Watching "Be Cool" I was reminded of the Robert K. Tanenbaum crime novels, ghost-written by his brilliant cousin Michael Gruber, where after a dozen successes over the years Mr. Tanenbaum dispensed with his cousin and wrote the next one himself, which turned out to be unreadable. In the same way, but without a ghostwriter, Elmore Leonard somehow decided that his delicious novel "Get Shorty," which Barry Sonnenfeld turned into a witty romp reminiscent of the great "Pulp Fiction," deserved a sequel, and then wrote a confused, overstuffed, turgid piece that barely made sense and lacked any of the wit of the original.
And so it is as a movie. Instead of building on Travolta's Chili Palmer, ex-New York and Miami mobster, a loan shark who has the understated confidence of a man who knows himself, and knows those he comes in contact with better than they know themselves, "Be Cool" gives Travolta no character at all - he's just a machine to deliver lines. Written this time by Peter Steinfeld and directed by F. Gary Gray, "Be Cool" takes Chili from the movie business to the music business, for no reason other than to bring in a new set of characters. The transition is made in an opening scene so lame it would be thrown out of a first-year screenwriting class. Riding in a car with Tommy Athens (the wisely uncredited James Woods), a friend who owns a music publishing company, Tommy tells him about a young singer, Linda Moon (Christina Milian). Tommy is then shot to death and Chili goes to hear her sing. But she's unlucky enough to have Vince Vaughn as her inept and crooked manager, and we're unlucky enough to have to watch Vaughn struggle with an embarrassingly written part. Vaughn has a driver/bodyguard named Elliot (The Rock), who's a) gay and b) the only nice guy in the film.
It gets more complicated. Vaughn's partner Nick (Harvey Keitel), enemy Sin (Cedric the Entertainer), Tommy's widow Edie (Uma Thurman) and the Russian Mafia are all after Linda's contract, because she's going to be a big star. And hey, here's an idea: let's bring in Steven Tyler to join the plot. Who's Steven Tyler, you ask? Well, he's Liv Tyler's father, but he's also still performing as part of Aerosmith, and you remember them, right? And what is he doing in the film? Come on. Linda gets to sing with him at the Staples Center to mark her breakthrough to superstardom! Is that wonderful or what?
As you can imagine, Travolta and his Chili quickly get lost in all the mishagoss, so we don't even have the pleasure of watching and hearing him use that smoothness and wit, which we might if only there were a script and a director. The film is nothing but a few dozen confrontations set one after the other, most of them punctuated by pistol shots, followed by instant regroupings among the characters. "Be Cool" is the busiest and at the same time most boring film in ages. But now you'll have the answer to the trivia question: What are the only two films in which John Travolta and Uma Thurman dance together? Good for you.