Tuesday, October 14, 2014

On VOD: STRETCH (2014)

(US - 2014)

Written and directed by Joe Carnahan. Cast: Patrick Wilson, Ed Helms, James Badge Dale, Brooklyn Decker, Jessica Alba, Chris Pine, Ray Liotta, David Hasselhoff, Norman Reedus, Randy Couture, Shaun Toub, Ben Bray, Jason Mantzoukas, Kevin Bigley. (R, 94 mins)

VOD has proven to be a viable distribution channel in our post-SNOWPIERCER world, and Universal is hoping to replicate The Weinstein Company's unintended phenomenon with Joe Carnahan's STRETCH. Abruptly yanked from the schedule just a few weeks before its planned March 2014 release, STRETCH was one of several titles produced by Jason Blum's Blumhouse Productions (INSIDIOUS, SINISTER) that distributor Universal decided to leave languishing in limbo on the shelf, along with PARANORMAL ACTIVITY creator Oren Peli's AREA 51 (completed in 2009) and Joe Johnston's thriller NOT SAFE FOR WORK (completed in 2012), among others (STRETCH's time gathering dust was relatively brief, having wrapped in 2013). Universal hasn't said much about the shelving of these films, but it's mainly that the typical Blumhouse production costs $5 million or less, and that Universal balked at spending "$25 to $30 million" to market and distribute the films. It's now the major studio mindset that anything less than a $150 million take at the box office is a flop and movies grossing $30 million domestically simply aren't worth releasing in theaters anymore. There's no such thing as a moderate hit. Something's either a blockbuster or it's a bomb and in that climate, there's no in-between. Outspoken NARC and SMOKIN' ACES director Carnahan wasn't happy with Universal's decision, especially since he had a proven track record after he helmed a blockbuster with 2010's THE A-TEAM and had a decent-sized hit with the critically-acclaimed 2012 Liam Neeson vehicle THE GREY, which "only" grossed $51 million. When Universal shelved STRETCH earlier this year, they allowed Blum the chance to shop it around to other distributors, and when no one bit, the rights reverted back to Universal, and seeing the success of SNOWPIERCER, they opted to release it on VOD rather than dumping it straight-to-DVD. In interviews leading up to STRETCH's VOD debut, Carnahan has more or less taken an "It is what it is" approach to the release, expressing his disappointment that Universal abandoned what he considers his best film thus far. Carnahan is so sure that moviegoers will dig STRETCH that he posted messages on Facebook and Twitter promising that if you didn't enjoy STRETCH and can send him a pic proving you paid to watch it, he'll personally refund your money.

Like the word-of-mouth buzz with SNOWPIERCER and it being The Little Movie That Could, all of Carnahan's incessant yapping only serves to publicize STRETCH, though you have to applaud him for standing by his work and his in-your-face enthusiasm in making sure people know about it. It's too bad STRETCH isn't going to be another SNOWPIERCER, nor is it Carnahan's best film (that would be NARC). But then, the filmmaker has always straddled the line between maverick and loudmouth, better known for the films he didn't make--walking off of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III during pre-production, the collapsed DEATH WISH remake with Liam Neeson, and his dream project, an adaptation of James Ellroy's 1992 noir novel White Jazz--than the ones he's made. Carnahan's an enthusiastic filmmaker with a terrific sense of humor in his writing, and one of the few people making generally smart, no-nonsense, manly movies for men in the old-school tradition of Walter Hill. Sometimes he just talks too much.

STRETCH is entertaining if a bit slight, definitely in the over-the-top style of SMOKIN' ACES, but set in a typically excessive vision of L.A. Failed actor Kevin Bryzkowski (Patrick Wilson), who unsuccessfully tried to market himself as "Kai Bruno" before giving up after losing a guest role on CSI: MIAMI and taking a job as a limo driver, has kicked his coke, booze, and gambling habit and gotten over his ex-girlfriend (Brooklyn Decker) dumping him for the quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. He's been paying off a $12K debt to his bookie Iggy (Ben Bray), who's been bought out by some Cantonese gangsters who want the remaining $6000 he owes by midnight. Kevin, or "Stretch" as he's known to his friends, is on thin ice with his boss (Shaun Toub), who's paid guys to hack into the computer system of rival limo company Cossack, run by a hair-metal-coiffed hulk known as "The Jovi" (Randy Couture) so they can steal their gigs. Stretch gets one-upped by the Jovi when he's late picking up David Hasselhoff ("You don't have any respect for the Hoff!" he scolds Stretch), so he gets revenge by jacking the Jovi's next client, Carnahan regular Ray Liotta, from a movie set. Liotta leaves a prop gun and a fake badge from the movie behind, and Stretch doesn't get it back to the set before stealing the Jovi's next pickup: insane, cokehead billionaire Roger Karos (an unrecognizable Chris Pine). Karos has Stretch drop him off at an EYES WIDE SHUT-type sex party while he sends him off on a series of dangerous errands throughout L.A., involving a money pickup, a drug deal, and an undercover FBI agent (James Badge Dale), in exchange for a $6000 tip to clear his debt, and all the while Stretch is pursued by Iggy's goons, forced to pose as hard-assed LAPD cop "Raymond Liotta," and is harangued by the taunting ghost of his mentor, legendary limo driver Karl With a K (Ed Helms), who got so fed up with the business that he blew his brains out in mid-job, "marking the first time in 20 years that someone else had to clean his limo."

Carnahan packs a lot of plot into STRETCH's 94 minutes, and most of it works. Wilson has rarely been this loose onscreen before, but that's nothing compared to the way Pine (uncredited, but arguably the second lead) dives headfirst into his role with no concern for his image or any modicum of good taste. It's a literally balls-out performance, as he's first seen skydiving in nothing but a vest and a jockstrap, landing on top of Stretch's limo as Carnahan introduces him via a taint shot as his exposed scrotum slides down the front windshield.  Yeah, STRETCH is that kind of a movie. Pine's overtly demonic Karos (often shot in reddish Italian horror lighting) seduces the desperate Stretch with the promise of $6000, with the resulting AFTER HOURS-inspired parade of grotesqueries an obvious metaphor for the way the power players of L.A. use, abuse, chew up, and spit out generally decent people like Stretch (or, if you expand on it, Hollywood dicking over well-meaning filmmakers like, oh I dunno, Joe Carnahan). Elsewhere, Karos snorts mountains of blow and cavorts with an array of high-class prostitutes, to whom he's also known as "Captain Fisty." Liotta, who also had a memorable cameo as himself in WANDERLUST, is very funny as an alternate universe, asshole version of "Ray Liotta," getting an assistant's name wrong and flat-out admitting "I don't give a fuck" when he's corrected, and being furiously indignant over the Jovi picking up "a TV actor" instead of him, even though he has no idea who Hasselhoff is ("Don't know him...should I?") or what KNIGHT RIDER and BAYWATCH are ("A talking car? What the fuck?"). Norman Reedus also has an inspired bit as himself, in a flashback where Karl With a K helps him cover up a motel room bloodbath ("Is that a severed penis?" Karl With a K asks). As funny as it can be, we've seen this sort-of "L.A. as immoral, hedonistic hellscape" motif a thousand times before, and despite some enthusiastic work by Wilson and Pine, some genuinely funny bits of offensive humor, and some periodic respites from the obnoxiousness courtesy of Jessica Alba as a limo dispatcher and Stretch's dependable Girl Friday, it frequently comes off as a Carnahan tantrum, and a louder, more aggressively garish version of John Landis' underrated 1985 gem INTO THE NIGHT. The actors are obviously having a good time, and it's worth a look on a slow night once it hits Redbox or Netflix Instant. Enough of it works that only a shameless asshole would ask Carnahan for their money back, but let's cut through the shit here: it's an offbeat little film that will find a minor cult following and probably enjoy a long future as the kind of movie you stop at while channel-surfing, but it wasn't going to be a hit in theaters.

UPDATE (10/21/2014)
As of 10/21/2014, STRETCH and three other shelved Blumhouse productions--NOT SAFE FOR WORK, the Stephen King adaptation MERCY, and the horror film MOCKINGBIRD (directed by THE STRANGERS' Bryan Bertino)--were released on DVD by Universal as Walmart exclusives.

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