Because Elmore Leonard's novels are so consistently breezy and assured, adapting his crime fiction for the screen must seem easier than it actually is, at least based on the many futile attempts that came before the stellar trifecta of Get Shorty, Out Of Sight, and Jackie Brown. The trick is to make everything appear effortless, yet Leonard's books are deceptively complicated, overstuffed with colorful lowlifes and knotty plotlines that take some effort to disentangle. Much like the disappointing Ocean's Twelve, the long-awaited Get Shorty sequel Be Cool sacrifices narrative momentum for a half-baked rendition of Stars On Parade, leaving Leonard's tightly written story to flatten out into a dull, confusing stretch of fake-outs and double-crosses. It doesn't help that the film extends Get Shorty's up-to-the-minute Hollywood references, because it feels like the product of a studio too anxious to indulge every name on its roster. The result is all homage, no movie.
Had the producers invited John Travolta's sanguine gangster hero Chili Palmer to story meetings, perhaps they could have sorted out all the chaos. As a Brooklyn hood in Los Angeles, Travolta again plays a fish out of water, but he never betrays an ounce of uncertainty in his transition from the movie to the music industry, which offers a fresh set of money-grubbing sleazebags. When a music executive is knocked off by the Russian mob, Travolta gets the idea of taking over his floundering record label and signing Christina Milian, a gifted young R&B singer tied to a draconian contract that has her fronting a hapless girl group for the next five years. Partnering with the dead executive's widow (Uma Thurman), Travolta tries to launch Milian's career, but her former representatives—including label head Harvey Keitel, a pimped-out Vince Vaughn, and gay bodyguard The Rock—are unwilling to let her go.
The plot gets soupier from there, with sidelines involving a Russian mobster with a bad toupee, a hitman (Robert Pastorelli) who isn't particularly good at his job, and a posse of strapped rappers led by manager Cedric The Entertainer, who muscle Thurman and Travolta for compensation. Watching Travolta calmly play one side against the other was Get Shorty's chief pleasure, but his maneuvers only pay off when the movie itself is equally well-orchestrated; otherwise, he's just the one person who knows what's going on. A few minor grace points keep things lively, especially OutKast's André Benjamin in a winning turn as a gangsta with an itchy trigger finger, but Be Cool more often evokes the image of a screenwriter furiously trying draft after draft to accommodate all the stars. Accommodating the audience becomes a distant priority.