BE COOL

Ultra-smooth ex-gangster Chili Palmer returns to the screen after a decade’s absence and the audience gets whacked. That’s about the extent of “Be Cool,” which despite the titular injunction is about as un-hip as you can imagine. Like the recent “Son of the Mask,” which also took ten years to contrive, this sequel to 1995’s “Get Shorty” suggests that there may be a time limit beyond which a follow-up to a hit original shouldn’t be attempted. (Remember what “2010” did to “2001”?) Because while the earlier picture had some comic life (although it was hardly great art), this one definitely arrives D.O.A.

In Barry Sonnenfeld’s earlier adaptation of an Elmore Leonard’s novel, John Travolta was a hoot as Palmer, the Mafioso who got involved in an even shadier business–Hollywood filmmaking. Travolta is back for this second go-around, but Sonnenfeld has wisely decamped, leaving the directing chores to F. Gary Gray, whose remake of “The Italian Job” had some style but who here demonstrates absolutely no affinity for quirky humor and no sense of comic timing. The upshot is that “Be Cool” is pretty much an unmitigated disaster.

This time around, Palmer, tired of the movie business, decides to segue into the pop music scene. When his old buddy Tommy Athens (James Woods), a record impresario who’s looking to be immortalized on film, meets his end at the hands of some purportedly comic Russian mobsters, Chili sashays into his old office by reconnecting with the dead man’s wife Edie (Uma Thurman). He also takes up Athens’ project to promote a beautiful, though unknown, singer named Linda Moon (Christina Milian), even though it means crossing swords with rivals who have her under contract: thuggish Nick Carr (Harvey Keitel) and his goofball partner Raji (Vince Vaughn), one of the sadly increasing number of white characters in movies who think they’re black gangsta types. But the parade of oddballs doesn’t end there. Also involved are Sin LaSalle (Cedric the Entertainer), a hugely successful producer whom Tommy owed big money, and who has a gang of enforcers led by screwy homeboy Dabu (Andre Benjamin); Raji’s factotum and muscle Elliot (The Rock), a would-be actor who’s also flamboyantly gay; unbalanced contract killer Joe Loop (the late Robert Pastorelli), whom Raji hires to do his dirtiest work; and, playing himself, Steven Tyler of Arrowsmith, who figures in Palmer’s big plans to introduce Linda to the public.

As the long roster of characters indicates, “Be Cool” has a lot of plot going on, but as cobbled together from Leonard’s own follow-up by Peter Steinfeld (who recently blundered badly with another comic sequel, “Analyze That”), the intricacy has no overall organic unity, and much of what happens seems arbitrary and erratic. The intended satire of the music biz is incredibly puerile, and figures like Woods’ motor-mouthed Athens and Keitel’s rough Carr are nothing more that stick men without an ounce of credibility or pizzazz. Even more terrible are the crude caricatures–Pastorelli’s high-strung Loop, The Rock’s garish Elliot, Benjamin’s goofy Dabu and–worst of all–Vaughn’s hyper, dumb-as-a-post Raji, a guy who’s irritating from the moment he steps onto the scene but is nevertheless given an inordinate amount of screen time. (Even Jamie Kennedy’s “Malibu’s Most Wanted” was funnier than this.) As for Milian and Cedric, neither generates any sparks–she makes for a cookie-cutter pop diva, and he shouts a lot but manages no laughs. (When the picture suddenly halts toward the close so that he can deliver a little speech about disrespect to black culture, it’s an embarrassment.) And then there are Travolta and Thurman. They’re supposed to make a charismatic couple, but his silken assurance quickly grows boring, and she never seems to settle into her role; even their sultry dance carries no electricity. Producer Danny DeVito shows up for a cameo, as does Seth Green, but there’s no humor from those sources, either. By the close one gets the same sinking feeling “Ocean’s Twelve” delivered: these are people who assume we’ll enjoy watching them do anything, however poorly written and ineptly staged. There’s a sort of underlying contempt for the audience that’s really deplorable.

Of course, the cast couldn’t have gotten away with such sloppy work if it hasn’t been for the lazy, lackadaisical helming of Gray. There’s hardly a scene in the picture that isn’t played at a flat, torpid tempo, and that doesn’t drag on far too long. (A perfect example is a throwaway bit in which The Rock tries on some new duds in a clothing store. It literally seems to go on forever.) One might be inclined to blame editor Sheldon Kahn for the problem, but there’s really little he could have done without speeding up the footage to resemble an improperly-projected silent movie. The other technical aspects of the picture are equally mediocre.

The sum total of “Be Cool” is one that Chili, an erstwhile mob debt collector, could easily calculate: a totally mirthless excuse for a comedy in which there’s no interest whatsoever. It’s this year’s “Big Trouble” or “Envy”–elaborate in design but astonishingly ill-executed and wretchedly unfunny.