“Sequels,” former loan shark turned movie producer Chili Palmer (John Travolta) ruefully muses in the opening moments of Be Cool, a sequel to the 1995 comedy Get Shorty. “The only time I ever gave into the studios I got hustled into a sequel.” When a film starts off with such a disparaging moment of self-awareness, the viewer should take note and probably sneak off into another auditorium at the multiplex. It’s definitely what one should do if they suddenly find themselves seated in the audience for Be Cool.
Based on the novel by Elmore Leonard, Be Cool sees Travolta returning to the role of Chili, the smooth crook who can either sweet talk or strong-arm his way out of any situation. Evidently having grown disenchanted with the movie business, he decides to segue over to the world of pop music. With his eye for talent, he soon becomes the manager for Linda Moon (Christina Milian), rescuing her from her ineffectual manager, Raji (Vince Vaughn). Chili wants Linda to record an album for the record label owned by Edie, the widow (Uma Thurman) of a friend of Chili’s who was gunned down by the Russian mafia over monies owed. When Chili tries to land a gig for Linda to sing at an upcoming concert by the legendary rock band Aerosmith, his efforts are hampered by not only Raji’s boss (Harvey Keitel) and the Russian mob, but by another rival music executive (Cedric The Entertainer).
In Get Shorty, Chili Palmer had an air of cool detachment from his surroundings. Here, however, Travolta seems detached from the role of Chili Palmer. It’s hard to be engaged with and root for a character who seems bored by what’s going on around him. Even reuniting Travolta with his Pulp Fiction (1994) co-star Thurman fails to energize his performance, even when the pair do a reprise of the memorable scene in Pulp Fiction where they danced in a nightclub. There’s nothing here hasn’t been done before and better.
Travolta’s performance is emblematic of the film’s problems as a whole. The screenplay lifts several story beats from the original film. The characters seem to know that they’re in a movie and the film seems to be winking at the audience constantly over this fact. It does provide a humorous moment early on where Chili explains to a friend how one use of a certain four letter word beginning with the letter “F” will earn a film a PG-13 rating, but using that word more than once is an automatic “R.” The joke is a subtle poke at the ratings system, Get Shorty’s use of the expletive and the fact that Be Cool‘s PG-13 rating was probably at least partially earned due to this scene. However, as the film goes on, the same style of self-aware jokes becomes increasingly more broad and tiresome. Professional wrestler turned action star The Rock turns up as a bodyguard whose homosexual nature is obvious to everyone but himself. While an amusing conceit at first, the idea never goes anywhere. Neither does Vaughn’’s record executive character who has immersed himself into black urban street culture to the point of self-parody. By the time Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler shows up and makes a comment about not appearing in movies as himself (Has he forgotten Wayne’s World 2 (1993) already?), the movie has passed the point of no redeemable return.