(SPOILERS) I should know by now what to expect from a Joe Carnahan film. Narc, which was rightly regarded as in impressive calling card (I’ll ignore his actual debut which sounds more like his subsequent fare; Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane), has proved to be the exception to the rule. As a director Carnahan is more than accomplished, with a talent for pacing and narrative drive, even if he too often resorts to sensory overload. As a writer he resembles a sub-Tarantino hack who probably comes up with all his best ideas after an enormous bong hit. So it is with Stretch, a dependably energetic piece of filmmaking with the occasional moment of real flair but based on a script infused with adolescent excitability and a belief that it is much funnier than it actually is.
The chief problem with Stretch, which anyone who has seen Smokin’ Aces (or, for that matter, the heavy-handed and self-regarding The Grey) would be aware of, is that it’s one of those pictures that is far, far too pleased with itself. It’s certainly done nothing to earn such smugness. Unless you’re a hyperactive teenager who gives anything with tits and blow and snickering crudity a free pass, in which case this might be the best movie ever. It’s probably also ideal for stoners who rate goofy, crazy shit and think From Dusk Till Dawn is Tarantino’s best movie. Actually, I get the impression Carnahan has been on a Shane Black binge (Kiss Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in particular) and asininely thinks he’ll approximate some of that.
Stretch might have worked if the gags and plotlines landed, but Carnahan’s choices have a tendency to try the patience and provoke rising annoyance. Stretch (Patrick Wilson), a stretch limo driver (presumably his name is intended to be all existential like Walter Hill’s The Driver but funny), is an ex-coke fiend and gambler, dumped by his girlfriend for a quarterback, who is told he needs to pay off his $6k debt before the end of the day while competing with a rival limo company, interacting with deceased fellow driver Karl (Ed Helms) and attempting to hook up Pink Minx (the date he has met on the Internet).
Stretch is beset by troublesome clients (including David Hasselhoff and Carnahan regular Ray Liotta in cantankerous spoof versions of themselves) until call centre operative Charlie (Jessica Alba) tips him that an old fare of Karl’s, billionaire Karos (Chris Pine), could be his generous benefactor for the evening. Stretch agrees to do Karos’ bidding, but it quickly becomes evident the financier is involved in some very shady business (a pyramid investment scheme that went belly-up) and is wanted by the FBI.
Carnahan’s construction and characters are ramped up but still manage to be over-familiar. Stretch’s incessant voiceover should be engagingly stoical but instead has an aggravating, insistent conceitedness. It’s too much noise in an already over-noisy picture. Lines like “Starting today I am putting the goddam shovel down” may be meant to make Stretch a bit of a self-aggrandising dick, but Carnahan doesn’t seem to know the difference between mockery and veneration. It’s the elusive Downey Jr in Kiss Kiss factor.
I usually like Wilson, but he seems unable to make Stretch much of anything. It’s not really his fault as Carnahan lacks an all-important lightness of touch; he’s utterly charmless, so his characters follow suit. While he’s a good kinetic director, he tends to over-indulge and over-edit. During the first 20 minutes or so, Stretch looks like it might downright stink, so it’s a small compliment that Carnahan gets it moving in spite of the mediocre screenplay.
The one long night into disaster is well-mined territory and sort of writes itself (see Into the Night for a great example of the genre); all you have to do is to keep up the eventful encounters and have a destination in mind. Stretch’s destination can be seen coming a mile off (it’s evident halfway through that Charlie must be Pink Minx, but Carnahan still treats it as a big reveal), yet it is actually quite sweet and Alba – who has been consigned to the dustbin of Robert Rodriguez dreck lately – makes a winning object of affection. It helps that Carnahan throws so much at the screen, some of it is bound to stick; he sets up several ticking clocks and recurring antagonists (in that sense it mirrors After Hours), and charges on regardless through the frequent bumpy spots.
Cameos include a dreadfully unfunny appearance from Hasselhoff doing a sweary-nasty of himself (“You’re a punk-ass motherfucker! You don’t have any respect for the Hoff!”). Liotta is fine, but he’s more fun in his Muppets Most Wanted cameo. Helms’ ghostly apparition (in Stretch’s mind) is also a misfire, an over-the-top confidante “wearing a moustache he said he grew in Hell” that Carnahan should have pruned (he’s utterly superfluous anyway). I’m quite sure Carnahan was pumping his fist in the air over how awesome all this sounded as he wrote it. But it really isn’t unless your fourteen again, or even for the first time. There’s no irony or distance that might allow actual humour or foster wry observation.
Pine, who played a memorable psychopath in Smokin’ Aces, is enrolled as another nutter here complete with maximum beardage. His character epitomises the director’s “hilarious excess” approach, complete with protruding testicles, whoring, substance abuse and intense/antic disposition. I was put in mind of a much less endearing version of Rob Lowe’s (quite brilliant) Lenny Nero in Californication. There’s way too much bedazzlement by the hedonistic lifestyle in Carnahan’s filmmaking. He may be living the adolescent dream, but “It’s raining tits” and having a “rape party” are depressingly juvenile.
If Carnahan made a fatalistic meal of Liam Neeson’s existential angst in The Grey, he takes a similarly glib approach to Stretch. He scoffs at fate; “To me, life’s nothing but timing”. So James Badge Dale’s FBI guy (Dale’s a great actor, but the role, very sub-Aces, doesn’t have enough room to become interesting) tells him “My friend, everything happens for a reason. It has to be that way. It would be too depressing otherwise”). Elsewhere Stretch, a wannabe thesp, repeats the mantra “Own the space” to embolden himself in any given hairy situation but Wilson fails to make us believe that Stretch can do this stuff (far more appropriate is the moment where he boasts “It’s like I’m five steps ahead” as he is removing the limo number plate, only for a young rap hooligan to steal his wheels).
Carnahan throws all kinds of macho bullshit into the mix. There’s no apparent self-censorship here. Sub-Fight Club punching oneself in the face? Why ever not? References to driving Charlie Sheen? A bit passé, no? But as tiresome as Carnahan’s schtick can be, he comes up with occasional winners. The sequence in which Stretch has to regain control of the disabled limo is amusingly desperate. The sight of a tiny disco ball, miraculously appeared in the back, is a nice nutty touch, as are the subtitles of the Eastern European aggressor from the rival firm that appear in… Eastern European.
Stretch ended up bypassing cinemas to VOD, reportedly because Universal didn’t see the point releasing a $5m-budgeted picture that might not recoup its distribution costs. Which is no marker of how good or bad it is; it’s actually neither actively terrible nor great, making their decision a sound one financially. I find it difficult to summon sympathy for the hard done-by artist in this case as I have a feeling Carnahan is a bit of meathead, deluded that his scenarios are dynamite and every line he writes (or snorts) is gold dust. Chances are, if you loved Smokin’ Aces, you’ll adore this. If you though that film was ADD overkill with just a few occasional inspired moments, then you’ve got a good idea of what to expect from Stretch. Steroidal filmmaking on a budget, like a slightly more respectable version of Michael Bay. Carnahan’s movies are exhausting, but not in a good way.