“Are you a firestarter?” That’s the deceptively flippant question repeatedly leveled at Patrick Wilson’s in-over-his-head limo driver by batshit billionaire client Roger Kairos (Chris Pine), who lands the poor guy – named Kevin and nicknamed Stretch – in a whole world of trouble over one crazy night during this wildly entertaining action farce (simply titled Stretch).
Although it takes a long while to figure out an answer, audiences should already know going in that there’s at least one firestarter involved in this production – director Joe Carnahan. Throughout his career, the helmer has delivered more than his fair share of stylish flicks winkingly infused with genre tropes and over-the-top, testosterone-fueled action. Whatever project he’s working on, Carnahan goes at it with equal parts intensity and intelligence. Consequently, he’s delivered an outstanding range of films, some which deal in hopped-up machismo fantasies (The A-Team) and others which work more to dissect them (The Grey).
Stretch, while perhaps not Carnahan’s most elegant effort, feels like his most deliberate and personal film yet. The tight and often laugh-out-loud funny script, the swift pace, every crazy twist and turn – all of these accomplished facets of Stretch make it appear that everything plays out on screen exactly as the director originally intended it to. The man-of-action fantasies are still very much at play – after getting mixed up in various shady enterprises while driving Kairos in hopes of getting a $6,000 tip to pay off his bookie, Stretch transforms from human punching bag to Bondian badass – but there’s a lot more going on than just that. “Life is nothing but timing,” he explains, putting a less angry spin on “shit happens,” and one gets the sense that Carnahan is shrugging his shoulders at his own bad luck (just take a look at how many projects this guy has had pulled out from under him).
The director’s past frustrations can also be felt in the frenzied pacing – it’s as if Carnahan feared an outside force was poised to swoop in and pull the plug on his madcap contraption at any moment (and as we all now know, he was right on the money with that premonition). Stretch finds the director at his most jubiliantly unfettered, filling the screen with bizarrely quotable utterisms, absolutely insane characters and an anything-goes tale of Hollywood’s most grotesque excesses. That the distributors saw the film through as far as they did then opted to shutter a theatrical release is downright infuriating but not all that surprising given the depths of insanity and depravity into which Stretch descends.
Wilson, better than he’s ever been, is a suitable tour guide for such a journey. Slipping easily into Stretch’s sarcastic yet wounded skin, the actor proves a strong match-up for Carnahan’s manic energy and cynical dialogue, balancing out the film’s nuttier aspects with a (comparatively) straight man performance. The character’s past as a failed thespian allows for some interesting exploration of the acting game, and Wilson’s remarkable knack for shifting between comedic and dramatic gears doesn’t shortchange that backstory.
Carnahan also pulls raucous and ridiculous work out of Pine, who’s almost unrecognizable, save for those baby blues, beneath a scraggly, coke-coated beard. Playing a reclusive and unbathed rich boy gone wild who may or may not be the devil himself, the actor is unbelievably committed (to give you an idea of just how bananas his performance is, Kairos’ grand entrance finds him parachuting down onto the windshield of Stretch’s limo, ass exposed, goggle-clad and funny bits not at all covered by a greasy jockstrap) and shockingly convincing.
In smaller roles, Ed Helms entertains as the ghost of another limo driver who regularly appears to mock Stretch’s shortcomings, and Jessica Alba charms as the voice of reason, Stretch’s dispatcher who enjoys an easy rapport with him and attempts to save his job even as Stretch’s actions grow increasingly unpredictable and dangerous. Though her arc grows a tad predictable towards the end, the strong chemistry Alba shares with Wilson is delightful to watch.
The rest of Stretch is populated by a whole slew of kooky characters, from an FBI agent (James Badge Dale) to Ray Liotta and David Hasselhoff playing very funny versions of themselves (“Has anyone ever referred to you as a punk ass mother fucker?” The Hoff asks Stretch in his first scene. Because, he continues, “You are a punk ass mother fucker.”). And even when the background players aren’t so recognizable, the weirdos they play, from creepy masked escorts to a silver-maned rival limo driver called the Jovi, keep things interesting.
Though it finds him working on a much smaller budget than on his previous big-screen ventures (not a bad thing, given how visually grounded this flick feels as compared to the more fantastical A-Team), Stretch also completes Carnahan’s informal trilogy of adrenaline-rush thrillers, following Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane and Smokin’ Aces. As in those films, there’s a certain bite to the humor here, with an emphasis on just how unpleasant Stretch’s life remains even in the midst of the night’s crazed debauchery. One gets the sense that Carnahan’s three films don’t want to applaud the macho-man stereotype but rather investigate the repercussions of a real person attempting to don such a mask.
Even as it dabbles in some of the same territory, though, Stretch emerges as a more thoroughly satisfying cinematic journey than either of those films, supplementing its knowingly pulpy violence with a delicious sense of dark humor and seemingly boundless energy. Studios be damned, seek Stretch out wherever it may be (and yes, it’s well worth the $15 you’d pay to buy it on iTunes) – Carnahan’s latest is a gleefully unrestrained ride, destined for and deserving of cult classic status.
Stretch is a bold, bonkers and completely brilliant blast of creative energy from Joe Carnahan at his most gleefully unrestrained.