Sales Pitches


A four-figure, amphetamanic, self-styled calling-card movie, Joe Carnahan’s 1999 directorial debut, Blood, Guts, Bullets & Octane, couldn’t help but beguile fest audiences and industry headhunters. The story is congealed neo-noir leftovers, the style Tourette’s-montage confrontational, and the acting (by Carnahan and his friends) hilarious bluster. Best of all, Carnahan exploited the turpitude of type-A used-lot sales patois. A show car on blocks—holding fourth gear throughout but going nowhere—the movie runs on catapulting ambition, which was unmistakably focused on the filmmaker’s future career.

The follow-up, Narc, is no less a résumé bullet-item; but Carnahan’s barroom-bully energy is beginning to feel like a cultural resource. The movie fairly bristles—with degraded-image ’70s grit (Nixon-era cop movies were the professed template), handheld hysteria, thickly profane dialogue, abject bloodletting, and post-Method performances. The opening mad dash is hard to beat for screaming diastolic-systolic emergency: Undercover cop Nick Tellis (Jason Patric) chases down a psychotic junkie who eventually puts a knife to a child’s throat. Having already lost one bystander, Tellis shoots anyway, but a bullet hits the kid’s pregnant mother, sending her to the pavement in a bloody gout.

It’s a clichéd setup executed with sadistic immediacy. Sure enough, Tellis is off the force, brooding at home with his infant son (the price paid for police work by children and wives is Narc‘s primary issue, and Patric’s scenes with the baby are pricelessly intimate). Eventually, he agrees to investigate a cop murder, sharing the case burden with the dead man’s devoted ex-partner Henry Oak (Ray Liotta). Oak is the script’s bête noire, a bulldozing, corpulent bastard with a yen for righteous brutality, and Carnahan eggs us on in suspecting him of the hit.

Never knowing exactly how out of control Oak is gives Narc a palpable current of tension suggestive of the real-life good cop/bad cop routine that too often secures confessions from wigged-out innocents. Though genuinely menacing, Liotta’s goateed wolverine isn’t a sociopathic caricature; Carnahan gives him moments of lucidity and reason that make good, in spots, on the promise of ’70s-style realism. In fact, when the film trains in on the textures of smart-mouthed street life and industrial Detroit shitholes, it’s impressively convincing.

Unfortunately, Carnahan is impatient and self-conscious in ways that clearly demarcate the difference between today and the era of William Friedkin’s The French Connection. Hardly a scene goes by without a digitally fractured flashback or spasm of editing punctuation, rupturing the movie’s otherwise carefully wrought sense of authenticity. The hardscrabble New Wave lessons learned decades ago generally do not stand a chance against the industry’s currently accepted view that movie audiences, like toddlers in a Teletubbies swoon, require repetition, constant emphasis, and ceaseless visual stress. Carnahan tries to straddle the divide, and the movie suffers.

Narc falls into the patronizing tar pit of last-act exposition and twist endings. Reportedly having wowed Tom Cruise after starting no fires at Sundance, and now wearing the Cruise/Wagner stamp of ultra-hype, Carnahan’s movie is being packaged as Liotta’s pre-menopausal Oscar shot, but the glowering Patric, whose bizarre career is a succession of fascinating, unsuccessful attempts at stardom, is the craftier presence. Tellis is scantily motivated in his pursuit of the truth, but Patric fills him with quietly boiling anxiety.

Denzel Washington’s Training Day bad cop still out-badasses the competition, but for his teary directorial debut, Antwone Fisher, the mush-minded stencil carefully traced would be Good Will Hunting, or, if you’re stretching, to 1963’s Captain Newman M.D. The formulaic tale—semi-sociopathic enlisted sailor Fisher (Derek Luke) comes under the life tutelage of wise navy shrink Davenport (Washington, flexing his usual authority) and solves his horrendous life problems—seems overshadowed by the irony of the screenwriter’s bio. Fisher was a gate guard at Sony before selling his life story to the studio heads, presumably as they drove by, a radical curve in life’s ordinary narrative patterns that rivals Lana Turner’s luncheon-counter discovery and promises more than the brawl-peppered tour of duty we get here.

The deep oddness, in this age of Charlie Kaufman meta-ness, of a movie about Antwone Fisher scripted by Antwone Fisher titled Antwone Fisher is lost on Washington, who directs with proficient blandness charged only occasionally by organic acting moments. (A late Thanksgiving dinner scene is an uncommonly pleasurable thicket of bickerings, gibes, and family noise, kneecapped by Fisher’s ham-handed presentation of a self-pitying poem.) Everything—even life on an aircraft carrier—is sentimentalized, and the wretched tribulations of Fisher’s childhood (abandonment, foster-home torture, flogging, sexual abuse, etc.) are tastefully suggested rather than explored.

The myth of the talking-cure miracle—avuncular therapist eschews psychobabble, cuts to the bone, and initiates the thorny patient’s regenerative outburst—is cheaply seductive, but Washington is a feel-good pushover, as well as schmaltzy militarist. (Antwone Fisher is, in the end, a navy recruitment ad writ large and cozy.) We are meant to be inspired, and someone very well may.

Certainly, The Wild Thornberrys Movie tosses the same sticky believe-in-yourself sermon out at its assigned demographic, but it’s easier to forgive, what with Tim Curry’s outrageously toothsome voicing of fearless yet strangely clueless wildlife documentarian Nigel Thornberry. Easily the most life-integrated show of the post-mod cartoon renaissance that began with Ren & Stimpy, TWTs is also one of the least witty, and the feature-length stretch—in which the dysfunctional wilderness family battle Dr. Evil-scale poachers—strains the show’s concept. Still, there’s no denying bespectacled, brace-ridden, homely wild child Eliza (Lacey Chabert), who can speak to animals and emerges as one of the most stirring heroines in contemporary media.