Frank Grillo with gun

More tightly controlled chaos from Joe Carnahan with Copshop. Following hard on the heels of Boss Level, it’s another display of post-Tarantino buzzsaw brilliance, and again it has Frank Grillo – late to the action party but most welcome – as a badass lead.

Most Carnahan films – The Grey and The A Team being notable exceptions – are like Copshop. The action starts out with a couple of characters doing something fairly preposterous, and then Carnahan widens his net with real skill to incorporate more and more characters, all also doing preposterous, or bad, or mad things, before he finally gets everyone together for a gonzo finale usually involving excessive gunplay and suicidal bravado (cartoon variety). See Narc, Smokin’ Aces and Boss Level for other thoroughly enjoyable instances of the same.

Frank Grillo plays sleek, long-haired mob fixer Teddy Murretto, so in trouble with his paymasters that he’s engineered his way into a prison holding cell by punching a cop. Soon, he’s been joined over the way in another cell by Bob Viddick (Gerard Butler), a hitman who’s used a similar ruse, having passed himself off as a stumbling drunk he’s now close to Teddy, the better to end Teddy’s life asap.

Our eyes and ears on this situation are principled, smart and competent cop Valerie Young, the still centre (it’s all relative) around which Carnahan constructs his interlocking Jenga of mayhem with a choreographer’s skill – a wounded sergeant, a drunk in need of a tracheostomy, a dead DA, a bent cop trying to spirit drugs out of the building, another assassin, more deaths out in the desert at the hands of yet another bad cop, all building towards an Assault on Precinct 13-style finale, except this time the bad guys are inside the cop shop too.

There are fantastic performances here, most notably Alexis Louder as the hero cop – Carnahan had her watch Clint Eastwood movies, and it shows – holding her own against more obviously attention-grabbing turns by Grillo, Butler and, when he eventually turns up for a film-stealing turn as a loquacious psychopath, Toby Huss as Hitman No. 2, Anthony Lamb. “One of male grooming’s greatest misfires,” Lamb quips when he sees Teddy’s hair. Huss also gets the film’s standout action sequence, which involves a 9mm snub-nosed machine gun, some very resistant bulletproof glass and an incredible number of bullets.

Toby Huss as Anthony Lamb
Enter a scene-stealing Toby Huss

This is a movie that goes to bed at night and dreams of the action movies of the 1990s, and DP Juanmi Azpiroz (who also did Boss Level with Carnahan) shoots it full of haze and smoke and blue light whenever there is the slightest excuse, while Clinton Shorter’s soundtrack itches to get out the military snare drums and the “banging door” sound familiar from all those Arnie movies.

Carnahan, Grillo and Butler are all also producers but Butler graciously cedes the star’s limelight to Grillo, who gives it his all as the utterly untrustworthy charmer Teddy, in a role you could also imagine Mickey Rourke in. Maybe it’s the hair.

You absolutely have seen it all before but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable, particularly those beautifully concentrated moments when Carnahan distills the movie down to a glistening essence – like when cop Valerie Young puts a single bullet into her gun, gives the chamber a spin and aims it at Teddy, via a big plate glass window. Truth be told, Carnahan is better at these moments – you might call them a blood-soaked variation on Ozu’s “pillow shots” – than the big action sequences.

Running through it all, well below the surface and not in anyone’s way, is a discussion about who’s the real bad guy here. Mob fixer Teddy. Or hitman Bob. All of which is put into proper perspective once Toby Huss arrives on the scene. Do we need subtext? Not really. The joys of Carnahan’s movies are the joys of the surface. He’s now remaking Gareth Evans’s The Raid. Rubs hands.

Copshop – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Boss Level

Roy puts an opponent to the sword

For those days when you just want something entertaining – Boss Level, a new Joe Carnhan movie that gives us the familiar Carnahan formula, action plus buffoonery, delivered with a deadpan rictus by a new arrival in geri-action heroics – Frank Grillo.

Grillo plays Roy Pulver, a guy who wakes up every day to the same scenario – a “machete wielding asshole” trying to kill him, followed by an encounter with a helicopter gunship, followed by a deadly explosion and a fall from a high window, after which he’s chased down city streets in fast cars by gun-toting bad guys determined to kill him.

That’s if they haven’t already killed him. Because Pulver has lived through this day before and will live through it again. He’s locked inside a Groundhog Day with extreme prejudice, or closer to the mark is the Tom Cruise film Edge of Tomorrow (whose subtitle: Live Die Repeat is the plot of Boss Level), learning as he goes, surviving just a bit longer than he did the day before – wisdom is power etc.

The reasons have to do with a machine that “unmakes” time, developed by the love of his life but now estranged partner, Jemma (Naomi Watts), and owned and wielded by asshole uberlord Colonel Clive Ventor (Mel Gibson). Or at least Ventor thinks he controls it – in fact things are way out of his control and unbeknown to him Jemma has inserted Roy into the machine and… 

Frank Grillo and Mel Gibson
Badass meets bad guy

You don’t need to know, though you might ask yourself the question at one point, how come all these people are after Roy in his die-rinse-repeat life if Ventor hasn’t got wind of something.

No, no, we really don’t need to go there. Instead let’s marvel at Grillo’s abs, which are fab for a guy in his 50s and look like the result of some human growth hormone dare. Grillo is in fact a hugely likeable lead, trying to be cool so hard that you start feel for him. In a brief interchange with his estranged son at a gamer convention (Grillo’s real son Rio making his screen debut), son Joe asks dad Roy if he’s a badass “like Liam Neeson”. Roy laughs at the comparison, and we laugh back, since that’s pretty much the sort of film this is, just with more hardware and a higher bodycount, the “particular set of skills” being the same.

The screenplay – Carnahan plus Chris and Eddie Borey – knows how to write to our prejudices, in other words. Like the slow turnaround intro it gives to Gibson, the sort of thing designed to raise a round of applause or chorus of boos – either way it works as theatre.

There’s a totemic aspec to Gibson too, since Carnahan is the inheritor of all those 1980s cocaine fuelled actioners of the Lethal Weapon sort, and in film after film – like Smokin’ Aces, Stretch and The A Team – has never allowed plausibility to get in the way of a bit of out and out entertainment.

There’s also a debt owed to the trashier side of Tarantino – the esoteric music choices (Badfinger, at one point) and the characters’ tendency to never shut up.

There are good films, there are important films and there are films like this – pure kinetic entertainment with lots of gadgets, lots of action and an understanding that if it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing fast.

Good also to know is that Carnahan’s next film, Cop Shop, is already in post-production, and teams Grillo up with Gerard Butler for what will surely be an artery-clogging knuckle-feast of badassery, and after that Carnahan is taking on a remake of Gareth Evans’s epic action spectacular The Raid.

Boss Level – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Grey

Liam Neeson in The Grey


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



2 July


Amelia Earhart disappears, 1937

On this day in 1937, the pioneering 39-year-old female aviator (aviatrix, if you prefer) disappeared on a flight circumnavigating the globe. Flying around the world can be accomplished by taking a variety of routes (Howard Hughes had “flown around the world” in 1938 by circling the northern hemisphere, and theoretically could be achieved by circling the North or South Pole, a minute’s work), but Earhart was planning to do it the longest way by circling the equator. Earhart had been breaking flying records almost since she had first learnt to fly, in 1920, her first record coming in 1922, when she broke an altitude record for an aviatrix. She had been famous since being part of a transatlantic flight in 1927 and had been dubbed Lady Lindy by the press, who were obsessed with pilot Charles Lindbergh at the time. Earhart was photogenic, and used her fame to win advertising deals, the money from which she used to finance her flying. In August 1928 she became the first woman to fly solo across North America and back. In May 1932 she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Between 1930 and 1935 she also set seven women’s speed and distance records. Her 1937 equatorial circumnavigation was intended to put her in the record books as a pilot first, woman second. Her first attempt stalled at the first leg after an equipment malfunction. Her second attempt, jumping from Oakland, California, to Miami, Florida and then on to South America, Africa, India and South East Asia, had taken her 22,000 miles (35,000km) with only 7,000 miles (11,000km) remaining. Her plane disappeared en route for Howland Island, a speck in the middle of the Pacific. Her plane went down in the Pacific, out of fuel and lost. Her radio signals were being picked up by a US Coast Guard ship, which was responding, but Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan – possibly because they didn’t understand the new radio navigation system – could not hear the ship’s reply, nor its instructions as to the whereabouts of the island. They were only five miles from the island, and were combing the ocean on a north/south line, but lost. In spite of the most expensive air and sea search in history, they were never found.




The Grey (2011, dir: Joe Carnahan)

On his way back to civilisation with a bunch of rowdies he has nothing in common with, a terminally fatalistic/seriously suicidal oil worker greets the fact that the plane he’s on is suddenly in dire trouble with a shrug. “You’re going to die,” the grizzled Ottway (Liam Neeson) tells a shit scared co-worker, “it will feel warm.” Director/co-writer Joe Carnahan then treats us to one of those intensely realistic air crashes that Hollywood has become adept at staging (Lost, Flight, United 93) – all chaos and panic, stuff dangling all over the place – and, boom, we’re on the ground, in the snow, with dead people scattered about. The survivors crawl out of the wreckage, only gradually realising that they’ve miraculously survived falling thousands of feet out of the sky only to die down here on the ground in the freezing cold, as they’re picked off one by one by a ravening pack of wolves who have smelt the mayhem and arrived to pick up some takeaway.
The prologue over, The Grey then settles down for the long haul, a cat and mouse movie using wolves and humans. If it’s Jaws with a pack-mentality foe, then Ottway is its Quint, a dead-eyed loner who is useless in normal situations where social niceties are required. But give him danger… And like Quint, Ottway’s strength is derived from the fact that he isn’t afraid to die, might even welcome it in fact. The strength of The Grey derives in part from the fact that we already know this, it’s been told to us just before and during the opening plane-crash sequence which at the time – since it was so lavish and well choreographed – looked like being what the film was all about. This piece of dramatic blind-siding really pays off as we enter this second, snowy phase of the film and Ottway and co are trying to survive while the wolves circle.
Don’t look at the wolves too closely. For some reason Hollywood seems stuck on the American Werewolf in London moodboard when it comes to depictions of our lupine friends. Instead watch the men, who we are introduced to individually, as in a war film, as they voice hopes and fears, talk about the big questions, as people tend to do in the movies when they’re faced with their own extinction. Personally, I could do without the gigantic drops into sentimentality which seem to act as punctuations between the more thoughtful disquisitions, and I’m not one of those people who think this is one of the best films of its year. But The Grey is a very good existential B movie – tight, lean, simple, gripping, and it keeps us hanging on till the end, speculating as to how long Ottway’s suicidal energy is going to act as a force field around him, wondering who’s going to die next. When. How. Right to the very last shot. Watch to the very end of the credits, in other words. Nicely done.



Why Watch?


  • One of Neeson’s great “geri-action” roles
  • Masanobu Takayanagi’s impressive cinematography
  • A barely recognisable Dermot Mulroney
  • Those unforgiving British Columbia (standing in for Alaska) locations


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Grey – Watch it now at Amazon





Smokin’ Aces

Alicia Keys in Smokin' Aces



For anyone who gets confused between Ben Affleck and Ryan Reynolds, Joe (Narc) Carnahan’s latest feast of bang-bang macho will be very bewildering indeed, since they’re both in it. But then bewilderment seems to be what Smokin’ Aces is about. The hip-feast is built around Jeremy Piven, playing Buddy “Aces” Israel, a Las Vegas showman and stool pigeon whose decision to turn state’s evidence has signed his death warrant. Enter just about everybody else – either part of his close-knit retinue, part of the FBI team trying to protect him, one of the mob out to get him, or one of the other guys who also, confusingly, seem out to get him. Girls too, not just guys, since it’s Alicia Keys and Taraji Henson – a faintly lesbionic duo – who get some of the best of the weapons-assist screentime. It’s a busy, touchingly old-fashioned drama – the whiplash Guy Ritchie camera trickery, the timewasting, jivetalking Tarantino dialogue. If you’re watching at home the subtitles make things a lot more easy to follow, though the plot is still verging on the impenetrable – someone’s been reading Raymond Chandler, obviously. And how about Andy Garcia and Ray Liotta as cops? Carnahan is clearly having a laugh. I entirely enjoyed it. But then I was watching this live-action cartoon with one eye shut.

© Steve Morrissey 2006


Smokin’ Aces – at Amazon