After conquering the movie business, Chili Palmer (John Travolta) grows weary of the cinema, and switches over to the music game when he gets a chance to team up with a friend’s widow (Uma Thurman, entering the film in a very memorable way) to run a record label. After finding gold in a talented young singer (Christina Milian), Chili must first retrieve her recording contract from her shady manager (Harvey Keitel), outwit a dim, thugged-out-whiteboy wannabe producer (Vince Vaughn) and his homosexual, aspiring actor bodyguard (The Rock), negotiate a settlement of debt with a Suge Knightish producer (Cedric the Entertainer) and his gang (including Outkast’s Andre Benjamin), and try to outsmart some Russian gangsters who are hot on his tail. All in a day’s work in the record industry.
It has been 10 years since Chili Palmer last graced the big screen (has it been that longr) in the Elmore Leonard adaptation, “Get Shorty.” Impressed with star John Travolta’s performance, Leonard took it upon himself to write a sequel novel, which is the basis for “Be Cool.” Chili is arguably Travota’s finest role, utilizing the actor’s rarely used gifts for deafeningly calm coolness and charm. “Be Cool” also reunites Travolta with Uma Thurman, his dance partner in both love and heroin in “Pulp Fiction.” Their chemistry is terrific, providing the backbone of the film while every other actor gets to run around chewing the scenery. It’s tremendous fun to see Travolta in this role again. However, in those 10 years, there have been many personnel changes in front of and behind the camera, which occasionally disrupts the Chili fun of “Be Cool.”
Replacing “Shorty” director Barry Sonnenfeld is F. Gary Gray, who has made some odd/awful films in his day (“Friday,” “The Negotiator”), but appeared to be turning a career quality corner with his remake of “The Italian Job,” and now “Be Cool.” If the traditional goal of a sequel is to replicate the original experience while making it all seem new again, Gray certainly accomplishes that with his film. “Cool” still traffics in that classic Leonard mode of guns, hoodlums, masses of characters, and all their double-crosses, but the setting has been changed to the music industry, which Gray, a former video director, seems to know something about. Gray deftly evokes the treacherous Southern California music scene, yet keeps the story light enough to succeed as a zany comic caper too. This is the most assured directorial work Gray has delivered up to this point, and he has a loose way with actors that really brings out their charisma, especially in Cedric the Entertainer, Harvey Keitel, and The Rock, who finally found a film that exploits his personality without burying it in stupidity. In fact, he nearly steals the film away from Travolta with an uproarious scene that has his character reciting lines from “Bring It On” for his audition monologue in front of Chili.
What Gray lacks is a tightness in his storytelling that Sonnenfeld has honed carefully over his career. “Be Cool” isn’t the most efficient film I’ve seen. Gray keeps getting tied up in Leonard’s complicated plotting, which effects the film’s pace at times, and results in about nine endings for the picture. Gray also overdoes the Vaughn character, played with appropriate homeboy bluster by the actor. The character isn’t exactly an original creation, as cinema has had its share of white boys acting like black rappers recently. Vaughn’s dedication to the role is hilarious, but Gray ruins the effect by calling in the wild performance more than it needs to be.
“Be Cool” is a solid, funny, groovy return to the screen for Chili and his wacky west coast adventures, while also not embarrassing the original film. What’s next for Chili and Leonardr Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 10 years to find out.Rating: B