Crime writer Elmore Leonard’s novels are edgy, stylish and ripe with black comedy. With textured characters and sharp plots, you’d think they’d been written for the big screen.
Inexplicably, it’s been a hit and miss proposition as far as film adaptations go. There’ve been high points, like “Get Shorty,” “Jackie Brown” and “Out of Sight.” There have also been some rather unpleasant low points, like both the 1969 and 2004 versions of “The Big Bounce.”
“Be Cool,” Hollywood’s latest attempt to translate Leonard’s work, falls somewhere in between. This sequel to 1995’s “Get Shorty” has a lot going for it — a strong cast, peculiar characters, crafty dialogue. Yet it doesn’t quite click in the way that “Get Shorty” did.
“Get Shorty” introduced Chili Palmer (John Travolta), an old school Brooklyn shylock (loan shark) who decides to head west to Hollywood and try his hand in the film industry. In “Be Cool,” Chili now has some hits and misses under his belt as an established film producer. He’s looking for a new challenge, and thinks the music industry is where he’ll find it.
He helps Linda Moon (Christina Milian), an aspiring singer, extricate herself from the grips of a stifling recording contract and her crude manager, Roger (Vince Vaughn). He teams up with Edie Athens (Uma Thurman), the co-owner of a record label who’s husband had an unfortunate end thanks to some Russian mobsters. Eventually he manages to incur the wrath of not only the Russian mafia, but competing record producers Sin LaSalle (Cedric the Entertainer) and Nick Carr (Harvey Keitel).
There’s certainly enough to like about “Be Cool.” The film is at its funniest when it takes a self-mocking tone in referencing movie and music industry clichés. A dance sequence between Travolta and Thurman, a la “Pulp Fiction,” is ironic — and sexy. “The Rock” gets to have some fun as a gay Somoan bodyguard, an aspiring actor who recites — as a monologue — dialogue between cheerleaders in the film, “Bring It On.” Vaughn’s Roger awkwardly affects the “gangsta” look and dialect in order to be taken seriously by the hip-hop performers he represents.
Still, “Be Cool” doesn’t pack the same same punch as “Get Shorty.” Releasing it 10 years after the original is the first sign that something might not be quite right — although the filmmakers could be taking a cue from Leonard himself, who took eight years to write “Be Cool” after publishing “Get Shorty.”
Director F. Gary Gray struggles with the material, which swings unevenly between fits of violence, extended scenes of dialogue and laugh-out-loud schtick. There are moments when the camera lingers on actors as though it’s waiting for something to be said or to happen, which never does. At times Travolta is so laid back he almost seems comatose. Keitel seems strangely out of place. It takes newcomers Christina Milian and André Benjamin a few scenes to get comfortable with their lines.
Yet “Be Cool” is oddly appealing. Gray and screenwriter Peter Steinfeld are able to harness Leonard’s characters as they are in his novels, where they live in the gray-area between hero and villain — slick and complicated, shrewdly flawed. It’s an entertaining distraction for an evening.