The Movie Review: 'Be Cool' and 'Ocean's 12'

In Hollywood, the one thing as inevitable as death and taxes is sequels. They roll them out, year after year, the 2s and IIs, the Returns and Revenges, and Strikes Backs and Strikes Agains. For decades, the first rule of making a successful sequel has been simple and unchanging: Figure out what you did right the first time and do it again.

The problem, of course, is that this isn't always so easy. For every The Godfather: Part II there's a The Two Jakes; for every The Empire Strikes Back, an Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. And so, through a long, fitful course of trial and error, the studios have come up with an alternative recipe: Figure out what you did right the first time, and do it again--but this time with an irony-soaked self-referentialism that shows you're not really taking it seriously.

The satirical sequel has been with us at least as far back as the 1967 Bond spoof Casino Royale. But at the time it was a rarity, the consequence of an oversight by which the film rights to Ian Fleming's novel fell into the hands of producers other than official Bond shepherds Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli. Over the past several years, though, this sequel subgenre has been evolving from cinematic outlier to studio standby, an easy option for an ironic age. In a few cases--Scream 3 (2000) or Goldmember (2002)--it was the last resort of a franchise that appeared to be losing steam. But by Shanghai Knights (2003), studios realized they could eliminate the middleman altogether, proceeding directly from the (relatively) straight original to the manic inside jokery of the sequel.

The advantages are straightforward: It's easier to recycle old material than to create something new--that is, after all, the raison d' être of the sequel--and even if the movie is terrible, at least it won't look like anyone was trying too hard. (In Hollywood, as in junior high, visible effort is the height of uncool.) Moreover, for franchises like Scream and Austin Powers, spoofing what came before makes a certain amount of sense. Since the material being riffed on is already parodic, the sequels still do justice to the tone and appeal of the originals. But lately the form seems to be making its way up the genre food chain, from outright comedies and genre parodies to straighter entertainments like the Get Shorty and Ocean's Eleven movies. The results are not heartening.

Take Be Cool (please), the Get Shorty sequel released on video earlier this month. In addition to being a near-scientific proof of my theory of Elmore Leonard adaptations (here for those who missed it), it is an exceptional test case in the limitations of irony, a broad, silly homage featuring more inside jokes than a twentieth reunion of frat brothers.

To be fair, director F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job) and screenwriter Peter Steinfeld (Analyze That) didn't have all that much to work with. Be Cool is among Leonard's weakest crime novels, a good reminder of why he typically eschews sequels. Where Get Shorty told a clever tale about a Miami gangster, Chili Palmer (Travolta), who moved to L.A. and quickly insinuated himself in the movie business, Be Cool offers a strained replay in which Chili wanders into, and in short order conquers, the music industry.

That said, Steinfeld's adaptation is a mess. Most irritating is the promiscuity with which he refers back to Get Shorty. The occasional nod would be fine, but Steinfeld crams in enough to give a viewer whiplash. Scarcely a conversation takes place without someone repeating a line from the earlier film. (I counted more than 30 such quotations, and doubtless missed some.) Nor is the 1990s nostalgia-tripping limited to Get Shorty. The movie's most famous--and most irritating--inside joke is a tedious dance scene between Travolta and co-star Uma Thurman, which is in the film only to remind us that the two of them danced together far more memorably in Pulp Fiction. As with most of the cinematic winks sprinkled throughout Be Cool, this one has no real thought or purpose behind it. It neither lives up to the original scene nor subverts it. It's just there, an unsubtle reminder by Gray and Steinfeld that they, too, have seen a Tarantino film. Bravo.

In addition to entombing itself in allusions, Be Cool suffers from performances both under- and overdone. In his second go as Chili Palmer, Travolta demonstrates the fineness of the line between cool and dull by spending most of the movie on the wrong side of it. As Edie Athens, Chili's recently widowed love interest, Thurman registers still less. Her character was peripheral in the novel, and in expanding the role Steinfeld declined to give her anything much to do other than hang around looking vaguely uncomfortable. By contrast, Vince Vaughn registers all too well as Raji, the sleazy talent manager who is one of Chili's many foils. The role is a spastic, imbecile variation on Gary Oldman's white-pimp-who-thinks-he's-black from True Romance; with it, Vaughn gives the most annoying performance of a career that, even on its best days, is never far from offering annoyance.

There are occasional pleasures scattered throughout the film. Cedric the Entertainer plays it relatively straight as a gangsta rap producer, and by so doing gives one of the film's funnier performances. Robert Pastorelli, in his last role before his 2004 heroin overdose, has a small but likable turn as a gluttonous hit man. And the Rock shows surprising comic chops, transcending his caricature role as a gay bodyguard obsessed with getting into movies. Steinfeld's script contains some clever moments as well. In the opening scene, Travolta explains a detail of the movie industry: "You know, unless you take the 'R' rating, you can only use the F-word once. You know what I say? Fuck that." (It's the last use of the word in Be Cool, which cherished its PG-13.) Finally, any film that kills off the inhumanly tiresome James Woods in the first five minutes can't be all bad. Just mostly bad.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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