This blogger's old enough to remember when a movie going straight-to-video was a ghetto proposition. One would have hoped that such conceptions would have loosened up in recent years, with more and more movies being made and more and more movies being seen for the first time inside homes, rather than theatres. And yet it feels like there's a deeper divide than ever between A-list Hollywood Fare and / Everything Else. With hundreds of movies accessible with the click of a remote, more and more off-Hollywood movies are being consumed like snacks. But sometimes if you give a direct-to-NF movie a little attention, you realize that you're seeing a movie that may have been a little too weird for straight release. And though you imagine being blown away by it at a theatrical screening, there's a weird gratitude that at least you're getting to see it, even as it takes yet another oddball turn that few features would even dare. And if you see its final flourish coming, there's still love and art in the way it lands that leave you glad you gave it your time and eyes.
Truth be told, I was already expecting at least an opus-level experience from Stretch, the latest from writer-director Joe Carnahan. I've long been a fan of Carnahan's work, recognizing a compelling amount of heart behind his movies' macho bluster, thrilling that he's as adept at grounding his stories in our current political reality as he is at building highly stylized worlds and choreographing mayhem - it's that sense of reality that makes his work so strong. And though the fast-and-loose Stretch abandons the political inquiries of Smokin' Aces and The A-Team (gone, too, is much of the emotional poetry of The Grey), it finds Carnahan applying his momentum to a straight up B-movie noir, giving us a neon-lit, increasingly dangerous and complex night that may just annihilate its put-upon title character, a failed actor turned limo driver who sees his current assignment - shepherding a deranged billionaire from one sleazy port of call to the next - as a quick fix for a gambling debt that's suddenly become due.
Patrick Wilson is one of America's finest undersung, though steadily employed, actors, and the commitment and grace he's brought to everyman characters under the direction of James Wan and Todd Field is very much in evidence here. He's utterly believable as an otherwise ordinary guy forced to increasingly desperate and deranged ends to just get his life together, and he's as solid delivering both Stretch's growing capacity for improvisation in the face of danger and his understated reactions to the insanity blossoming around him. Even his voice-over narration transcends its use as a device, as it gets derailed by Stretch's genuine surprise at the explosions of chaos within his story. Though Wilson feels like he's in every single frame of the movie, Carnahan populates the space around him with a colorful rogues gallery, all vividly realized, from a couple of actors playing jacked-the-fuck-up caricatures of themselves to Jessica Alba's gentle and sharp limo dispatcher to the spectacular turn by Chris Pine as Karos, revisiting his Tremor brother from Smokin' Aces by way of Howard Hughes. (Ed Helms seals the movie's simpatico link with the Hangover series as Karl, a deceased driver who appears as a ghostly vision to Stretch in moments of extremis.) The whole thing is held together with gorgeous photography by Yasu Tinida, who both captures the vivid sleaze of Carnahan's cartoon noir L.A. and turns in as vivid a portfolio as any actor could wish of Wilson's various moods, dreams, nightmares.
Minor a work though it is, Stretch is no less enjoyable for it. Its presence online suggests that there's life in the ol' B-movie yet, and its style and fearlessness remind us that the B-movie's where those in the know go to see cinema really cut loose. If it and other creative, out-there movies like it are deemed too weird or risky for theatrical release, at least we get to see them in one format or another. If we can get past our notion of a straight-to-video ghetto and see these available-on-demand movies with fresh eyes (open mind, open heart, per Mr. Luk), all manner of wonderful experiences may await us. Your ride awaits.