Ever since “Battlefield Earth” stumbled into theaters five years ago, John Travolta’s movie career has been stuck in the loo. Anyone care to reminisce about his leading roles in “Lucky Numbers,” “Basic,” “Domestic Disturbance” or his curiously secondary parts last year in “Ladder 49” and “The Punisher”?
But Travolta looked quite peppy on the Oscars last weekend, and his latest picture, “Be Cool,” recycles elements from two of his most fondly remembered hits. He dances again with Uma Thurman, his co-star from “Pulp Fiction” (1994), and once more he takes on the role of the amiable gangster and movie producer, Chili Palmer, from “Get Shorty” (1995).
Unfortunately, these remain just elements, and the filmmakers fail to craft a valid comeback vehicle from them. “Sequels!,” exclaims Chili in the opening scene, as he complains about being “hustled” into an unnecessary followup film. So famous now that he’s appeared on Larry King and Charlie Rose’s shows, he’s looking for other showbiz worlds to conquer.
Supposedly Chili is kvetching about the dilemma of being a restless producer, but the lines sounds remarkably like a critique of the way Travolta’s own career has been going. Indeed, he seems as stranded here as he did in his ill-advised “Saturday Night Fever” sequel, “Staying Alive.”
While the original Chili’s Tarantino-like fondness for dropping references to favorite movies is still an important part of the character’s in-jokey monologues, he has now attached himself to the music industry, pushing a singer (Christina Milian) who is contractually obligated to another manager (Harvey Keitel).
Helping him out is a widow (Thurman) whose husband (James Woods) is murdered gangland-style in the first reel. If this is supposed to be funny — and apparently it is — the filmmakers have grossly missed their mark.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that, aside from Danny DeVito, who once more plays the egomaniacal actor-director Martin Weir, not much is left of the essential contributors to the original film. Gone are director Barry Sonnenfeld, screenwriter Scott Frank, and such essential cast members as Gene Hackman, Bette Midler and Rene Russo.
The new script is the work of Peter Steinfeld, who contributed to the widely panned screenplay for another sequel, “Analyze That.” It’s based on Elmore Leonard’s 1999 novel, “Be Cool,” which Leonard wrote partly because he liked Travolta’s performance so much in “Get Shorty.”
But the director, F. Gary Gray (“The Italian Job”) utterly fails to match the black-comedy tone of “Pulp Fiction” and “Get Shorty,” and he strains to make the violence seem absurdly casual. Instead, it becomes coarse and offensive, and the intended laughs stubbornly refuse to materialize.
During the movie’s lethal final third, Gray simply gives up on trying to tell a story and turns “Be Cool” into a flaccid concert film starring Milian and Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler. Comic relief, such as it is, is provided by Cedric the Entertainer, Andre Benjamin and The Rock, who plays a gay bodyguard and tries, in vain, to temper the script’s relentless doses of homophobia.