Be Cool

Director    F. Gary Gray
Starring    John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Vince Vaughn
4 stars

2nd April 2005

Smugness is not a quality I particularly look for in a film star. For example, I could quite happily have Jude Law banished from the face of the earth and put up with the bitching I'd get from the entire female population of the planet, just so I don't have to endure his tiny, contended little face on my cinema screen any more. John Travolta is another of those actors; a man who looks so satisfied with having his huge, doughy face on the big screen, he looks like he might implode in a shower of self-congratulatory guts and offal. The last decent film he made was probably Get Shorty and even that's ten years old, so quite why he looks so constantly pleased with his output is completely beyond me - his plasticine visage has been looming at me from the local multiplex for a while now on behalf of Be Cool, the adaptation of the Elmore Leonard follow-up, although thankfully, The Trav's screen time is minimal and the bit-parters are all given the chance to hoover up the best lines from under his gigantic bum chin.

Chili Palmer (Travolta) is looking to move into the music industry. The former shylock is tired of movies, tired of studio interference and tired of lame sequels - ding ding, it's the irony bus! Luckily for him, he's stumbled across the Next Big Thing in the comely shape of Linda Moon, a singer songwriter who looks suspiciously like Christina Milian. Unfortunately, she's under contract with Raji (Vince Vaughn), a goofball music promoter who talks and dresses like a pimp, but is unfortunately whiter than the pure driven snow. With the help of recently widowed music mogul Edie (Uma Thurman), Chili attempts to take Linda to the top, amongst threats from the Russian Mafia, Cedric the Entertainer's unlikely bunch of gangster rappers and Raji's outrageously homosexual bodyguard Eliot (The Rock). If it all sounds a bit like Get Shorty Again, then you're not far wrong, but although the story is a fairly standard tale of double-crosses and deception, there's some excellent character work and some of Leonard's best writing lifted directly from the novel.

Anyone who knows me knows that I'll happily spend money on a piece of shit movie just to go see Vince Vaughn in action, but of late, it seems he's piled on the pounds and taken the easy roles without ever truly tapping into that reservoir of energy I like to call the 'Trent Zone'. Thank Christ for Raji. He is, without a doubt, an even bigger asshole than Ricky Slade and by far the biggest reason to go see this flick - this is Vaughn operating on another plane. Dressed like a blind Huggy Bear and with a vocabulary that even Snoop Dogg would think ridiculous ("Stop hatin' and start participatin'... twinkle twinkle baby!"), the scenery-chomping Raji is a mess of heavy gold chains, velour tracksuits and ill-advised hand gestures. Andre 3000 (of Outkast fame) is excellent as the trigger-happy Dabu, maybe the only gangster ever to drink tea with his pinky sticking out, while The Rock almost steals the whole show as the flamboyant Eliot, the bodyguard with split loyalties and a penchant for tight leather trousers. Sending himself up a treat as an aspiring actor (his one talent is the ability to raise his eyebrow), it's a refreshingly ego-free performance and the best from a wrestler since Hulk Hogan broke down barriers in Suburban Commando.

Trouble is, with such a large and talented ensemble cast, every time Chili and Edie are on-screen, the movie starts to drag. Their characters are positively transparent in comparison - they have very few memorable lines and worryingly, they have next to no chemistry. The much-lauded dance reunion sees the couple take to the floor for the first time since Jack Rabbit Slims, but it's a cringe worthy sight watching man mountain Travolta try to relive his Saturday Night Fever days, shaking his hands like a Parkinson's sufferer and man-handling the delicious Uma with his puff-pastry paws. Seemingly not content with a fine line up of great comic actors, Be Cool also persists with a relentless parade of celebrity cameos - Steven Tyler's being the worst - and by the end, you half expect Michael Jackson to moonwalk on set, high five the beaming Travolta and make his exit. Never mind these rent-a-celebs, just give more screen time to Hurricane Raji and his ridiculous lingo. 'Nuf respect for no respect, bro.

Director F. Gary Gray has been sensible in keeping Travolta's role to a minimum - where before the character of Palmer carried a genuine air of menace, now he's become a caricature of himself - and has performed a minor miracle in managing to keep so many great characters intact without over-egging the pudding. A sequel that's funny, fresh and takes jabs at lazy sequels without shooting itself in the foot? Now that's cool.

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