Double Dutch

Medium-cool Leonard adaptation takes cues from Get Shorty, but only The Rock has a hit

At least the MGM marketers waited for Dutch Leonard to write a Get Shorty sequel before they green-lit a filmed one—but the wait may have cost them. Be Cool, being the further L.A. adventures in shylockiana of Chili Palmer, has a distinctively dated ambience; the first five minutes are distinguished by a slab of '80s-TV-show soundtrack, a visit to the Viper Room, a Carrot Top joke, and a flailing cameo by James Woods as a record producer who promptly, mercifully, gets popped by Russian gangsters. The smell of calamity is in the air. As we know from the bruises left by the worst dozen movies derived from this ever seductive master's books, a Leonard filmization depends wholly on the light dance step of the filmmaker in question. Surprisingly, Get Shorty's Barry Sonnenfeld demonstrated a soft shoe, but Be Cool's F. Gary Gray seems a clueless bystander, watching the new machine attempt to clone the earlier model's rhythms, gestures, and confidence, but never knowing which switches to flip.

But while Be Cool is decidedly uncool, Elmore's DNA still runs through it. Palmer (John Travolta again) decides, once Woods's slimeball is dead, that the music industry is something he'd like to try. He mixes up with the leggy widow (Uma Thurman), an idiot wigger producer (Vince Vaughn), his gay and relatively harmless bodyguard (The Rock), a zillionaire rap producer with a hard-charging posse of handgun-flourishing thugs (Cedric the Entertainer), and eventually, Steven Tyler as the lead singer of a deathless rock band named Aerosmith. The story is pretzely in a way that Leonard probably enjoys working out as he naps; suffice it to say that it's run amok with double betrayals and tropes lifted straight from Get Shorty. Unfortunately, it's all centered on a dull Beyoncé-wannabe up-and-comer (Christina Milian, whose albums are corporate-owned by Universal, oddly). Her mush-sob story about wanting to make it big lands in your hair early; throughout, Palmer and the other industry toughies gaze upon this warbling honey doll as if she were made of stardust. When she's placed in concert with Aerosmith, co-crooning "Cryin'," this semi-sardonic view of a mercenary industry be-comes itself a bit of a pandering hustle.

Pulp friction: Travolta and Thurman
photo: MGM Pictures
Pulp friction: Travolta and Thurman

Travolta's Chili is still an underwhelming pleasure, and Gray knows enough to make a warm, post-Pulp Fiction set piece out of a dancefloor hoochie-koo between Chili and Thurman's weathered industrialite. It's not as if the Leonard lines aren't there, it's only a matter of who can pick them up. The late Robert Pastorelli, as a cocky hit man eventually undone by fast eating, is terrifically New York funny. Vaughn's phlegmy hip-hop shtick has its moments, but only in relation to The Rock, who is Be Cool's authentic revelation. As a naive, audition-seeking queer—named Elliot Wilhelm, no less—stuck being a gangsta because of his skin and size, Rock is brave, fully invested in his character, and with a wide-open face and foolish grin, outrageously funny. It's a singular performance achieved without condescension or camp. Who'd a-thunk it? In the end, as Elliot's happily hoofing it in an onstage Hawaiian dance routine straight out of Disney World, you can almost see Hollywood scratch its head.

 
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