The Films of Joe Carnahan
Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane (July 22/03)
Based on Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane, it's a wonder that Joe Carnahan was able to find a second gig. Carnahan's subsequent film, Narc, won him accolades and kudos with the majority of critics (including this one), so imagine the disappointment that goes along with discovering how terrible his first effort is. Reportedly shot for less than $10,000, Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane follows a pair of aggressive used car salesman (Carnahan's Sid and Dan Leis' Bob) as they attempt to keep their business afloat by any means necessary. The jittery, gritty style that Carnahan employed to such great effect in Narc is also on display here, but it just doesn't work this time around. While Narc made good use out of the shakycam effect in its various foot chases and intense police interrogations, Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane uses the technique for dull conversations about selling cars - the end result of which is a seriously nauseating experience. Not helping matters is Carnahan's pseudo-Oliver Stone approach to the material, which involves frequent jumps to black and white and bizarre camera angles. Carnahan's overly enthusiastic directorial flourishes are more than likely a necessity due to the low-budget, but still, his relentlessly flashy technique wears thin very quickly. And as if that weren't bad enough, the film is saddled with a storyline that's incomprehensible to the point of aggravation. The script, written by Carnahan, throws in a variety of elements - a pony-tailed serial killer, a hillbilly sniper, FBI agents, etc - without bothering to explain their purpose until the very end, a device that's more irritating than anything else (and by then, it's impossible to even care). Along with writing and directing the flick, Carnahan also stars as one of the two hyper car salesmen. And while he's not bad, neither he nor Leis are able to create characters that the audience cares about even partially. These guys are obnoxious and loud, and there's clearly a reason filmmakers don't tend to make movies about used car salesmen.
Smokin' Aces (January 24/07)
Though it boasts an exceptional cast and a refreshingly violent sensibility, Smokin' Aces never quite comes together as a cohesive whole - a vibe that stems primarily from the inclusion of characters that are almost uniformly quirky. Filmmaker Joe Carnahan offers up one egregiously eccentric figure after another and asks the viewer to care about their respective fates, though this soon proves to be as insurmountable a task as one might've expected (most of these people wouldn't seem entirely out of place in an old Looney Tunes cartoon). The uneven tone consequently ensures that the film is generally only interesting in spurts, with certain sequences quite compelling and others inordinately dull (ie there's a whole subplot revolving around an injured gangster who winds up in a household straight out of Gummo). The admittedly simplistic plot - which follows a whole host of good guys and bad guys as they attempt to reach mob informant Buddy Israel (Jeremy Piven) - has been augmented with a seriously convoluted backstory, resulting an absurd amount of exposition at both the film's outset and conclusion (step outside for a minute during such sequences and you'll be hopelessly lost). There's little doubt that Carnahan is striving for a more complex vibe than one generally associates with the action genre, but in doing so, the filmmaker often winds up bogging the proceedings down with an overwhelming (and unwieldy) amount of information. That being said, Carnahan has certainly infused Smokin' Aces with a number of genuinely thrilling sequences - with the prolonged attack on Buddy's swanky Lake Tahoe suite an obvious highlight. There are also a few individually effective moments sprinkled throughout the film - ie a tense encounter between a particularly nasty assassin (Nestor Carbonell) and a hapless security guard (Matthew Fox) - but for the most part, it's awfully difficult to look past the exceedingly broad nature of almost every aspect of the production.
It seems rather obvious that The A-Team has been designed to appeal primarily to 13-year-old boys (or those viewers well in touch with their inner 13-year-old boy), as the film boasts all of the attributes one has come to expect from big-budget summer fare - with the ongoing emphasis on over-the-top, special-effects-heavy set-pieces certainly standing as clear evidence of this. It is, as a result, not surprising to note that the movie fares best in its quieter moments, as the (admittedly hackneyed) banter between the four leads is preferable to the almost uniformly underwhelming action sequences. Based on the popular '80s television series, The A-Team follows the title mercenaries (Liam Neeson's Hannibal, Bradley Cooper's Face, Sharlto Copley's Murdock, and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson's B.A. Baracus) as they attempt to clear their names after a mysterious figure frames them for a high-profile murder and theft. Director Joe Carnahan has infused the proceedings with an aggressively frenetic visual sensibility that's inevitably more of a hindrance than anything else, with the filmmaker's reliance on shaky camerawork and rapid-fire editing ensuring that the movie's overtly high-octane moments are effectively drained of their energy. The watchable atmosphere is subsequently (and primarily) perpetuated by the likeable nature of the performances, as the palpable chemistry between the film's stars compensates for the familiarity of their respective characters (ie the smooth, sarcastic ladies man, the tough-as-nails badass, the no-nonsense leader, etc). The cavalcade of familiar faces within the supporting cast - including Patrick Wilson, Henry Czerny, and Brian Bloom - cements the film's affable yet uninvolving atmosphere, with Carnahan's decision to stress the will-they-or-won't-they dynamic between Cooper's Face and Jessica Biel's Sosa standing as the most prominent character-based misstep within the narrative (who cares, really?) By the time the unwieldy, virtually incoherent finale rolls around, The A-Team has established itself as a thoroughly (and unapologetically) larger-than-life endeavor that ultimately fares just about as well as one might've anticipated.
Joe Carnahan's best film since Narc, The Grey follows several rough-and-tumble men, including Liam Neeson's Ottway, Dallas Roberts' Hendrick, and Dermot Mulroney's Talget, as they're forced to fend for themselves after their plane crashes in the desolate Alaskan wilderness - with the film primarily detailing the dwindling survivors' ongoing efforts at evading the encroaching advances of several bloodthirsty wolves. There's little doubt that Carnahan, working from a screenplay co-written with Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, does a superb job of immediately luring the viewer into the deliberately-paced narrative, as the filmmaker offers up an opening half hour that's rife with unexpectedly stirring moments - with the best and most engrossing example of this Ottway's hypnotic speech to a dying man. From there, The Grey effectively morphs into a solid survivalism drama that does, from time to time, feel just a little too languid and overlong for its own good - with the inclusion of some needless elements (eg the in-fighting that ensues among the men) compounding the movie's atmosphere of pervasive unevenness. It's clear, however, that the film benefits substantially from the efforts of its uniformly strong cast, with, of course, Neeson's rock-solid work as the depressive, grizzled protagonist standing as an obvious highlight within the proceedings. (It doesn't hurt either that Carnahan has peppered the storyline with a number of standout interludes, including a quietly riveting scene in which the guys discuss their families and their religious beliefs.) By the time the absolutely spellbinding climax rolls around, The Grey has established itself as a perfectly watchable endeavor that admittedly would've benefited from a few more passes through the editing bay.