If it isn't remakes, it's sequels. Be Cool, the woeful follow-up to Get Shorty, right off the gate scrambles to disarm viewers' been-there alarms with self-referential cynicism. John Travolta's opening ramble about how PG-13 sequels suck gives off the appropriately desperate smell for a work that wants so much to believe it is still 1995, when picture after picture misunderstood Pulp Fiction simply as a haven of cheeky brutality and film-buff hipsterism. The ignorant misreading of a rich work allowed for the popularity of Get Shorty a decade ago, where a heartless sarcasm alien to Quentin Tarantino's use of emotion sheathed by cinematic convention was palmed off as the ultimate level of being -- "cool." Be Cool is a gassy, bumbling stab at regressing back to that period, with Travolta back aboard as Chili Palmer, the gangland Mr. Smooth last seen trading his loan shark ways for the glitz of the movie business, a natural choice since, as in so many of author Elmore Leonard's other novels, they're but two sides of the same coin.
The main difference here is Chili's shift to the music industry, all to better to shill the soundtrack and shoehorn Steven Tyler in for a cameo. At the center lies Chili's attempt to promote a warbling cutie (Christina Milian) as the Next Big Thing, around which orbits a traffic jam of parade floats: Vince Vaughn's trash-talking wigger producer, Harvey Keitel's slimeball impresario, Cedric the Entertainer's blustery rap mogul, the late Robert Pastorelli's brash hired gun, and Duane "The Rock" Johnson's gay bodyguard, just to name a few. Leonard's sardonic writing needs the handling of a Tarantino or a Soderbergh or, ideally, of Budd Boetticher, whose 1957 Western The Tall T made splendid use of the author's wry-deadly rhythms. Unhappily, it gets F. Gary Gray, whose flailing coarseness here makes a rail-splitter like Barry "fish-eye lens" Sonnenfeld in Get Shorty look like Ernst Lubitsch. It's hard to top the opener, with James Woods' jittery scuzzbag offed by Russian mobsters, for sheer cinematic incompetence, but Gray braves ahead and fumbles setup after setup. Leeched of danger, resonance, or any real humor after filtered through the crude pen of Analyze That scribe Peter Steinfeld, Leonard comes off little better than a raunchy Damon Runyon.
Nightmarishly, Be Cool lingers like burp effects from two of last year's biggest filmic indigestions, the cartoon camp of The Stepford Wives and the I-could-give-a-fuck celebrity-partying of Ocean's Twelve. Just beneath the alleged fun, however, there is the glaring insensitivity of hipness cut off from feeling; thus, the film hopes to get laughs by sending Vaughn off to a literally flaming finish, or punctuating Cedric the Entertainer's anti-discrimination monologue with slugs pumped into a thug's body. (The last bit of apologia is rendered a tad hypocritical by the film's remorseless milking of The Rock's "Samoan faggot" for cheap homophobic yuks.) The movie's meretricious retro attitude is at its most naked in dance-floor pairing of Travolta and the leggy music exec (Uma Thurman) he's blithely romancing for a shout-out to the twist contest sequence from Pulp Fiction. Gone is that film's astute use of Nouvelle Vague and disco-era iconography, traded in for a kind of grabby nostalgia, nostalgia for the days when just quoting from old movies and waving guns around were enough to get a project made. The cinema needs to go forward, not backwards.
It takes a special kind of calamity to make such an exercise in dreariness as The Jacket look inviting, but Be Cool does it. Actually, John Maybury's chiller has a moderately intriguing idea -- a Gulf War vet (Adrien Brody) takes a bullet to the head in 1991, goes home to Vermont a year later with vague amnesia only to get shipped off to an insane asylum after getting involved with the shooting of a cop. He's barely settled into his cell when he gets dragged downstairs as guinea pig for the experiments of doctor Kris Kristofferson, who's developing some kind of grim treatment where patients get wrapped in moldy straitjackets and shoved for hours into mortuary drawers. Alone in the dark, Brody somehow finds a way to mentally teleport himself to 2007, where he hooks up with the little girl he met right before the disorientating shooting (now grown into a goth lip-biter played by Keira Knightley) and finds out that he actually died at the institute. Before you can say La Jetée, he's racing to decode his own impending death with the help of a sympathetic medic (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who has, following The Machinist, become a virtual staple of the grungy mindfuck genre).
So a more literal concept of time-traveling than the Chili Palmer ressurection, more along the lines of Jacob's Ladder and Twelve Monkeys, and milking Brody's post-The Pianist haunted gauntness for all its worth. The main idea touches on Gulf War anxiety and the feeling of political deception that reverberates now more than ever, though Maybury hops from the nightvision green of the opening scenes to the mournful desaturated drabness of the clinic without giving a second thought to how a man's punishment amounts to little more than papering cracks of shame. (Jonathan Demme's criminally underappreciated remake of The Manchurian Candidate was a much more potent exploration of a deceitful past bleeding back into the present.) Lacking the almost metaphysical ingenuity of last year's sci-fi gem Primer, The Jacket opens promisingly ("I was 27 years old when I first died," Brody intones over grainy Desert Storm footage) yet swamps possibilities with convoluted time-skipping and flossy editing. Brody's scenes with the racoony Knightley aim up for emotional weight but pale next to Groundhog Day, which got similar effects with less fastidious gloom.
Reviewed March 8, 2005.