Produced by Danny DeVito, David Nicksay, Michael Shamberg and Stacy Sher
Directed by F. Gary Gray
Screenplay by Peter Steinfeld
Based on the novel by Elmore Leonard
Probably the best way to watch BE COOL is to realize right off the bat that is a movie that knows it’s a movie. It’s no more than an exercise for the actors to have fun and for us to sit back and just watch the actors having fun. That’s all it is. We’re watching a bunch of highly talented folks hanging out and being filmed hanging out. They get to do familiar riffs on the conventions of the crime genre and they make no secret of the fact that they’re doing so. Nobody is straining to win an Academy Award or even to blow us away with they’re acting ability. BE COOL is the type of movie that you don’t absolutely have to see. It won’t change or life and nobody will yank at your arm and yell in your ear; “Did you see BE COOL?” But while you’re watching it you’re entertained and you don’t feel you’ve wasted your time. Or even if you do end up feeling like you wasted your time you might not even mind so much. That’s because the movie lives up to it’s title. It’s more about being cool than anything else.
The hint comes right at the beginning of the movie where former Miami loan shark turned movie producer Chili Palmer (John Travolta) is driving around Hollywood in his Mercedes with music promoter/producer Tommy Athens (James Woods) and Chili is complaining about the restrictions of the MPAA. Tommy asks for an example and Chili tells him that in order for a movie to get an R rating the f-word has to be used more than one time. Chili promptly says: “F-that” and the word is never heard again in BE COOL, ensuring it’s PG-13 rating.
Chili Palmer was introduced in 1995’s “Get Shorty” which was a wonderfully hilarious crime story in which Chili Palmer discovered that his loan sharking tactics were superbly suited to Hollywood and he quickly became a wildly successful movie producer. But it’s ten years later and Chili is bored and he’s looking for a new challenge. The challenge comes when Tommy gets whacked by Russian mobsters and Chili, who is owed money by Tommy decides to take over Tommy’s nearly bankrupt recording label and get into the music business. He teams up with Tommy’s widow, Edie (Uma Thurman) and together they direct the career of Linda Moon (Christina Milan) a gorgeous singer with pipes that can knock Beyonce out of the ballpark. Chili thinks she can be a star. And he proceeds to use his considerable coolness, charm and downright dangerous skills he learned as a professional criminal to ensure that she does so.
Of course, there are obstacles to this. Nick Carr (Harvey Keitel) is a rival producer who holds Linda’s contract. Nick’s partner is Raji (Vince Vaughn) a Jewish guy who thinks he’s black but unfortunately his knowledge of black culture comes from a bizarre mix of watching blaxplotation movie from the 70’s and listening to contemporary hip hop. Raji’s bodyguard/sidekick is Eliot (Dwayne Johnson aka The Rock) an aspiring gay singer/actor who resents Raji for holding him back from his career. Raji and Eliot hire a professional hitman (Robert Pastorelli) to whack Chili but instead bump off a Russian hitman who is after Chili since Chili is the only witness to Tommy’s murder. Complicating the situation is hip hop/rap mogul Sin LaSalle (Cedric The Entertainer) who is the genius writer/producer behind a rap group called Weapons of Mass Destruction who look more like the defensive line of a football team than rap artists. Tommy owed Sin LaSalle a whole lotta money and since Chili has taken over Tommy’s company he also has taken over his debts and Sin gives Chili one week to make good on the note. It doesn’t help the situation that Tommy’s company is bankrupt and so Chili has a further motivation to see that Linda becomes a star. The whole thing hinges on Edie’s former relationship with Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler (playing himself) and trying to get Tyler to let Linda sing a duet with him at an Aerosmith concert. If Chili and Edie can pull that off, they can pay Sin back. Of course, that still leaves the problem of what to do about those pesky Russians and Nick Carr…
The plot really doesn’t matter in BE COOL. You have absolutely no doubt that Chili Palmer is going to pull off making Linda Moon a star, get the Russians and Nick Carr off his back and pay Sin LaSalle back his money. The fun is watching how he does it and the way in which Chili is always three steps ahead of everybody else in the movie. Chili has an uncanny way of zeroing in on what people want and finding their weakness and exploiting it. But that’s the whole point. Everybody else in the movie think they’re so hard and cold and ruthless but they’re just posers. Chili actually IS hard and cold and ruthless. He’s been a professional criminal for most of his adult life and these folks are just pretending they are.
There’s a lot to like about BE COOL. First off is John Travolta. My admiration for this man is boundless. He has developed into one the best actors in America today. Watching him work on screen is an absolute pleasure. He’s just so much fun to watch that I can’t see how anybody wouldn’t watch BE COOL and just enjoy seeing him do his thing. The Wife likes to say about him that she doesn’t care what anybody says: there’s a black man inside of him trying to get out. I tell her that Being Cool is a state of being that transcends race, age, sex or classification. And John Travolta has that. He’s Cool personified. The same way that Steve McQueen, Pam Grier, James Coburn, Uma Thurman, Myrna Loy, Sean Connery, William Powell, Chow Yun Fat, Illeana Douglas, Denzel Washington, Bruce Willis and Robert Mitchum are Cool. I really like the scenes where Chili Palmer interacts with two police detectives played by Debi Mazar and Gregory Alan Williams. They know that Chili was a criminal but they treat him as if they would any other professional in his field. They actually manage to work together to bring down the Russian gangsters in a way that is one of the most surprising plot twists in the movie.
Vince Vaughn also qualifies as Cool. He’s another actor that can do no wrong in my eyes and he’s hilarious in this movie. I’ve had people ask me if I though that his performance in this movie is offensive and I don’t see how. First off, it’s a “movie” and he’s an actor playing a role. And second, I’ve actually known people like the one he plays is this movie. But he actually gives his character some darker shadings that lift it out of being a caricature and makes Raji interesting and Vaughn has most of the good scenes and funniest lines.
The Rock as the gay bodyguard Eliot is a total standout. There’s a scene where he shows Chili his video of him singing a country/western version of “You Ain’t Woman Enough To Take My Man” that is fall down hilarious and then he tops that with doing a monologue scene from the movie “Bring It On” where he plays not one, but two female parts that leads Chili to ask: “You do know that a monologue means only one person, don’t you?” Christina Milan is extremely sweet as Linda Moon. She has a nice chemistry with John Travolta and she looks absolutely gorgeous in this movie, especially in the big production number she has near the end where she performs at The Grammy Awards.
What else? Well, Harvey Keitel is dependable as always and it’s always fun to see him on screen, especially when he plays a role where he obviously is his having some fun with his typical movie persona. Cedric The Entertainer also has a lot of fun with his rap impresario role. His character makes a big show of “keeping it real” and “being from da hood” but he lives in an all-white suburb and sends his daughter to an elite private school. He shows up for business meetings wearing an oversized basketball jersey over his Armani suits. He has a great scene where a Russian gangster tells him to “Be Cool, nigger” and he explains exactly why black people have contributed to the concept of “Cool” to world culture before he shoots the man dead. Andre Benjamin of the group Outkast has a role as Cedric’s sidekick that is small but he makes the most of it as his major beef is that he never gets to shoot anybody. And I can’t let this review go by without mentioning that yes, Uma Thurman and John Travolta have a great scene where they dance in a club where The Black Eyed Peas are performing. There’s no other reason for the scene to be there other than we remember how great they danced together in “Pulp Fiction” but what the hell. They obviously have a terrific time dancing together and we enjoy them enjoying it.
So should you see BE COOL? No, It’s not as good as “Get Shorty” but it is a fun movie to watch. The performances are good and the plot twists will keep you guessing. It’s got a standout cast and if you’re a fan of John Travolta, Uma Thurman and Harvey Keitel (all “Pulp Fiction” actors) you’ll like seeing them here. The Rock, Vince Vaughn, Cedric The Entertainer and Christina Milan are all solid supporting players and the cameos by James Woods, Danny DeVito, Anna Nicole Smith, The Black Eyed Peas and Steven Tyler are fun to watch. You could do a lot worse than renting BE COOL on a Friday or Saturday night. Just don’t ask a lot from the freewheeling plot and just sit back to watch a whole lotta coolness at work. Enjoy.