Though perhaps more lauded for his role in Pulp Fiction, it was John Travolta’s turn as Chili Palmer in Get Shorty that really won me over, making him worth watching again after the years of interminable Look Who’s Talking sequels. Chili was everything morality watchdogs of the ’30s had warned that movie gangsters could be made to seem: hip, sexy, and smarter than anyone else in the room. It helped that everyone else involved seemed to be working at peak level — from Barry Sonnefeld, whose direction has never been surer or sleeker, to Gene Hackman’s performance as a smarmy schlock artist, Rene Russo’s scream queen with a dream, Dennis Farina’s hilariously hapless Mafioso, Danny DeVito’s self-aggrandizing movie star, the underappreciated Delroy Lindo’s unrepentant thug, and a pre-“Sopranos” James Gandolfini as the muscle man with a soft spot. Even among such strong supporting performances, it was clearly Travolta’s movie, and he’s never risen to the occasion more admirably.
His image has been diminished somewhat over subsequent years, through disappointments like The General’s Daughter, the risible Battlefield Earth, and the overwrought Ladder 49, but still Get Shorty glinted on a far-off horizon, a dim reminder that this guy could be the embodiment of cool. And now, a full 10 years later, we have a sequel with a hell of a lot for Travolta and company to live up to. The starting point is ideal: After the first film, Elmore Leonard, who’d written the novel it was based on, wrote a sequel, shaping Chili to fit Travolta’s interpretation of the character. Disillusioned by the movie industry, Chili tries his hand at the music biz, where he finds another assortment of offbeat criminals and starry-eyed oddballs, each of whom has something to learn from the master of cool.
This film diverges from its predecessor in the size of its cast, the complexity of the interwoven storylines, and in its entrance into the world of hip-hop and R&B performers, with the requisite Hummer-driving gangstas and white-boy wannabes. Travolta is among the few from the first film who returns; he’s joined only by producers Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, and Danny DeVito, who also reprises his role as Martin Weir. Sonnenfeld has been replaced by F. Gary Gray, who knows his hip-hop terrain, having directed rappers Ice Cube and Queen Latifah to two of their finest performances (in Friday and Set It Off, respectively). Like Sonnenfeld, Gray is driven by Leonard’s story to do some of his best work, skillfully recapturing the comic tone of the first film while intermixing new elements and themes that add resonance. Get Shorty was pure, lighthearted fun, but amongst the musical numbers and beatings, Be Cool actually has a few points to make.
The film opens smartly, with a jovial punch to its own gut; before we even see him, we hear Chili say, “Ah, sequels. It’s the only time in my life I ever gave in.” It seems that Get Leo, the autobiographical film he sold at the end of Get Shorty, was such a hit that, against Chili’s better judgment, it spawned a sequel, Get Lost, which was a critical and box-office flop. Disillusioned by the movie business, it’s fortuitous for Chili when Tommy Athens (James Woods), an old mob pal who now runs an independent record label, is gunned down in front of him by the Russian Mafia. The rub-out piques Chili’s interest, and it becomes all the more aroused when he meets the gorgeous young singer Tommy wanted to sign, Linda Moon (Christina Milian), and Tommy’s radiantly grieving widow, Edie (Uma Thurman). Both have connections to big-time trouble: Linda still has five years left on an exclusive contract to Carousel Entertainment, run by shifty Nick Carr (Harvey Keitel) and wannabe-pimp Raji (ne Roger Lowenthal, played by Vince Vaughn), who employs a menacing but inwardly dainty gay bodyguard, Eliot Wilhelm (The Rock). Edie has to contend with not only the Russian Mafia but also Uzi-toting gangsta rappers the Dub MDs (Weapons of Mass Destruction), led by their manager, Sin LaSalle (Cedric the Entertainer) and his wife’s unhinged cousin, Dabu (Andre Benjamin, better known as Andre 3000 of Outkast).
The film’s Grand Hotel approach to characters and storylines gives Travolta less screen time than before, but he makes every moment count. Chili remains his greatest creation, the quintessence of black-clad hipster nonchalance, imperturbable even when the bullets are flying. Travolta’s looking trimmer and sleeker than he has in years, and his chemistry with Uma Thurman — who has never been more glamorous — is more potent than in Pulp Fiction. They even manage to one-up their earlier dance scene with a slinky, flirtatious rump-shaker to “Sexy” by the Black Eyed Peas and Sergio Mendes.
The other actors each get a moment to shine as well: Raji’s attempts at blaccent are a satisfying takedown of white music industry types vainly trying for street cred (Justin Timberlake, I’m looking at you), and the conflict between Eliot’s physique and the eager little girl trapped inside makes manifest the self-parody that was always implicit in The Rock’s badass persona, with the trademark single raised eyebrow repeatedly used to comic effect. And did I mention that Harvey Keitel raps? Excruciatingly? Joe Loop (Robert Pastorelli), an incompetent hit man Nick and Raji hire to take care of Chili, gets in some funny/disgusting moments as the most ill-mannered eater in recent memory.
As Sin LaSalle, Cedric the Entertainer has a smarter, more complex role than he’s usually given, that of a man torn between his devotion to his beautiful wife and daughter and their comfortable suburban lifestyle and his obligations to the gangsta culture that put them there. In one scene, Sin has a brief speech — about the ways white America continually steals from black culture while refusing it the respect it’s due — that is angry, concise, well-reasoned, yet still funny; it’s a high point of the movie and one of Cedric’s best screen moments. As his dimwitted sidekick, Andre Benjamin capitalizes on the manic energy, comic timing, and willingness to do anything that have made Outkast videos such a treat. His performance doesn’t remind me of any other actor so much as it does Bugs Bunny and Tweety Bird.
Be Cool recycles some gags from Get Shorty, but it adds a clever, contemporary spin, as when Chili is given a Honda Insight instead of the Cadillac he requested and the rental-car guy informs him, “The Insight is the Cadillac of gas/electric hybrid cars.” There are moments early on, though, with the frequent references to sequels, Chili’s riff on how many times you can say “fuck” in a movie and get a PG-13, and the jabs at some of the actors’ off-screen personas, that I feared the film would be hopelessly meta and self indulgent — another Ocean’s Twelve — but the inside jokes subsided quickly enough and sometimes even entered into the fabric of the film. Eliot Wilhelm, for instance, at first seems like nothing more than a clever parody of The Rock’s overweening masculinity but evolves into a sympathetic character in his own right, handled with a sweetness that elevates him above both simple parody and the demeaning pansy stereotype.
The ending of the film is a little messy, with several climactic sequences (so many storylines to conclude!) before we actually get to the real climax, but each of them is amusing enough that we don’t much mind. After a movie with smart, beautiful women; tough-but-stylish men; low-down bad guys; singing; dancing; comic dialogue that’s actually funny; and even a little commentary on race relations, who’s going to complain?
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Be Cool / Jeremy C. Fox
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()