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Reunion in Tinseltown: (l-r) Travolta and Thurman in Be Cool.

Slightly Diminished Returns
By Shawn Stone

Be Cool
Directed by F. Gary Grey

Chili Palmer (John Travolta) is back. In this sequel to Get Shorty, the loan shark turned movie producer has grown weary of the film business—he’s disgusted by sequels, ha ha—and has decided, instead, to return to being a gangster. Until, that is, he sees an opportunity to get into the music business—the excellent, though obvious, joke is that being in the music business is just like being a thug.

With the sense of confidence and purpose that makes the character so entertaining, Palmer acquires, in short order, connections with Edie (Uma Thurman) the record-label-owning widow of an old pal, and Linda Moon (Christina Milian), an up-and-coming singing sensation. In the process, of course, he has a number of confrontations with a host of cartoony villains, including wannabe manager-wannabe black person Raji (Vince Vaughn, stealing every scene) and his gay bodyguard (The Rock); gun-toting hiphop impresario Sin LaSalle (Cedric the Entertainer, stealing every other scene); an old nemesis, Nick Carr (Harvey Keitel); and a hapless gangster (André Benjamin) who can’t keep his gun from going off at inappropriate moments.

Curiously, Be Cool looks back to Pulp Fiction almost as much as Get Shorty. For starters, there’s a big dance scene set to retro music, and a violent confrontation in a pawn shop that happens to be a dead ringer for Zed’s place (weird, because neither Travolta nor Thurman was in that scene). What makes these bits work is that they suggest past glories without actually repeating them. And while the ’50s shtick in Tarantino’s flick hasn’t aged well, Be Cool’s older, wiser Thurman and Travolta slinking around the dance floor to the hiphop-bossa nova of Sergio Mendes and the Black Eyed Peas is, well, pretty cool. And sexy.

It’s the idiosyncratic humor that runs through the film, however, that really charms, like the black T-shirts Thurman’s character wears with phrases like “mourning” and “widow” on the front, and the sly P. Diddy satire of having Cedric’s character be a prep-school-educated gangsta.

Perhaps because, oh, 80 percent of movies aren’t anywhere near as clever, Get Shorty has gained a reputation for greatness that isn’t quite deserved—one should remember, after all, that 80 percent of movies are mostly crap. It’s a fun movie, but the direction (by Barry Sonnenfeld) is awkward and the pacing is off. Be Cool is almost as good; which means it’s perfectly adequate. That it falls short of the mark can be entirely attributed to the setting and subject matter.

The very fact that it’s about the music business is a problem. It requires actual musicians to be in the picture, which leads to both good and bad results. Mendes and the Black Eyed Peas performing? Good. Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler acting? Bad. This film works so hard for a kind of credibility that the entertainment value is undermined.

That said, it has its moments. Which, in 10 years, will make it a classic.

Old School Martial Arts

Ong-Bak
Directed by Prachya Pinkaew

A 2003 martial-arts film from Thailand, Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior made it into international distribution on the strength of star Tony Jaa’s explosive prowess. A practitioner of Muay Thai (a no-holds-barred form of kickboxing), Jaa lives up to his word-of-mouth. As fast and graceful as a panther and with a sad, serious demeanor that’s more Jet Li than Bruce Lee, Jaa has a quiet charisma that equals his astonishing physicality. But the Thai box-office phenom isn’t the only reason to see Ong-Bak. Director Prachya Pinkaew is as invested in the film’s simple and surprisingly moving subtext as he is with the spectacularly executed fight scenes.

Ong-Bak is a Buddha in a remote and poverty-stricken village. Jaa plays Ting, a villager raised by monks and trained in Muay Thai for spiritual purposes. When a drug dealer from Bangkok steals the head of Ong-Bak—presumably to sell on the antiquities black market—Ting is elected by the devastated villagers to travel to the big city and rescue their beloved deity. In decadent Bangkok, Ting hooks up with a cousin who calls himself George (Perttary Wongkamlao). A compulsive gambler and petty hood, George regards Ting as an embarrassing hillbilly, but he knows a gold mine when he sees one and so he maneuvers Ting into a fight club where he is forced to do battle with the local talent. This extended melee sets Jaa against a mammoth Cockney brawler, a crazed Chinese dervish, and a dirty street fighter. The diverse opponents are meant to highlight the distinctive attributes of Muay Thai, especially its brutishly exciting emphasis on the bone-crushing power of knees and elbows.

A throwback to old-school Hong Kong crime capers, Ong-Bak doesn’t use wires or any other visual enhancements (aside from touches of fast or slow motion), making the film’s martial choreography all the more impressive. During one inspired sequence, Ting leaps over café tables like hurdles and then skips away on the shoulders of his adversaries. Unlike most street chases, this one is notable not for how much destruction it causes, but for how little—the thugs are almost as lithesome as their quarry. Meanwhile the storytelling is endearingly old fashioned: Naïve, humble Ting is up against an underworld kingpin who rules over an empire of vice (and who smokes through a tracheotomy hole), while his most dangerous henchman shoots up enough amphetamine to foam blood at the mouth. Yet despite these gleefully cheesy elements and a moment or two of gentle humor, Ong-Bak is rather intense. Conniving George discovers his ancestral pride after realizing that Ting is willing to give his life to help their village, and there’s some haunting imagery regarding the stolen antiquities. Ong-Bak may be unsophisticated (and overlong) but its honorable intentions put the average American actioner to shame.

—Ann Morrow

Good With Guns, Bad With Kids

The Pacifier
Directed by Adam Shankman

Disney’s The Pacifier just might be some woman producer’s dream played out in celluloid: a guy who can kick butt and save the world one day, and whip the house and kids into shipshape order the next. Navy SEAL Shane Wolfe (Vin Diesel), whose personal credo involves never leaving anybody behind and doing everything his way (“There’s no highway,” he advices countless characters), suffers a heartbreaking defeat at the hands of dastardly Serb terrorists, and is rewarded, following a lengthy hospital stay, with the chance to make things right. Only this time, the mission doesn’t involve whirling jet skis, high- powered automatic weapons or, presumably, said dastardly thugs, but a fatherless family of five whose lives are threatened by—you guessed it—those darn Serbs. Having disposed of Prof. Plummer, who developed a top-secret something or other, the bad guys have targeted Mrs. Plummer (Faith Ford) and her unruly offspring.

Making matters worse than the simple fact that Shane doesn’t much care for tykes are a pair of complications: Mrs. Plummer must travel to Zurich to try to help open her late husband’s safe deposit box, and Nanny Helga’s (Carole Kane) has abruptly escaped from the family compound. Eldest kids Zoe (Brittany Snow) and Seth (Max Thieriot) are in danger of flunking out of school; Lulu (Morgan York) develops something of a crush on Shane; toddler Peter calls Wolfe “daddy”; and baby Tyler does what babies do best, which results in too much diaper, er, humor. Retrofitting his SEAL utility belt to accommodate multiple “babas,” wipes, diapers, and the other necessities of family life, Shane forces the kids to clean up the house and their acts, reminding them that schoolmates who trash the Plummer house aren’t really friends, that they should follow their true interests and, of course, that it’s OK to grieve for dad. Occasionally, writers Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant remember that this is supposed to be something like a stakeout, and give Diesel the chance to beat the bejesus out of nunchakus-wielding prowlers as well as an obnoxious wrestling coach.

This isn’t a belly laugher of a movie, in large part because Diesel is just so stiff—but at times his stiffness is used appropriately. It’s actually kind of nice that his character doesn’t get all misty eyed at the idea of kids, although, at the same time, it’s not hard to see why his character shares a name with one of film’s great protagonists. (Thankfully, the baby doesn’t blurt out “Come back, Shane!” at film’s end.) Director Adam Shankman makes nice use of how completely at sea Shane is having been transplanted from the field to the equally perilous milieu of the suburban home. Helping keep this fluffy contraption afloat are a trio of seasoned television pros, including the perky and sexy (in a Doris Day kind of way) Ford, but especially Lauren Graham as a more-than-capable school principal and Brad Garrett as the above-referenced obnoxious coach.

—Laura Leon

 


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