The Rock can do no wrong. Whatever mayhem goes on around him, he sticks it. Whether riding camels with Michael Clarke Duncan, trading japes with Jon Stewart or scowling at the most annoying Seann William Scott, the Rock maintains a simultaneous dignity and self-conscious amusement not usually afforded cartoon characters, action stars, or professional wrestlers. The fact that he’s in on the joke — poking fun of his raised-eyebrow shtick, much-discussed desire to be a movie star, and fabled Samoan heritage — only makes him more endearing.
Now the Rock is the coolest thing in Be Cool. As Elliot Wilhelm, a neatly Afro-ed, tight-pantsed, and quite queer aspiring actor, the former Dwayne Johnson steals every scene he’s in. And that’s no small feat, given all the huffing and puffing put on by his primary costar, Vince Vaughn, who plays a black-talking music “manager” named Raji. Decked out in his pimp hat and Gucci jackets, Raji thinks he’s rolling, in part because he’s got Elliot as friend/driver/muscle, and in part because he’s holding the contract of a sweet little singer just waiting to become a superstar, Linda Moon (Christina Milian, whose own long-on-hold label issues might have something to do with the seeming heartfelt aspect of her performance).
Elliot first appears in Be Cool when Raji calls on him to lean on former shylock Chili Palmer (John Travolta), ostensible star of the show, so over his movie industry escapades in Get Shorty and convinced to try the music biz by buddy Tommy Athens (James Woods), tediously over-the-top and mercifully shot down by Russian mobsters within the sequel’s first five minutes. Among his last words are urgent encouragement that Chili check out Linda’s act, which he does, whereupon he meets Raj and Elliot. The fact that Elliot wants an audition — any audition — only makes the work of inveterate wheeler-dealer Chili that much easier (and the fact that his prepared piece is a “monologue” from Bring It On makes the movie almost worth sitting through). He convinces Linda and Elliot that he’ll make them stars, and now all he has to do is convince Raj’s boss, Nick (Harvey Keitel) to hand over the contract.
This being an Elmore Leonard caper, by way of antic director F. Gary Gray, the plot can hardly be straight-ahead. Instead, the Russians’ disruptions (which include mistaken contract murders and toupees that don’t fit) are disrupted by a crew of gangstas who call themselves the Dub MDs (get it?), produced by Sin LaSalle (Cedric the Entertainer). He’s got a big bully Suge thing going on, where the crass joke is how he hides his inclinations from his cute and trusting little daughter. Still, it’s hard to imagine how anyone misses his crew — a couple of them have arms like tree trunks, and one is the always flashy, loose-limbed bodyguard, Dabu (Andre Benjamin, who reveals comic talents; to his credit, he says he resisted the gangsta role for a minute, reporting that on set, “I hated my wardrobe coming to work every day, I really did”).
Between Sin, Nick, and Chili, you might have three separate movies going on, as they’re only thinly connected by their interest in the money to be made off Linda. Chili’s the one who “believes in her,” though, which translates into repeated scenes where she sings and the camera cuts to his beaming face. Whether this denotes Chili’s remarkable taste, good intentions, or general Travolta-ness is unclear, but it does give him a chance to meet with Tommy’s widow, the sensational Edie (Uma Thurman), now managing her husband’s bankrupt label and once the laundress for Aerosmith. (This last leads to a devastating moment, though the film suggests it’s a “great” one, where Milian shares the stage with Steven Tyler for “Cryin'” — eeek.) The Edie-Chili partnership leads to some languid flirtation and we-love-ourselves dance floor steps, all part of the movie’s uneven rhythms and haphazard-seeming plotting.
But if Be Cool isn’t so tight as the original, it is occasionally entertaining (with the major exception of Vaughn’s Jamie Kennedy/Vanilla Ice imitation, which is tired instantly). Chili still prides himself on his talent for making connections and manipulating everyone who comes within reach, and that’s the Elmore Leonard styling, reflected as well in the film’s basic components. Director Gray makes use of his music video day associations, via cameos (RZA, Fred Durst), and his good sport acquaintance Seth Green (from The Italian Job), who appears as a music video director, not incidentally, Gray’s old gig (where he met Andre, making “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik” and the superb “Ms. Jackson”).
But for all the smug insiderness that makes Chili’s world go round, it is the Rock who distracts from the formula most effectively. Silly and gauche, Elliot buys himself a new pair of powder-blue slacks at the Western-themed Boot Barn, where he spends inordinate time posing before the mirror and slapping himself on the ass and noting how terrific he looks (“Whoa! Whoa!” Scorchin’!”), all while a crusty cowboy looks on. Utterly out of place in this world of guys, he’s the most convincing guy in sight.