Chili Palmer, the loveable ex loan shark from "Get Shorty", is getting tired of the movie business. His latest picture is a flop and he's hunting for new ideas. He meets with old friend Tommy Athens, an ex mobster who's made it big in the music industry, but Tommy is killed in front of him before Chili can hear his whole idea. Always eager for a challenge, Chili decides to rescue Tommy's ailing empire. He recruits a promising young diva named Linda Moon and sets about launching her career. However, her thuggish ex manager isn't too happy about this, nor are the mob-connected executives at her label. In addition to these goons, Chili must deal with a crew of belligerent gangsta rappers and a pawnshop full of gun-toting Russians. "Be Cool" is adapted from the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name.
If you've ever thought a director is just the guy who sits around shouting "cut" while everyone else does the hard work, first watch "Get Shorty" or "Jackie Brown" and then compare it to "Be Cool". The first two are marvellous examples of filmmaking - taut, polished and extremely funny, they have that spark of internal life that separates the wheat from the endless chaff that Hollywood churns out each year. "Be Cool," on the other hand, is a soulless husk that arrives on the screen stillborn but wrapped in bows and shiny paper in the hope that we won't notice.
So who's to blame for this mess? Is it the source material? All three movies spring from the novels of one man - the great Elmore Leonard - so that's obviously not the problem. Is it the cast? There are producers who would literally kill for the mixture of star power and raw talent that "Be Cool" has on offer. What's more, most of the cast were working for far less money than usual, just to be involved in the project. No, the blame for this mess rests squarely on one man's shoulders - director F. Gary Gray - fast proving himself one of Hollywood's most prosaic filmmakers.
It's not that "Be Cool" doesn't have its moments, it's got plenty of fabulous scenes where the whole ensemble seem to click into high gear. It's that Gary Gray lacks the skill to weave these scraps of brightness into a coherent whole. Gary Gray cut his teeth as a music video director, which goes some way to explaining the flashy, disconnected feel of this film.
A large part of the problem stems from his failure to understand and use the power of Leonard's famous dialogue. Leonard is a master of true-to-life prose that bounces and snaps along with all the wit and grace of a well-dressed wiseguy strolling down the street. What's more he uses this dialogue to drive the story, giving the plot a vitality and immediacy that scores of writers have tried in vain to copy.
Barry Sonnenfeld understood this in "Get Shorty", as did John Travolta who campaigned during that movie to have that script reworked to include more of Leonard's original words. But in "Be Cool" it seems screenwriter Peter Steinfeld thought he could improve on the old fart's material. I'm sure this idiot thought he was giving us "new improved Leonard-plus" and not the "Leonard-lite" dreck we see on the screen.
But what really kills the film is Gary Gray's inability to understand the inner workings of the story he is trying to tell, something that Sonnenfeld was intimately aware of in his own movie. With its complex plot lines and snappy pace "Get Shorty" was like an antique pocket watch, a marvellously compact little machine that seemed to posses an internal life of its own. It ticked along smartly, chiming at just the right moments, all its hundreds of tiny parts working in beautiful harmony. Sonnenfeld had the patience and the respect for his material to put the movie together the way Leonard puts his novels together - carefully and with love.
By contrast, F. Gary Gray has all the same parts laid out in front of him for "Be Cool", but try as he may he can't get them to fit together. When he does finally squeeze all its parts into a shiny new case, the movie grinds along for a few minutes, desperately trying to work, seizes up and explodes all over the screen.
So is it even worth watching? For pure curiosity value, yes, but it won't leave you with any kind of satisfaction. For all its faults the movie is a who's-who of contemporary Hollywood, with a couple of rather good music videos thrown in. If anything, watch it to see The Rock playing a gay Samoan country-and-western singing bodyguard. The man's superb comic timing is an unexpected treat, and he single-handedly steals the show from the rest of this raggedy-assed mess of a movie.- By Alistair Fairweather
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