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Be Cool

If it takes doing time in a John Travolta movie to finally make The Rock a star, then so be it. Worse things have happened. Heck, far worse John Travolta movies than Be Cool have happened.

The sequel to the dark and fun Get Shorty, Be Cool tries a little too hard to remind us of Travolta's good movies rather than focusing on being one itself. Director F. Gary Gray starts off with an exchange echoing Pulp Fiction, as Chili Palmer (Travolta) drives around with record executive Tommy Athens (James Woods). Later on, Travolta even gets to dance with Uma Thurman (as Athens' widow and transitioning nicely to older adult roles), but the competent Gray is no Tarantino.

You know you're in sequel territory when dialogue painstakingly reminds you that these guys spent time as wiseguys. Actually, it's not just a reminder, as Athens wasn't actually in Get Shorty, nor was shady promoter Nick Carr (Harvey Keitel). But we're supposed to accept that over the past ten years, more mobsters have migrated to Los Angeles and become entertainment moguls.

Hollywood, are you going to take that?

In those ten years, Chili Palmer has grown tired of the movie business. The studio forced him to make a sequel to his first film that didn't do nearly as well. Just as he wants out, he suddenly finds himself interested in music due to the sudden murder of Athens. Of course, the music industry turns out to be even more cutthroat and thus, thrilling to Chili.

If only it could seem more thrilling to us. Travolta still has his magnetism, up to a point. But the movie has too much sprawl for Gray to handle, with a script that doesn't really explain Chili's motivations. It does, however, lift a lot of dialogue out of Elmore Leonard's novel, so that much snaps even when the plot starts to spin out of control.

Part of why it loses control is that it has been too long, in an industry that has a very short memory. Leonard published the sequel within a couple of years of the movie version of Get Shorty, and already the music industry has changed drastically. As Keitel's Carr aptly puts it, "the business is cyclical." So what Leonard wrote about no longer applies.

Which is partly where The Rock comes in, and thank heavens for that. He plays the unlikely named Eliot Wilhelm, bodyguard to a wigger calling himself Raji (Vince Vaughn). Eliot wants to be an actor, but he has only one talent: the ability to raise his eyebrow. Still, he's got a certain look, and in order to wrest away singer Linda Moon (Christina Milian) from Raji, Chili promises him a film audition. Registering pure child-like glee, Eliot doesn't even mind he just got clocked in the throat by Chili.

Wisely, the filmmakers have beefed up Eliot's role from the novel. In another one of those "the world has moved on" incidents, the original character was meant as a good-natured slam at the wrestler that hadn't yet become an actor. The Rock takes that slam, embraces it and reveals himself to be incredibly funny. Nobody in the movie can touch him, though Vaughn comes close.

Travolta has the good sense to be low-key in scenes with Eliot, radiating cool while madness goes on around him. That madness seems a little too much at times, with gangsta rappers, Russian mobsters and movie-savvy police weaving in and out with only occasional rhyme and reason. Athens' death serves as a macguffin in the purest sense, with only a vague explanation in the end that feels more like a result of bad editing.

Gray isn't a director that handles madness well, the way that Barry Sonnenfeld did in the first film. He also only delivers shadows of stereotypes for his setting. The gangsta group "DubMDs" makes a splashy entrance, but only André Benjamin registers anything beyond a hulking presence. Early on, we see some fake movie billboards, but it's hard to understand what impact they're supposed to be having on Chili. It's all symbol with no substance - and that includes a lame and fizzled attempt to repeat the Windstar joke from Get Shorty.

Still, it has its charms. And The Rock really does rock in this film, tweaking his own image and recreating it even as we watch. Sequels tend to offer diminishing returns, but this one at least has the return of a wrestler who should be a star, dang it.


Derek McCaw

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