Director Louis Leterrier and writer/actor Sacha Baron Cohen are two men who have made very different films and whose careers have taken very different paths, but nonetheless their individual journeys have led them both to a crossroads that is seeing them team up to do a movie together.
The news comes from Variety, who reports that Leterrier has signed on to direct an action-comedy about a secret agent that Cohen and Phil Johnston sold as a pitch to Paramount last August. The film is called Grimsby, and it’s said to be about a black ops agent who is forced to go on the lam alongside his long lost brother, who happens to be a rowdy soccer hooligan from the north of England (one has to wonder which role was written for Cohen). In order to understand why this pairing could be crucial in deciding where Leterrier and Cohen’s careers go from this point forward, one must first take a look at where they’ve been.
A Frenchman of masculine interests, Leterrier started off his career directing action scripts for once respected filmmaker/longtime peddler of explosion schlock Luc Besson. These were humble beginnings for a director of feature film that didn’t come loaded with any huge expectations. As a matter of fact, if Leterrier had continued along the path of making semi-anonymous films where cars crashed and guns fired, nobody would have been very surprised, and nobody would have had any complaints.
A funny thing happened once Leterrier started making bigger budget ventures (The Incredible Hulk, Clash of the Titans) for the studios though. His movies started making money, a lot of money, and seeing as he’s recently had a rare financial success stemming from an original property in Now You See Me, he’s now been put in the exclusive position of becoming a director who studios are going to be seeking out and who they’re going to be willing to take a chance on.
Cohen’s career has moved in the opposite direction. After breaking in the States thanks to his Channel 4 series Da Ali G Show being picked up for a set-in-America version of the show by HBO, he made a real splash by spinning one of his popular characters from that series, Borat, off into the 2006 feature film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Not only was Borat a huge financial success, but it was also wickedly funny and edgy in its boundary-pushing humor, and the way Cohen immersed himself fully into his characters and threw them into sometimes dangerous real-life situations in order to create laughs had many pegging him as an important creative force who would be fascinating to watch develop.
A funny thing happened once Cohen spun off the other side character from Da Ali G Show, Brüno, into his own feature film in 2009 though. His schtick proved to work under a law of diminishing returns. Brüno made far less money and contained far fewer laughs than Borat, and suddenly it was looking like the bloom might be off of the Sacha Baron Cohen rose. These suspicions were confirmed when Cohen once again used his half staged pranks/half scripted drama approach to bring a new character to the screen in 2012’s The Dictator. That film was just painfully unfunny and generally uncomfortable to sit through, and it didn’t end up making even half of what Borat pulled in over all.
So here we have an interesting pairing of a writer/actor who has lost a bit of his luster and is likely desperate to create a hit so that his career as a star of his own original scripts can continue unabated, and a director who has recently reached the peak of his success and could probably fully solidify himself as an A-lister with a significant amount of freedom to do whatever he wants with big studio budgets should he prove capable of shepherding yet another original screenplay to profitability. It would seem that both Cohen and Leterrier have quite a bit riding on whether or not Grimsby becomes a success with audiences.
Given the high stakes involved and the contrasting styles of these two creative talents, it will be interesting to see which direction their new venture is planned to go in. The best thing about comedies, and particularly the sort of guerrilla comedies that Cohen makes, is that the potential to see big box office returns on a project that started off with a fairly small budget is huge. But seeing as Cohen’s signature blending of fantasy and reality is an approach that’s been working for him less and less reliably, the pressure to support his gags with a little bit of spectacle might be weighing on him. The very hiring of a director with as much action and blockbuster experience as Leterrier suggests the idea that Grimsby could see the comedian looking to make a movie that will involve him stepping out of his creative wheelhouse. And the taking on of a script that has comedic elements is clearly going to be a break in the usual routine of Leterrier, who has only made self-serious thrillers to this point. How much of this supposed action-comedy is going to consist of action, and how much is going to consist of comedy? Can Cohen even pull off action? Can Leterrier pull off comedy? And what sort of numbers is this out-there-sounding production going to have to generate at the box office in order to be considered a success?
If there’s one little tidbit of information in the Variety report that makes it seem like this could be a project that proves to be something special instead of just being a strange risk for two talents who would very much like to make a hit right now to take, it’s the insinuation that Leterrier has been aggressively pursuing this job ever since he wrapped up work on Now You See Me. Not only does his interest indicate that he does indeed have some sort of predilection toward working in comedy, but it also indicates that Cohen might be doing the best creative work here that he’s produced since Borat. After Now You See Me became a surprise hit, one would have to imagine that there were quite a few offers that were being sent Leterrier’s way, and it’s telling that this is the one he set his heart on right away. Hopefully Grimsby proves to be the perfect vehicle for both men to showcase the talents they’ve only hinted at to this point. A good action-comedy is hard to beat as far as crowd pleasers go, and we film fans could always use another one to add to our rotation of feel good films.