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A Chat with Joe Carnahan, director of “The A-Team”

Writer-director Joe Carnahan is proud of his latest film, a beyond tongue-in-cheek 2010 remounting of the 1980′s TV favorite, “The A-Team.” Available on a brand new, extras-laden DVD and Blu-Ray edition, the actioner stars Liam Neeson as A-Team leader Hannibal Smith, with backing by Bradley Cooper as the suave “Faceman” Peck, Sharlto Copley as the mildly insane H.M. Murdock and mixed martial artist Quinton “Rampage” Jackson as the Mohawk-wearing B.A. Baracus.

Jessica Biel is also along for the ride as DCIS Sosa, Faceman’s by-the-book military investigator ex-girlfriend. The story, such as it is, is fully eclipsed by a mix of preposterous stunts and CGI heavy effects and a jackhammer sensibility that is, like it or not, proudly over the top and unashamedly silly.

A former maker of promotional films and videos for a Sacramento TV station, Carnahan’s first feature was 1998′s “Blood, Guts, Bullets, and Octane,” a crime-suspense black comedy that co-starred Carnahan as a desperate used car dealer getting in way over his head with some extremely dangerous characters. The film, low on finesse but big on Mamet-esque macho verbal energy, was notable enough to break through the enormous Tarantino-Guy-Ritchie fatigue that made making almost any kind of independent crime film a questionable proposition throughout the 1990s.

Carnahan’s 2002 studio debut was the grimly serious “Narc,” starring Jason Patric and Ray Liotta. Big on style and terribly unsubtle, the dark procedural nevertheless earned lots of good reviews. That was followed in 2007 by the all-star action black comedy, “Smokin’ Aces.” The grosses were higher, but the Rotten Tomatoes rating was much lower.

Joe Carnahan’s bombastic ways as a filmmaker are matched at times by what reads as a rather pugilistic verbal style when it comes to critics who dislike his style and reporters who harp on less than enormous grosses. As someone who is yet to be won over by any of his films — though “Blood, Guts” has its share of low-fi charms — I was a little concerned about meeting him.

Watching Carnahan introduce a number of clips from the Blu-Ray special features for “The A-Team,” however, he came across as much more of more a teddy bear than a grizzly. In our interview, he won me over with news about some long incubating projects, a bit of sincere sounding film geekiness, his clear interest in branching out creatively and, most importantly, the fact that he’s my only interview subject so far to admit to visiting our sister site Bullz-Eye — which, I’m sure, he looks at only for our thoughtful prose.

“I’m on the Internet far too much,” he admitted, adding cheerfully, “just looking through academic articles!”

Never let it be said that Joe Carnahan is lacking in manly virtues and/or vices.

Premium Hollywood: Speaking of manliness, there’s a line in “The A-Team”: “Overkill is underrated.”

Joe Carnahan: Yes.

PH: This seems like a pretty good watchword for your career and your approach to making movies.

JC: Right. I think I’ve been perhaps unduly typecast as a guy who likes to hyper-edit and so on. I certainly have a style, but this kind of thing will always cancel out [other things]. There was a five minute tracking shot in “Narc” that was nothing but Ray Liotta talking, but nobody ever mentions that stuff. Listen, it was certainly the call to arms for this movie, “Overkill is underrated.” I did it as a thesis, as a joke. It’s the aside to the audience that says that we know it’s a lot, we know it’s overblown and overinflated, that’s the point of this little bon-mot here, this little movie.

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The 10 Most Memorable Reasons to Mourn Stephen J. Cannell

I had thought about suggesting that TV fans turn their sets off for an hour tonight as a tribute to the legacy of Stephen J. Cannell, who passed away yesterday as a result of complications associated with melanoma, but since I don’t think it’s possible for an hour to go by without one of his shows airing somewhere on your dial, I’m sure he’d much rather you watch his work than mourn his loss. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I sat back and took stock of just how much Cannell had contributed both to my childhood and my teenage years. I mean, my God, you hate to overuse the word “ubiquitous,” but if you look at how many times his name turns up in the credits of series which are considered to be staples of the 1970s and 1980s, you realize that you couldn’t turn around without hitting a series that he had either created or co-created.

Here are the 10 series from Stephen J. Cannell’s body of work that I’ll continue to enjoy ’til…well, ’til I join Stephen J. Cannell. If I’ve left out one of your favorites, be sure to cite it in the comments section.

10. Baa Baa Black Sheep (1976 – 1978): Based on the experiences of USMC flyboy Pappy Boyington and his “Black Sheep Squadron” during World War II, I couldn’t have cared less about this series when it was originally on the air, but it was required viewing for my father. Later, I realized that the man who played Pappy was the same guy who’d been kicking ass as James T. West on “The Wild Wild West” – Robert Conrad – and decided to give the show a chance. I don’t know if it was as historically accurate as it was probably supposed to be, but it proved that Conrad could even make WWII cool.

9. Baretta (1975 – 1978): Obviously, Robert Blake’s subsequent shenanigans in his personal life has tarnished his reputation as an actor, especially since there’s now an entire generation who only knows him for his work on Court TV, but in his day, Baretta was a full-fledged bad-ass…and so, for that matter, was his theme song.

8. Hardcastle and McCormick (1983 – 1986): The only thing that screams “the ’80s” more than McCormick’s car is the theme song, but Brian Keith and Daniel Hugh Kelly had good chemistry, and Keith helped set the decade’s industry standard for curmudgeonly characters.

7. Tenspeed and Brownshoe (1980): So, wait, which one’s Brownshoe again? You won’t believe how young Jeff Goldblum looks in this show, but if you’ve ever wondered where he honed the neurotic characteristics that have come to define his performances, look no further. Again, Cannell had an eye for chemistry. Who else would’ve imagined that Goldblum and Ben Vereen would work so well together?

6. Riptide (1983 – 1986): It’s the robot, right? Chicks dig the robot. Cody and Nick were cool, sure, but looking back on the show now, Tom Bray’s performance as Boz helped to define the concept of “geek chic.”

5. 21 Jump Street (1987 – 1991): A lot of people only think of “Jump Street” in terms of having been the show that really gave Johnny Depp his start, but let us not forget that, thanks to Richard Grieco, we were also blessed with the awesomeness that is “Booker.” Okay, actually, maybe we should just focus on Johnny Depp.

4. Wiseguy (1987 – 1990): The first season is nearly untouchable. Too bad we’ll probably never get the opportunity enjoy a non-bootleg version of Season 2′s “Dead Dog Records” storyline, which featured Tim Curry, Debbie Harry, and Glenn Frey. Damned music rights…

3. The Greatest American Hero (1981 – 1983): God bless William Katt, but the real heroes of this show were Robert Culp – Bill Maxwell is the FBI agent that actual FBI agents wish they could act like – and Joey Scarbury, who crooned the most insidiously catchy theme song of the decade.

2. The A-Team (1983 – 1987): Personally, I kinda liked the movie. But you can’t go wrong with the unbridled cheesy action of the original series.

1. The Rockford Files (1974 – 1980): Half-credit, of course, goes to co-creator Roy Huggins, whose success with James Garner on “Maverick” no doubt helped convince him to do the series in the first place, but there are virtually no one-man detective series on television today that don’t owe some degree of their success to the road paved by Jim Rockford. It might not be the single best show of the 1970s, but there are precious few from the decade that hold up as well.

And, of course, there’s no other way we could possibly close this piece:

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It’s tougher, it’s darker — of course, it’s better!

Once upon a time, the movies used to take properties from other fields, plays and novels mainly, and clean them for the nation’s theaters, removing excess sexuality and violence until, sometimes, what was left made almost no sense at all. Couples who lived “in sin” found themselves with marriage licenses or merely dating, soldiers and prison inmates never cursed but were occasionally permitted to use poor grammar, gay characters went straight — and, in the case of the great noir thriller, “Crossfire,” became Jewish into the bargain — and so it went.

More recently, the trend has been to either completely send something up or to darken it and make it more “real,” as if darkness and reality were identical. (Closer, maybe, but not identical.) Still, we can rest assured that, like “The A-Team,” the proposed movie version of “The Equalizer” with Russell Crowe will be a gazillion times more violent than the television series it was based on — and I’m just talking about the moment when Crowe finds craft services forgot to provide that brand of organic ketchup he really likes. Heck, even the 100% inevitable sequel to “The Karate Kid” will surely be darker than the first because, you know, this time, he’s pubescent!

Still, as the studios grow so desperate for a hit that some, perhaps, might be willing to consider making something not fully recycled, there’s always someone willing to take a property in the darker direction it really needs to go. Who cares if the core audience is under five? Someone’s got to show those goldbricking preschoolers the way the world really is. Are you with me? Well, Rob Bricken (who gets the h/t) and the creative semi-geniuses of It’s Not a Book get it. See the future of cinema, below.

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The box office kung-fu of “The Karate Kid” proves strong; “The A-Team” does B-grade business

It’s probably not a completely original thought of mine and it’s obviously a vast oversimplification, but it’s always seemed to me that what audiences really seem to want is more of the same, but different. If something is too unfamiliar, only a limited portion of viewers will be adventurous enough to try out a brand new movie flavor. If it’s too familiar, on the other hand, it’s kind of a bore, at best.

That formula has apparently been in full effect this weekend as a film which put a few gentle twists on a very familiar property prospered at the box office. A second movie — in terms of marketing, at any rate — was an apparent carbon copy of its source material, notwithstanding a new cast, more violence, and a bigger budget (too much bigger, probably). That film will prove vastly less profitable, at best.

Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith in

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Eighties redos to battle at the box office

Karate_Kid_2010_Jackie_Chan_Jaden_Smith

I’m severely limited for time — and more than a bit tired after a busy and reasonably productive day — so this may be one of my shortest box office preview posts.

This week’s two major new releases are reboots of properties remembered fondly by many children of the 1980s, “The A-Team” and “The Karate Kid.” Both movies have been supplied with some well known names, Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan for the former and Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, and Jessica Biel for the latter.

Jolly Carl DiOrio doesn’t go so far as to predict which film will emerge on top, with both having some fairly obvious broad appeal. I’ll say that my personal hunch is that Sony’s “Kid” will take the lead because, with a PG rating, it’s definitely more of a family film than the more violent and adult-oriented PG-13 “A-Team” from Fox. The martial arts flick also would seem to have more appeal for female audience members for similar reasons. It certainly seems extremely likely, in any case, that “Kid” will be the more profitable film by far, as we’re led to believe it cost $40 million, while the Joe Carnahan directed “Team” cost something more like $95 million. Both movies got mixed-to-meh reviews at “Rotten Tomatoes.”

Will these action flicks rescue Hollywood from the box office blahs? All I know is that I have no strong desire to see either of them and I’m not sure Hollywood deserves any better than its getting. In fact, without having seen these new movies, I feel safe in assuring anyone reading this that, if you’re at all open to them, you’ll be vastly more entertained by renting almost any of Jackie Chan’s amazing eighties and nineties Hong Kong films. I know I’d really like to see “Project A, Part II” — an ingenious slapstick comedy adventure — or any of the “Supercop” movies again soon. Like, right now.

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