Joe Carnahan and the Lighter Side of Fate
Odds are you didn’t know there’s a new movie starring Gerard Butler (300, Greenland, Den of Thieves) out right now costarring Frank Grillo (several Purge movies, several MCU movies) and directed by Joe Carnahan (The Grey, Smokin’ Aces, Boss Level). This despite the fact that Copshop is on more than 3,000 screens—3,005, to be precise, suggesting a minimum threshold that needed to be met to receive some sort of tax rebate—during a period of time when, well, there isn’t a whole lot of new stuff on the big screen in general.
One of the reasons you do not know this is because the director himself isn’t doing much press for the movie. And one of the stars, Grillo, has gone to war with the film in the midst of its release, railing against the way it has been edited to minimize his performance and his character’s arc: “Without detail I’ll say i gave a much more 3 dimensional take, that was very colorful and very well planned out. Needless to say that’s not what ended up in the film,” Grillo wrote in an Instagram post. It is also worth noting, perhaps, that Carnahan himself thanked a large number of people on Instagram and very conspicuously left off Gerard Butler, who has been doing some press for the movie.
Without knowing anything about what, exactly, was left on the cutting room floor or why, all I’ll say is that the movie definitely felt as though a subplot had been ripped out wholesale: The ending does not leave it entirely clear why Grillo’s Teddy Murretto, a fixer for the Las Vegas casinos (and, therefore, the Las Vegas mob), was on the run or why his family had to die or why high-level politicians wanted him dead. The final 20 minutes are a bit clunky, for sure; Murretto feels a bit thin.
Still, that closing segment isn’t disjointed enough to ruin the rest of the movie, which is, like much of Carnahan’s work, a rumination on the relentless and remorseless nature of fate lightened with some wise-cracking oddballs whose inherent goofiness keeps the whole thing from getting derailed by self-serious ruin.
As the film opens, Teddy is trying to get arrested. The reason is unclear, but the danger he is in is obvious. His car has been shot up and he looks like he’s been through it. So, when he sucker punches Valerie Young (Alexis Louder, who really shines in this movie) with the intent of going to jail, it’s obvious that he’s doing it to avoid something much worse on the outside. He’s trying to outflank fate, to outrun the devil on his heels.
Unfortunately for him, fate shows up anyway, one cell over, later that night. Bob Viddick (Butler) is here on behalf of … well, someone, though who exactly isn’t quite clear and probably doesn’t matter. Turns out Teddy has stolen something from some very bad people and they’d like it back. Bob informs Teddy that it’s too late for him—his fate was sealed the moment he did the very bad thing he’s done—but it might not be too late for his family. Hard to say. No promises, of course.
All of this called to mind The Counselor, Ridley Scott’s nihilistic neo-noir written by Cormac McCarthy, the central metaphor of which was the bolito, a mechanized metal tie that tightens around the neck until the carotid is cut and the red vino flows. At one point our hero, the eponymous lawyer, is asking a cartel chief how to save his kidnapped bride.
“I would urge you to see the truth of the situation you’re in, Counselor,” this jefe says. “It is not for me to tell you what you should have done or not done. The world in which you seek to undo the mistakes that you made is different from the world where the mistakes were made. You are now at the crossing. And you want to choose, but there is no choosing there. There’s only accepting. The choosing was done a long time ago.”
Teddy chose and Bob is the result of his choice. And while Bob is the fatalistic bolito of Copshop, drawing ever tighter around Teddy as the movie progresses, fate is not without a sense of humor. Enter Anthony “Tony” Lamb (Toby Huss), a Southern-drawling psychopath whose off-kilter brand of mania injects just enough levity into the proceedings to ensure the picture is not monotonously dour.
Carnahan’s work often features these competing streaks of absurdist humor and fatalism, the craziness serving as a distraction from the fact that his movies tend to feel more like tragic plays than the sort of bro-tastic action-comedies they are sometimes dismissed as.
I recently described Smokin’ Aces as a Greek tragedy on cocaine, and I absolutely meant that as a compliment. The most basic description of the plot is, fundamentally, pretty simple: The mob has put out a hit on a guy holed up in a Lake Tahoe casino who’s about to flip for the FBI, and assassins are converging on his location in an effort to collect on the bounty. But this undersells the film in two discrete ways.
The first, and the thing most everyone remembers, is the craziness of the killers lined up to take down Buddy Israel (Jeremy Piven). There’s a master of disguise who whips up Mission:Impossible-style masks at a moment’s notice; a pair of African-American women wrestling with their own relationship; a Spanish merc who is so committed to his mystery than he chewed off his own fingertips rather than being IDed via fingerprint; a trio of neo-Nazis known as the Tremor Brothers; and a pack of bounty hunters.
Carnahan sketches them quickly and efficiently, but the real coup and the reason this churning cauldron of crazy works is the casting by Cathy Sandrich Gelfond and Amanda Mackey. In addition to Piven, the movie stars Ray Liotta, Ryan Reynolds, Ben Affleck, Common, Taraji P. Henson, Chris Pine, Andy Garcia, and Jason Bateman, as well as character actors like Kevin Durand, Nestor Carbonell, Tommy Flanagan, Joel Edgerton, and Matthew Fox.
But the craziness of the characters in Smokin’ Aces and the brilliance of its cast hides a tragic depth: For all its window dressing, it is fundamentally the story of a father and son and the ways in which being surrounded by evil can warp both people and the institutions they inhabit. The final shot of the film is a gut-punch, one that serves as a reminder of the ugliness at the heart of the manic, often darkly funny, plot.
The Grey is generally considered to be Carnahan’s best film, and for good reason: it’s stripped down and spare and brutal. Liam Neeson plays John Ottway, a sniper for an oil company charged with protecting drillers from the wolves that roam the Alaskan wilderness. Ottway is lost, considering suicide; he ponders how it came to this:
A job at the end of the world. A salary killer for a big petroleum company. I don’t know why I did half the things I’ve done, but I know this is where I belong. Surrounded by ex-cons, fugitives, drifters, assholes. Men unfit for mankind.
However, after surviving a plane crash in the Alaskan mountains and taking charge of protecting a team of drillers—these men unfit for mankind—he finds reason to go on.
But reason isn’t enough. The drillers are being stalked by wolves. They’re weakened from injuries suffered in the plane crash. They’re dealing with elements inhospitable to human life. And they’re forced to confront the emptiness that comes with the realization that fate has dealt them a bad hand. There’s no helicopter coming over the ridge to rescue them, no God in this machine. If they’re going to survive, it’s by dint of their own skill and will.
I know that the titular “grey” refers to the wolves, but I’ve always thought there was a second meaning: it’s the cold sky and the silver clouds that drifts indifferently above the heads of these men that is the true enemy. When they discuss their faith in God or lack thereof, the drillers and Ottway aren’t engaging in a philosophical debate so much as a group prayer. They’re pleading for intervention, one that simply isn’t in the offing.
And yet, the film isn’t dour. Caranhan’s trademark back-and-forth dialogue keeps things from bogging down into dreary despair, even when they’re desperate. Carnahan is again aided by a great cast; Neeson, of course, and his muse Frank Grillo, but also the perennially underrated and under-utilized James Badge Dale. There is comedy and comity even in fate’s cruel tragedies.
Copshop is the second Carnahan picture out this year starring Frank Grillo as a man caught in fate’s deadly grasp; Boss Level was the first and is available on Hulu. I reviewed it here, so I won’t go on at length except to say that, like fellow Hulu release and time-loop picture Palm Springs, it made for excellent COVID-era lockdown viewing. I merely want to highlight that it’s another movie about the power of family: Grillo’s time-stuck Roy Pulver is only saved from repetitive oblivion by sparking a bond with his estranged son and determining to save the boy’s mother from certain death.
All of which is to say that, when looking at the totality of Carnahan’s work and the impetus of so many of the characters in his films from his second feature Narc on, it is not surprising Carnahan and Grillo are vexed that the guy whose motivation involves protecting his family from harm got the guts ripped out of his character by a studio hoping to trim ten or twenty minutes from the run time. Hopefully one day someone will Release the Carnahan/Grillo Cut; lord knows I want to see it. But even if the theatrical release isn’t perfect or exactly what Carnahan and Grillo hoped to see on the big screen, it’s still better than so much of what passes for cinema today that it’s worth checking out.