with Friday. To add insult to injury, substituting for Frank was screenwriter Peter Steinfeld, who already had one bad sequel under his belt in the form of Analyze That. Apparently Steinfeld's first order of business was to jettison Leonard's dialogue and replace it with junk so poorly written it wouldn't pass muster on a UPN sitcom. He then screwed with the plot, turned most of the characters into idiotic stereotypes, and added completely unnecessary scenes (he also removed Leonard's ironic jabs at the nature of sequels in general). Unlike what Tarantino was able to do with Rum Punch (which became Jackie Brown), the new material here, aside from simply being bad, doesn't mesh with what little remains of Leonard's work. And Gray seems to be under the impression he's making another broad hip-hop comedy; the tone he chooses for the movie is completely wrong (which is evident even in the closing credits). Simply put, Be Cool is a disaster.
Right off the bat, Travolta's character in this movie doesn't seem to be the same Chili Palmer we met 10 years ago (or 15 if you're counting from the original novel). Gone is the charm and assuredness; what we get here is a Chili who always seems to be in need of a nap. I can't imagine the real Chili bobbing and weaving while listening to Sin remix one of Linda's songs (as much as it pains me to write it, that's the perfect description of what Travolta does in the scene). I also can't imagine him having a heart-to-heart talk with Steven Tyler about the true meaning of Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion." Think about it: Would Chili, who is trying to get Tyler to agree to a duet with Linda at an upcoming Aerosmith concert, really sit down with Tyler and tell the singer that his feelings about the births of his daughters were behind the writing of that song? No, he wouldn't. Chili is a guy who knows how to gain control of any situation, but he wouldn't do it this way. In that scene, which really shouldn't be in the movie in the first place, Chili should be getting to Tyler by showing the singer what's in it for him (think about the part Run-D.M.C.'s version of "Walk This Way" played in Aerosmith's comeback), not by being maudlin. To make matters worse, the scene revolves around a song that was written and recorded in 1975, two years before the birth of Tyler's first daughter, and three years before the birth of his second. I guess Chili's also unaware of the history of Tyler's relationship with his daughter Liv (maybe Chili's cable service doesn't include VH1), who, by the way, obviously didn't inherit whatever acting ability she has from her dad. (While we're on the subject, could Aerosmith sink any lower? Between their work here, their appearance at the 2001 Super Bowl, and that damn song from Armageddon, I'm ready to break my copy of Toys in the Attic.)
There are problems with many of the other characters, too. Vaughn's Raji is a Jewish guy who thinks he's black, so, of course, he patterns his actions after gangsta rappers and street pimps from the 1970s. Cedric's Sin is a business school graduate who thinks he can gain street cred by surrounding himself with a posse of Hummer-driving, gun-toting rappers. Sin's main man is an idiot named Dabu (played by Outkast's André Benjamin); Dabu spends most of the movie complaining about how he never gets to shoot anyone, but he also finds time to slurp loudly on some Chinese takeout and be insulted by Sin for drinking a cup of tea with his pinkie extended (Jesus, how old is that joke?). Getting back to Cedric for a minute, his character makes a speech that undoubtedly has to be the single dumbest unnecessary addition to the story. One of the Russian mafia guys hurls a racial epithet at Sin, which causes Sin to rattle on about how white America should be thankful for the contributions African Americans have made to the nation's culture, after which Sin shoots the Russian mafia guy several times. Not only is the speech out of place in the story (Sin's a guy who beats, threatens, and kills people, but we're supposed to take seriously his lesson on racial tolerance and justice), it also doesn't make sense for Sin to make the speech to a Russian. (As he mentions in the disc's supplements, this speech was Gray's idea, and it's further evidence of how little he understands the movie's story or characters.)
The movie is also incredibly overlong, and the energy and sense of purpose Gray brought to The Italian Job is sorely lacking here. Most of the scenes drag on and on, and many of them are completely unnecessary. Not including her number with Aerosmith, Milian sings three songs, but only the first one is justifiable. The Black Eyed Peas and Sergio Mendes also get a number, but why? There's a completely gratuitous dance number from Travolta and Thurman, which is here simply to draw on the good graces of that dance they performed in that other movie. (I'm a little unclear on something Travolta says in this scene. When Thurman asks him if he can dance, he reminds her that he's from Brooklyn, but I thought Chili was from Miami.) Most of the performances don't work. Travolta sleepwalks his way through the movie. Vaughn is too over-the-top; worse yet, he's not funny. Nor is Keitel, but who would cast Keitel in this movie to begin with? Cedric the Entertainer simply can't act. Thurman is given nothing to do, and she seems to be here simply because she worked with Travolta in that other movie that featured that other dance number, although I did like the tattoo on the small of her back. (Travolta specifically asked for Thurman to be cast because he wanted to recreate their chemistry, which further proves he never learns his lessons. Anybody remember Two of a Kind?) Milian isn't bad to look at, but that's about all I can say with regards to her. The Rock comes off best, putting a spin on what is essentially stunt casting. He tries to inject some life into the proceedings, but he's fighting a losing battle. And the fact that Robert Pastorelli died right after he completed his work here is a crying shame.
The movie's a failure, but MGM has done some nice work on the technical side of the disc. The transfer is first-rate from beginning to end. The audio isn't quite as impressive, but it's still very good. It's not the most active mix I've heard (the movie is rather dialogue-heavy), but the track really comes to life during the songs and the opening shootout. The extras are all disposable. There are several brief, uninformative interviews with select members of the cast, as well as 14 deleted and alternate scenes (thank God they were cut), and an unfunny gag reel (ha-ha, Ced forgot to turn off his cell phone). You also get a video of The Rock singing Loretta Lynn's "You Ain't Woman Enough to Take My Man" (the joke's funny for about fifteen seconds, but unfortunately the video runs about four minutes) and a ho-hum making-of featurette (the fact that Elmore Leonard is given short shrift in the extras is a pretty big indicator of the movie's quality).
No, no, no, no, no. This is definitely not how this was supposed to go down. In addition to being quite possibly the worst adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel ever to disgrace the silver screen, Be Cool will undoubtedly go down as one of the worst films of 2005.
A verdict of guilty for everyone involved. Yes, even Uma -- but not her tattoo.
Review content copyright © 2005 Mitchell Hattaway; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Making-of Documentary
* Deleted Scenes
* Gag Reel
* Music Video
* Close Up Featurette: Dance Partners
* Close Up Featurette: The Rock
* Close Up Featurette: André 3000
* Close Up Featurette: Cedric the Entertainer
* Close Up Featurette: Christina Milian
* Theatrical Trailer
* Official Site