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By Pete Vonder Haar | March 5, 2005

1995’s “Get Shorty,” besides being a perfectly serviceable Elmore Leonard adaptation, was also noteworthy for being one of John Travolta’s last remotely watchable movies. After his triumphant return to the big screen in Pulp Fiction, Travolta milked his new-found cred by appearing in a series of unimpressive paycheck roles (“Broken Arrow,” Swordfish) that torpedoed what little respectability he’d earned. That same respectability was all but flushed down the toilet following the cinematic Dienbienphu that was Battlefield Earth. With “Be Cool,” the sequel to “Get Shorty,” Travolta makes one last desperate attempt to stay on Hollywood’s A-list before the inevitable “Welcome Back, Kotter” remake and 30th anniversary commemorations of “Saturday Night Fever.”

It seems that Chili Palmer, the mob hitman-turned-movie producer introduced in “Get Shorty,” has grown disillusioned with the film industry. As luck would have it, a music mogul friend of Palmer’s is assassinated by Russian mobsters while the two men are at lunch. Palmer uses this opportunity to visit the dead man’s wife, Edie (Uma Thurman). In the course of consoling the not-so-grieving widow, he also offers himself up as her new business partner at her record label, bringing along the fetching new singing phenom (played by Christina Milian) he recently “liberated” from the clutches of her evil, wannabe gangsta manager, Raji (Vince Vaughn). Edie reluctantly agrees, so all that’s left for Palmer is to deal with Raji, Raji’s gay, aspiring actor bodyguard (The Rock), a rival music producer (Harvey Keitel), and Cedric the Entertainer’s army of ‘roided out’ rappers cum hitmen out to recoup $300,000 owed him by Edie’s label.

“Be Cool” is easily one of the most lackadaisical movies I’ve seen. Don’t get me wrong, the plot is entertaining enough, and there are some genuine laughs, but almost everyone in the movie is half-assing it. Lines are delivered with a smirk, as if to say, “Can you believe we’re getting paid $20/12 million* to drive around in a Honda Insight and dance together again?” There’s never a doubt that the imperturbable Chili Palmer will come out on top, no matter how many guns get pointed at him, just as it’s never a question that the talented and attractive Linda will win over the naysayers and go on to success. This lack of dramatic tension or character development leaves us free to watch Chili, Edie, and Linda maneuvering through product placement opportunities and gratuitous locations shoots (the Staples Center and the Viper Room) without the threat of conflict.

This isn’t to say that nothing works. I hate to admit it, but Raji is the role Vince Vaughn was born to play. Normally, I’d say this wasn’t a good thing. Not only has the “white guy acting black” shtick been done to death (see also “Soul Man,” “True Romance,” “Can’t Hardly Wait,” “Cool As Ice”), but Vaughn is one of those actors that just annoys you the more of him you’re exposed to. In “Be Cool,” the reverse actually happens, as you find yourself bored with his routine from the get-go, then drawn in by his total commitment to the act. Give him credit for refusing to allow Raji to grow as a character.

Also commendable is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who quite ably mocks his own persona. At one point, I’d say that playing a gay bodyguard who wears sequined ankle boots would be a brave choice for a pro wrestler, but…he was a pro wrestler. And he remade Walking Tall, so the hell with it. He’s funny, is all.

The film also features Leonard’s trademark sharp dialogue, which is watered down somewhat by the delivery of the movie’s characters, all of whom seem to be extremely self-conscious of the fact they’re cleverly performing in one of those films within a film, where they get to interact with real life celebrities playing themselves (Woo hoo! Fred Durst!). I’d say Leonard deserves better, but, frankly, he doesn’t. He sat down to write “Be Cool” with a film deal already in place, so it isn’t as if his creative vision was tampered with. This is a movie with a distinct feel of “been there, done that.” Worse, it’s unnecessary. There weren’t any plot threads left dangling at the end of “Get Shorty” that justified a sequel. “Be Cool” was made, like so many other films, solely for the purpose of cashing in on an established property and fattening the wallets of those involved, and Leonard and Travolta deserve all the flack they’re going to get for it.

* Travolta and Thurman, respectively

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