Elmore Leonard's potent combination of smart dialogue, extreme violence and self-referential comedy has always been dynamic on the page, but it wasn't until 1995, with director Barry Sonnenfeld's Get Shorty, that a film truly "got" the Detroit-based crime writer's work. Since then, Leonard has been well-served by top rank directors like Quentin Tarantino (Jackie Brown) and Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight). Now F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job) takes the leap into Leonard territory, and even though Be Cool isn't as snappy as recent Leonard knockoffs, it's still filled with colorful characters and weirdly funny moments.
Be Cool marks the return of Chili Palmer (John Travolta, looking slick and buff), the mobster-turned-film producer who was the protagonist of Get Shorty. This time out, Chili has turned to the music business for sustenance; he's trying to guide the career of a hot young singer named Linda Moon (the adorable Cristina Milian), and in so doing, runs across a gaggle of Russian mobsters, gangster rappers and the widow (Uma Thurman) of a recently deceased record company executive (James Woods, in a hysterical cameo).
Like many of Leonard's novels, the plot in Be Cool takes a back seat to atmosphere and a vibrant cast of secondary players. In fact, because Gray's direction tends towards the stodgy and visually uninteresting, the real pleasures of Be Cool are in its snappy dialogue and gloriously wacky performances. Tops here are Vince Vaughn as Raji, a Jewish gangster-rapper wannabe, whose wardrobe looks like it was lifted from the 1973 blaxploitation classic The Mack; Cedric the Entertainer as a Harvard-educated record producer whose posse is composed of rappers who look like they've spent way too much time lifting weights in prison; André Benjamin of Outkast fame, hilarious as an inept rapper who's all thumbs with high-tech weaponry; and The Rock, who absolutely kills as a gay bodyguard desperate to get into the film business (his country-and-western video is a real highlight).
Star Travolta floats through all this insanity with the insouciance of a man who knows exactly what he's doing. He's cool. He's collected. He looks great wearing dark suits with his hair slicked back. It's not so much a performance as it is a study in attitude. And that's just fine.
If Be Cool isn't as good as Get Shorty, that's all right, too. Despite some dead spots, it's still a fun, and very funny, ride.