Be Cool

Having somehow missed “Get Shorty” when it was released, I watched it for the first time on DVD the night before seeing its sequel, “Be Cool.” I don’t recommend a back-to-back viewing like this. It makes it obvious how fun “Get Shorty” is, and what a desperate, wheezing mess “Be Cool” is. Maybe with more distance between them, the sequel wouldn’t have seemed so bad.

It is once again based on an Elmore Leonard novel, but now middling action director F. Gary Gray (“The Italian Job”) has filled Barry Sonnenfeld’s shoes, with bad screenwriter Peter Steinfeld (“Drowning Mona,” “Analyze That”) doing the adaptation. I haven’t read Leonard’s novel, but I can’t imagine it’s as lifeless and watered-down as the movie is. Elmore Leonard novels are a lot of things, but they’re not usually dull.

John Travolta returns as Chili Palmer, once a debt collector for loansharks and underworld types, now a Hollywood producer. (The original joke, that crooks are crooks no matter what business they’re in, has long since evaporated.) On a whim, Chili becomes interested in the music industry, with a particular liking for Linda Moon (Christina Milian), an up-and-coming singer whose contract is currently owned by the abusive, pimpish Raji (Vince Vaughn). Chili tries to steal her away, which upsets Raji and his enormous gay bodyguard Elliot (The Rock, aka Dwayne Johnson).

Meanwhile, Chili’s friend Tommy Athens (James Woods), a record-label executive, is gunned down outside a cafe, apparently by the Russian mob. Chili takes Tommy’s widow, Edie (Uma Thurman), under his wing and suggests himself as an aide in handling her newly inherited music empire. This is primarily so that John Travolta and Uma Thurman can dance together again, in a scene that demonstrates desperation on the part of both the movie (for trying to photocopy that great scene in “Pulp Fiction”) and John Travolta (for suggesting it).

The plot gets very complicated without ever getting very interesting. Various people want various other people dead, and there’s a group of black record-label guys, led by Cedric the Entertainer, and they’re involved somehow, as is Harvey Keitel. It’s labyrinthine, but it’s not FUN, you know? It completely lacks the gangster-chic, twisty crime caper feel of “Get Shorty.” This one just seems to be going through the motions, lurching forward in fits and starts before finally sputtering to a conclusion.

The jokes are mostly self-referential: The Rock plays a guy who wants to be an actor based solely on the fact that he can do a cool thing with his eyebrow; Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler says he’s not the kind of singer who shows up in movies; Chili points out that you only get one F-word in a PG-13 movie, then immediately uses his one; hardy-har-har. Were it not for Vince Vaughn, who continues to play his swinging ’70s characters for all they’re worth, I don’t think I’d have laughed once in the entire film.

Oh, but it sure tries. Having just watched “Get Shorty” the night before, it was easy for me to identify the lines of dialogue that are repeated in “Be Cool,” as well as the other jokey references to the earlier film. Like most sequels, this one is merely a ghost of its former self.

D+ (1 hr., 51 min.; PG-13, a lot of profanity, some violence.)