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'Be Cool': A Chilly Reception

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2005; Page WE41

"BE COOL," which marks the return of John Travolta as lovable loan shark Chili Palmer, is perfect testament to what Hollywood does best: turn entertaining originals into dull sausage meat.

Everything that was enjoyable, funny and edgy about the 1995 film "Get Shorty" has been rehashed and reshaped into an overwrought, insipid wiener. Here's one movie you can truly call a chili dog. Soak it in ketchup. Drown it in mustard. But don't wait for the taste to break through the chemically treated sweetness.

John Travolta and Uma Thurman are back on the dance floor, this time as Chili and Edie in "Be Cool," a sequel to 1995's "Get Shorty." (Ron Phillips -- Mgm Pictures)

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Where there was effortless cool in the first movie, there is nothing but manufactured posing here. And Travolta, who enlivened "Get Shorty" with his casual swagger, seems to have Madame Tussauded into a stiff, artificial figure with a pancake-makeup tan, sheeny hair and a performance that seems to come from a prerecorded voice box. A Ken doll watching him would turn its plastic head away.

The story is (and never did a sequel not starring Sylvester Stallone or Will Smith feel less like a story), Chili has decided that filmmaking (the business he used to be in) has become too corporate. (Watch this movie and you'll agree wholeheartedly.) He sees possibilities as a king (or queen) maker in the world of music.

That opportunity comes when he hears the R&B pipes of Linda Moon (Christina Milian), a great singer who's in contract hell with music manager Raji (Vince Vaughn). Teaming with record label owner Edie Athens (Uma Thurman), he unilaterally declares Linda's contract broken with Raji and his partner (a disappointingly wan Harvey Keitel).

That's where the trouble starts. Also in this messy mix: Sin LaSalle (an occasionally amusing Cedric the Entertainer), another music producer, attended by legions of gangstas, who claims Edie owes him money; and a collection of Russian pawn-shop gangsters who simply crowd an already overburdened, convoluted movie.

The movie amounts to character playoffs among all these parties. Some of those encounters are funny. More aren't. And all of it feels artificial: Sin's gangstas hesitate to shoot Chili because of his supposed intimidating presence, but they only do so because the script orders them. Thurman warms to him only because she's supposed to. When these two pucker up for a kiss, you almost wince with embarrassment. "Don't bother," you want to yell. "No one's buying it."

Screenwriter Peter Steinfeld (who penned the appalling "Drowning Mona" and the sausage-linked "Analyze That") and F. Gary Gray (whose best efforts have been the Ice Cube comedy "Friday" and "The Italian Job" remake) have been contracted to repackage rather than re-evoke. And they can hardly take credit for the movie's only bursts of life -- coming from Vaughn and the Rock as Raji's supple, Afro-headed, gay bodyguard, Elliot.

As Raji, Vaughn's a shady Vanilla Ice type who loves the color red and thinks he can talk black. When he's on screen, you forget Travolta's even in the movie.

"Stop hatin'," Raji tells the infuriated Elliot at one point. "Start participatin'."

The Rock doesn't lampoon Elliot's homosexuality, he simply exults in the endearing disconnect between his enormous physicality and his stunning softness. Heaven forbid this movie becomes successful enough to make another sausage. But if that does happen, the least the studio can do is build the new one around Raji and Elliot, and call it "Be Done."

BE COOL (PG-13, 112 minutes) -- Contains violence and obscenity. Area theaters.

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