Watching the first five minutes of "Narc" was like watching a firecracker go off. A visceral, disturbing hand-held chase sequence featuring an unrecognizable Jason Patric chasing down a junkie was one of the most indelible opening sequences of the last decade. While the rest of the film didn't quite live up to it, the film was a way-above-average police procedural featuring a career-best performance from a bear-like Ray Liotta. It seemed to mark the arrival of a major new filmmaking talent backed up by "Ticker," his excellent short for BMW films starring Clive Owen. The problem was Carnahan had already arrived and we hadn't taken notice. "Narc" alerted us to his presence, but perhaps his true colors were already displayed in the sub-Tarantino "Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane" flick that we didn't even bother with when it hit in 1998. But "Narc" gave us plenty of hope.
However, since then, Carnahan has deeply disappointed us; "Smokin' Aces" took a strong cast and put them in a muddled, sub-Guy-Ritchie shoot-em-up, while "The A-Team" seems to see Carnahan channeling his inner Dominic Sena. But what of the projects that have fallen by the wayside, all of which seemed far more interesting than this weekend's TV adaptation?
Sure, the world loves it when a plan comes together and Joe Carnahan's "A-Team" wasn't that bad (ok, it gave one of us a headache, but it had some entertaining charms). And yes, we understand the filmmaker may not have had much choice, the passion projects he really wanted to make, many listed here, pretty much fell apart without his control, but did he really have to helm a feature-length version of a pretty mediocre '80s TV show that didn't even break the coveted 100 episodes mark? Below are five films that Carnahan was at one stage set to direct, and that we rather wish he had.
While legendary drug dealer Pablo Escobar's principle portrayal in Hollywood has been as the subject of the disastrous biopic-within-a-TV-show "Medellin" in "Entourage," Carnahan's been working to adapt "Black Hawk Down" author Mark Bowden's book "Killing Pablo" for years. The non-fiction work focuses on the attempts by the U.S. and Colombian military, as well as rival cartels, to take down Escobar, the Colombian dealer/terrorist who at one stage was estimated to be the seventh richest man in the world and controlled 80% of the global cocaine market. Carnahan set up the project with Javier Bardem attached since 2003 as Escobar and Christian Bale to play Major Steve Jacoby, who leads the U.S. efforts in Carnahan's script. The project was initially set up in 2003 at DreamWorks and Paramount, but was delayed as Carnahan took on his various other projects. After "Bunny Lake Is Missing" collapsed in 2007, the door seemed clear with the Bob Yari Group set to finance. Carnahan spoke about shooting the project digitally, possibly on the Red camera (as used on "Che" and "District 9"), and even received the backing of Escobar's son. Bardem dropped out of the project after his Oscar win in early 2008, but Carnahan swiftly replaced him with Edgar Ramirez ("The Bourne Ultimatum"; Antoine Fuqua had a dueling project named "Escobar" that Ramirez was also rumored to be a part of at one time with Oliver Stone producing). Unfortunately, when Yari Film Group filed for bankruptcy at the end of 2008, the project was stalled and Carnahan moved on to "The A-Team." A recent interview suggests that he was still keen to direct it if the opportunity arose, and we hope he gets around to it at some stage; the widely circulated script (which Carnahan himself posted on his now defunct blog) is a good piece of work.
"Bunny Lake Is Missing"
Remaking the classic Otto Preminger psychological thriller about a young woman who reports that her daughter (the titular Bunny Lake) is missing, only to be confronted by charges that she never existed might not have been Carnahan's brightest ideas ever, but at least he recognized why the project would have been a growth step he has yet to take. "I thought I was taking myself out of my comfort zone and doing a film with a really strong female lead and a little girl, and understanding that dynamic and challenging myself," he said in retrospect earlier this year. Carnahan was about to make the picture, but its star Reese Witherspoon pulled out only five weeks before filming was supposed to start in March 2007. The financiers were said to be scrambling to find a new lead, but considering Witherspoon's Type A Productions were the actual producers the project was waylaid with near insurmountable problems the minute she walked (Carnahan also ditched his manager right after... who also coincidentally managed someone named Reese Witherspoon). The script was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright who wrote Phil Kaufman's "Quills," and has penned the George Gershwin biopic that Steven Spielberg may or may not make. "Bunny Lake was a kind of time and place [situation]," Carnahan said. "It was one of those things that, in the end, I'm glad didn't move forward because in hindsight I think it would have probably been a mistake." Still, flawed or not, it would have been nice to see Carnahan flex some different types of muscles that we're now not completely sure he even possesses. At the very least it would have been amusing to see what modern band would have stood in for the gratuitous appearance of The Zombies in the original (Best case scenario: Spoon, worst case: Maroon 5).
The final installment of James Ellroy's celebrated L.A. Quartet, this spiritual sequel to "L.A. Confidential" seemed to be a good fit for Carnahan when he was tipped for the project in the spring of 2006. With an adaptation penned by his brother Matthew Carnahan and a cast led by George Clooney, the film promised to be Carnahan's most high profile yet (it should be noted, he spent 15 months before "Smokin' Aces" and "White Jazz" working on "Mission: Impossible III" before leaving the project). In typically, morally complex Ellroy fashion the story, set in the late 1950s, follows Lieutenant David Klein, a policeman who just also happens to be a mob hitman who uncovers a string of police corruption going back decades. The project was an exciting and an easy awards season contender but alas, it was not to be. Just before the writer's strike in 2007, Clooney suffered a freak motorcycle accident that pretty much pulled him out of most of his commitments at the time. Perhaps smelling blood in the water, and a more paycheck friendly gig, co-star Chris Pine jumped ship too, joining the then gestating "Star Trek." In an email to the LA Times, Carnahan said he couldn't wait for Clooney who still also had commitments to "Leatherheads" and "Burn After Reading" saying, "I feel like I've waited a long time to make that film and wasn't content to wait any longer. With the possibility of a strike looming, it makes it all the more urgent to get 'White Jazz' going so I can move on to 'Killing Pablo' and some other projects that I've been waiting quite a while to make as well." He then added, "I've got a couple of options in terms of other actors that I am completely over the moon for. " Those actors never materialized and with the strike looming, all projects that weren't near a camera-ready state were put on hold. And it's been that way ever since. Even though in 2009, James Ellroy seemed to put the nail in the coffin of the project saying, "White Jazz is dead. All movie adaptations of my books are dead," the project is in fact still alive. Buried in an April 2010 Variety story is a throwaway line that Clark Peterson is still producing the project, which according to IMDB, is still set with Cherry Road Film. Warner Bros. are not involved at this point, and whether Carnahan will give it another crack or not remains to be seen, but we doubt it. Ellroy has mostly had bad experiences with adaptations of his book, and he went on record saying he hated "Smokin' Aces," so don't see Carnahan being given a second chance. But man, without the writer's strike and Clooney's accident, we were this close to a Clooney/Pine gritty procedural, and how awesome would that have been?
"A Walk Among The Tombstones"
Potentially, with "Morning Glory" and "Cowboys and Aliens," it seems as if Harrison Ford might be awakening from a quarter-century-long slumber, and actually give a vaguely engaged performance. But the last decade of the star's career could have been very different if he'd followed though with his plan to team with Carnahan for "A Walk Among The Tombstones." Back in 2002, Ford saw "Narc," and fresh from losing his nerve with Soderbergh's "Traffic," immediately approached Carnahan to helm the adaptation of Lawrence Block's thriller, which Scott Frank was writing for Ford to star in. The book is one of the author's Matthew Scudder novels, focusing on an ex-cop turned not-quite private eye. It sounds like an incredibly generic set-up but the plot, featuring Scudder being hired by a drug dealer to find the men who kidnapped and killed his wife is gripping, and the execution is outstanding. Frank's always been one of the best mainstream writers in Hollywood, but "A Walk Among The Tombstones" was probably his grimmest, most uncompromising piece of work to date, but still one with a real love and understanding of its characters. It wouldn't have been a huge stretch for Carnahan, but he could have nailed it with his eyes closed. It seems that ultimately, Ford bottled it again; Scott Frank told Suicide Girls that the star "chickened out" and that "he said his customers wouldn't want to see him in something like this, to which I would argue I'm not sure he has the same customers that he once had." Instead, we were stuck with "Firewall" from Ford, and "Smokin' Aces" from Carnahan...
"Mission Impossible 3"
J.J. Abrams' "Mission Impossible 3" was, you know, fine. Not terrible, not particularly exciting, outside Philip Seymour Hoffman's villainous performance. Abrams was by no means the first director on the project; David Fincher had originally been set to helm a script that focused on African black market organ trading. In between the two, Carnahan spent 15 months prepping to shoot his version, only to leave a month before filming was meant to have started. Intended to be a grittier "punk rock" take on the series, the script was co-written by Dan Gilroy ("The Fall"), although Frank Darabont was also brought on board for a punch-up. Like Fincher's script, this take was also set in Africa, but instead focused on a private army, propping up a despotic government in Sierra Leone and run by a character based on Tim Spicer, head of controversial PMC Sandline. The character would have been played by Kenneth Branagh, with Carrie-Anne Moss and Scarlett Johansson as Cruise's colleagues, and shooting was set to take place in Antwerp, Prague, Berlin and Ghana for a 2005 release. Unfortunately at the last minute, the plug was pulled due to the ever-popular creative differences. It's unclear whether it was Paramount or Tom Cruise that got cold feet over the new darker direction, but it seems like it would have been a braver, better movie than Abrams' one, at the very least.
Bonus Film: The Will Wright Project
OK, you think there was just five films? Nope. No one remembers this, but in 2005, Carnahan signed on to direct a film about Will Wright, a real-life high school prodigy who at 17 was the catalyst for a $70 million narcotics empire. Joseph F. Alexandre ("Real Casino") was supposed to write and we seriously have no clue what happened to this project. A quintessential overachieving teen, the National Merit scholar was drafted by the Seattle Mariners at one point, but Federal agents caught him in a sting operation revealing him to be the braintrust of an international money-laundering and drug ring enterprise. The project was basically ripped straight from the headlines.
Next for Carnahan is a project we can get behind called "The Grey." It stars Bradley Cooper and probably shoots in the fall (according to recent Production Weekly reports) with a $35 million dollar budget and centers on survivors of plane crash who are then hunted by a pack of wolves. "It's very much a man vs. nature adventure, existentialist kind of drama that I want to do," Carnahan said earlier this year. He's also recently expressed interest in adapting the graphic novel "The Preacher" that Sam Mendes was once attached to and an adaptation of Marvel Comics' Taskmaster character, but that one honestly feels a little far fetched as no one knows that character outside of hardcore Marvel fans and it seems doubtful that Marvel would greenlight an entire film around that mostly-unknown character. He's also wanted to make a "Juggernaut" film during the height of the "X-Men" days and recently discussed it again, but a solo picture for that Brotherhood of Evil character also seems doubtful. Let's hope there's some true redemption in "The Grey" because it sounds raw and visceral, just the way we like it. — with contributions by Kevin Jagernauth