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D: Joe Carnahan / 94m

Cast: Patrick Wilson, Chris Pine, Ed Helms, James Badge Dale, Brooklyn Decker, Jessica Alba, Shaun Toub, Randy Couture, Matthew Willig, Ben Bray, David Hasselhoff, Ray Liotta, Norman Reedus

Following the unexpected break up of his relationship with the love of his life, Candace (Decker), would-be actor and ex-cocaine and gambling addict Stretch (Wilson) turns to limo driving to make ends meet. With his life coasting along in neutral, it comes as a shock when one day a gambling debt he thought had lapsed, is taken over by Ignacio (Bray), who wants payment by midnight of the same day. With little chance of coming up with the $6,000 he owes, Stretch convinces one of his co-workers, Charlie (Alba), to steer any high-paying customers his way during the evening, in the hope that he’ll earn enough in tips to pay off Ignacio.

With his boss Naseem (Toub) worried about a rival limo company run by the mysterious Jovi (Couture), Stretch sees his first pick-up, David Hasselhoff, persuaded to go with the Jovi. In an attempt at getting his own back, Stretch gets to the Jovi’s next client, Ray Liotta, first. Picking him up from a movie set, Liotta leaves with a prop gun and fake police I.D., but insists that Stretch return them to the studio. Before he can do so, Charlie sets him up with another client, an eccentric businessman called Roger Karos (Pine). Knowing that he’s a renowned big tipper, Stretch tells Karos about his gambling debt; Karos agrees to tip Stretch that amount if he takes him wherever he wants to go.

“Wherever” turns out to be a secret sex club. When they get there, Karos gives Stretch a task: to visit another club, see a Frenchman called Laurent (Dale) and obtain a specific briefcase, plus locate a supply of cocaine, and all within one hundred minutes – without fail. But Laurent is expecting Karos to hand over some ledgers in exchange for the briefcase (which contains a lot of money). Using Ray Liotta’s fake police I.D., Stretch bluffs his way out of the club with the briefcase, and by chance runs into Candace. Without batting an eyelid he tells her he’s doing really well and when she shows a renewed interest in him, Stretch turns her down flat.

He gets hold of some cocaine but the limo gets stolen. With the briefcase hidden inside it, he tracks it down, only for it to be towed by the Jovi’s brother, Boris (Willig). Stretch manages to get the limo back and returns to pick up Karos. But Karos reneges on his deal to pay Stretch the $6,000, saying he was a minute late in returning to collect him. So when Ignacio calls demanding the money, Stretch tells him to meet him where Karos wants to go next. But when they all meet up, Stretch’s plans go awry when the Jovi appears and Karos hands Stretch over to him.

Stretch - scene

You know, a funny thing happened on the way to the box office…

Stretch was originally scheduled for release in March 2014, but with two months to go, Universal scrapped the release and allowed producer Jason Blum to offer the movie to other distributors. But no one picked it up, and it came back to Universal. Eventually the movie was released on iTunes and Amazon.com, and VOD, in October 2014. Which begs the question, if Universal were so eager to disown it, then just how bad a movie is it?

The answer is: not that bad. It is rough and ready though, and often threatens to disappear up its own backside by trying to be edgy and complicated, but on the whole Joe Carnahan’s blackly comic limo ride is a bit of a guilty pleasure. He’s helped immensely by the casting of Wilson in the title role, his resigned, long-suffering features put to excellent use throughout as Stretch manoeuvres his way through the kind of night that only happens to characters in the movies. It’s Scorsese’s After Hours (1985) given a more modern sensibility and with a higher absurdity quotient.

It does, however, take an age to get going. It’s not until Ray Liotta’s dropped off at his hotel that the movie begins to move up a gear, and Stretch’s evening really starts to fall apart. Up until then we’re treated to too many scenes that show just how much his life sucks, and how everything he tries never quite works out how he needs it to. By the third or fourth example we get the idea, but Carnahan isn’t finished, and Stretch’s humiliation continues, right up until the moment he cons the briefcase from Laurent. From then on he begins to fight back – against Naseem, the Jovi and Boris, Ignacio, and Karos. It’s great to see this particular worm turning, and Wilson’s unprotesting features change to reflect the smug satisfaction Stretch begins to experience as he turns the tables on everyone. It’s a winning performance, and one that makes the viewer root for Stretch at every turn.

Wilson is the calm centre at the midst of what is an otherwise wild and wacky tale of male empowerment gone AWOL, but more than holds his own when up against the feverish performance given by an uncredited Pine. Sporting a bushy hairstyle and beard, and making his appearance semi-naked in a parachute, Pine gives such a larger than life performance it’s almost as if he’s been given carte blanche by Carnahan to do and say whatever he wants (such as setting fire to the inside of the limo, or punching himself in the face for “clarity”). Luckily, he’s not so over-the-top that he proves too much of a distraction, but when he isn’t on screen, his absence is palpable; full marks to Carnahan then for not over-relying on him, or letting the character take over.

But while Wilson and Pine have fun with their roles, fun that translates as unwavering commitment in front of the camera, spare a thought for poor Ed Helms, saddled with playing Karl, the ghost of an ex-limo driver. The script requires him to pop up at odd moments and either point out Stretch’s failings, or pass comment on the action. He’s meant to be a source of humour, and Helms plays him that way, but alas nobody thought to tell Carnahan, who provides him with some of the most awkward dialogue this side of a later entry in the Saw series. To compensate, though, the cameos – from Hasselhoff, Liotta, Shaun White, and Norman Reedus – are all hilarious (especially Reedus’s).

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With the movie pushing credibility further and further under the wheels of absurdity, Stretch often comes perilously close to derailing, but at each crazy turn Carnahan reins it in and finds some plausibility – however weak – from somewhere, and the movie carries on regardless. It’s a movie that comes self-contained and relies on its own twisted logic to work, and  for the most part, that’s exactly what happens: it works. There’s a romantic sub-plot involving Stretch and a woman he’s met online, plus the whole running-scared-of-the-Jovi-and-his-brother routine, and they add nicely to the mix, adding some small amount of depth to the story and providing some secondary amusement.

If its’ all a little too far-fetched then it’s to be expected. And though being a little far-fetched doesn’t necessarily hurt the movie, it does raise that question again: just what bee had gotten into Universal’s bonnet? Because from here, Carnahan’s crazy thrill ride has a lot to offer once that shaky start has passed.

Rating: 7/10 – with a very slow start leading eventually to all sorts of comic encounters and dialogue – “I’m sorry, I didn’t see the light.” “Well, don’t go towards it now.” – Stretch is an imperfect but still hugely enjoyable comedy-thriller; best viewed with any expectations dialled down so that it can (again eventually) surprise you and make you glad you watched it.