(Netflix Streaming, October 2017) I had been waiting for Stretch for years. A new film by writer/director Joe Carnahan? Yes, but after two years in post-production hell, Stretch was never shown in theatres and its release on the VOD market was quiet enough to go unnoticed—I learned about the film from an article about how Netflix was changing the distribution market. But it took another three years for Stretch to make it to Canadian Netflix, and I ended up watching it within days of its availability. Verdict? It’s the Carnahan movie I was waiting for: fast-paced, darkly comic, strangely conceived, tightly edited. It takes potshots at the insanity of Los Angeles, exploits Patrick Wilson’s charisma to its fullest extent and gets Chris Pine to deliver a wonderfully bizarre performance quite unlike anything an actor like him is expected to provide. Jessica Alba shows up as a gal-pal love interest, Ed Helms’ cackling voice-of-reason character has a mostly-posthumous presence … and that’s not even talking about David Hasselhoff or Ray Liotta. Produced on a shoestring $5M budget, Stretch looks ten times more expensive, and has more manic inventiveness in its 90-minutes duration than any three random Hollywood theatrical releases. The pedal-to-the-metal pacing of the film helps sell its weirdest quirks, as one day (and night) in the life of a limousine driver gets worse and worse. Stretch isn’t a great movie, but it’s pitch-perfect at reaching its target and it’s maddeningly entertaining for anyone who discovers it. I’m really annoyed that it’s still largely unknown, and somewhat grateful that, thanks to Netflix, it now has a fighting chance of being seen.
(On-demand video, June 2012) We don’t see that many men-against-nature survival thrillers nowadays, but something like The Grey can be powerful enough to last us a while, especially when it takes a standard action-movie premise and turns it into an excuse to discuss existentialist themes. From the first few moments, it’s obvious that the trailers promising a B-grade survival thriller have been telling us only part of the story, because The Grey soon turns contemplative about humankind’s willingness to live and die. Liam Neeson is superb in a lead role that echoes the Liamsploitation of Taken and Unknown but also makes use of his gravitas to lend further dramatic weight to the result. As half a dozen blue-collar oil workers find themselves stranded in Alaska following a plane crash, they have to figure out how to survive their harsh environment, and the pack of wolves that start hunting them. As you can expect, a lot of people die in this film, not necessarily in the order we’d expect them to fall (the script is fond of giving characters some depth right before they exit) and certainly not gloriously. The tone is grim, but to its credit it’s grim throughout: the ending, which may have felt bleak in other circumstances, here feels fully justified. This isn’t a film we may have expected from writer/director Joe Carnahan after the enjoyably simple-minded combo of Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team: You have to go back to 2002’s Narc in order to find something similarly hefty in his filmography. The Grey actually manages to combine both thrills and thoughts, putting some solid thematic content within a thriller framework. It works pretty well, and you do (eventually) get to see Neeson punch a wolf in the face.
(In theatres, June 2010) Having no particular knowledge or affection for the eighties TV series from which this film is adapted, I can only judge it on how well it performs as an action movie. Fortunately, The A-Team delivers all the expected thrills: Writer/director Joe Carnahan finally gets a decent budget, and the if the result frequently mocks plausibility, it’s good enough to make The A-Team a perfectly acceptable action movie. While a few longer shots would have been helpful in keeping the tension high, Carnahan’s visual style here is heavy on anachronistic back-and-forth between planning and an execution that places a lot more emphasis on speed than grace. It benefits from grand-scale CGI stunts: how else to portray a bunch of shipping containers falling down like matchsticks? By the time the characters are flying a tank via its main cannon, I couldn’t have been happier: Action insanity plus echoes of Grand Theft Auto 3! This intensity, combined with an engaging ensemble cast of characters, does a lot to compensate for a script that never quite seems certain when to start: The A-Team delivers two successive origin stories before we get the sense that the film is truly underway, and even then the entire film seems like a pilot episode for its own sequels. But why complain when Liam Neeson is slumming with cigars and cackling grins? Why nit-pick when Bradley Cooper makes for an irresistible con-man? Finally, what about Jessica Biel, back on the big screen as a competent military investigator? I’m always on the market for an over-the-top action comedy if it’s made with intelligence, speed and charm. The A-Team at least gets good grades on speed and charm, and substitutes kinetic cleverness in lieu of intelligence. I’ll take it. After all, I love it when an action movie comes together.