Undoubtedly the most purely cinematic novelist writing today, the prolific Elmore Leonard shares a long history with Hollywood. An experienced scriptwriter himself, his novels move and jump like screenplays, marked by quick cuts, short scenes, the deft deployment of dialogue, an efficient establishing of location, minimal authorial intrusion, and a fidelity to the surfaces of objects and actions. Not surprisingly, more than a dozen of his books, both Westerns and crime stories, have undergone the sometimes curious process of translation into film.
Despite his critical and commercial success and his skillful use of the vocabulary of cinema, most of the adaptations of his work rarely attain the quality of his fiction. Films like 52 Pickup, Glitz, Cat Chaser, and Out of Sight achieved only a moderate artistic success and performed unspectacularly at the box office. Others, like Stick, Touch, and most recently, The Big Bounce, flopped with both audiences and critics.
Aside from some tough early Westerns like Hombre and Valdez is Coming, the best film versions of his novels are probably Jackie Brown (based the novel Rum Punch) and, of course, the extremely popular and profitable Get Shorty.
Leonard's Be Cool, a sequel to Get Shorty, employs the same protagonist, the former shylock turned movie producer Chili Palmer (John Travolta again), set once again, naturally, in Los Angeles. Although the book itself characteristically bristles with references to movies --- a Leonard motif --- this time around Chili, now a producer, at least temporarily forsakes the cinema for the music business, which turns out to involve more complication and danger than the film industry. Chili decides to manage the career of a promising young singer, Linda Moon (Christina Milian), an idea that lands him in trouble with the holders of her contract, Raj (Vince Vaughn) and Nick Carr (Harvey Keitel), a rap music mogul named Sin LaSalle (Cedric the Entertainer), and assorted hoodlums and hitmen.
Chili intends to sign Linda with a company controlled by Edie Athens (Uma Thurman), the brand new widow of a former mob colleague who was shot by some Russian mobsters. Most of the movie shows a series of confrontations between Chili and one person or another out to kill him. Every time he and Edie return to their homes, a delegation of gun-toting thugs greets them. Chili, armed only with his cool, talks his way out of every situation and of course, solves the manifold problems attendant on dealing with the various murderers who run the record business, rescues Edie from her husband's debts, and defeats the would-be assassins of every ethnic origin-black, Russian, Italian (sounds like an exotic drink).
Be Cool features a dozen or more characters and uses a number of aural and visual motifs to fix their styles. Each set of characters appears accompanied by appropriate music and, most strikingly, each drives a readily identifiable automobile --- Edi Athens has a 1950s Thunderbird, another character zooms through the Hollywood streets in a Ferrari, and of course the hip-hop mogul and his entourage arrive in a caravan of Hummers; Chili, whose Cadillac suffers a fatal shooting, tools around in a nondescript subcompact.
Despite all the bizarre characters, the constant music, the flashy visuals, and the array of recognizable faces, Be Cool flattens out its action into a repetitive series of scenes and actions and an easy, mostly perfunctory approach to both its music and its humor. Christina Milian's uninteresting voice and repertoire hardly demonstrate the great talent Chili, Edie, and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, badly playing himself, apparently believe she possesses. Despite the moments of violence --- a couple of shootings, a vicious beating --- even the brutality seems unconvincing and awkwardly comic.
Most of the actors overplay their parts, especially Vince Vaughn as a simpleton of a music producer who attempts to behave like a black pimp. As a rule of thumb, by the way, one should avoid movies featuring more than one person without an actual, ordinary name --- in this case, both the comedian who calls himself Cedric the Entertainer and a popular wrestler named The Rock play major roles and manage to challenge Vaughn in going over the top.
Although he looks trim and self-possessed, Travolta appears to be sleepwalking through his part this time, so relaxed that he in fact seems to be acting in a different movie. In one of the many allusions to all sorts of previous pictures, including Pulp Fiction, he and the lush, leggy Uma Thurman dance together, one of the most graceful and pleasing moments in all of Be Cool. The movie ultimately presents an odd paradox, the puzzling problem of how the director, F. Gary Gray, could make so slight and disappointing a picture from the work of so lively and cinematic a writer: Elmore Leonard deserves better and in fact, is better.
Be Cool (PG-13), starring John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Vince Vaughn, Cedric The Entertainer, Christina Milian, André Benjamin, Steven Tyler, Harvey Keitel, The Rock, Robert Pastorelli. Cinemark Tinseltown, Loews Webster, Pittsford Plaza Cinema, Regal Culver Ridge, Regal Eastview, Regal Greece Ridge, Regal Henrietta.