Reviewed by Sam Hatch
Critics weren't permitted to attend any of the promotional screenings for this, the newest Jason Statham action vehicle. Of course this tact was is in the hopes of stemming scores of negative reviews that might queer opening weekend box office receipts. But filling that absence of movie reviews is a loud, clear message direct from the film studio - they think their own film stinks. There's been a lot of 'critical' backlash as of late, and there have been many a cry of 'foul!' when it comes to B-grade action or horror films. My cohost Kevin was recently dismayed to read Samuel L. Jackson in Entertainment Weekly bemoaning the fact that critics just don't 'get' films like Snakes on a Plane and Hostel. Coincidentally, the latter was number one on both mine and Kevin's half-year 'best-of' lists. Then again, we're not your usual film critics. We're much, much handsomer.
So back to Crank, it avoided a critical backlash and did respectable business on opening weekend. All of the critics stepped out to review it with the general public, and guess what? They got the joke, and they loved it! So this time around the studio has underestimated all parties involved, and shame on them for being ashamed of their own product.
Crank is the brainchild of special effects artists Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (credited simply as Neveldine and Taylor), who have come out of nowhere (aside from effects work on Biker Boyz) with this monster trip of a story. Statham is an athlete turned actor who in his post-Guy Ritchie roles has managed to explode in popularity as an action star thanks to The Italian Job and The Transporter franchise. He's witty, bad-ass and the accent adds an element of cool. The Jason Statham action genre is like an alternate universe wherein Jean Claude Van-Damme and Steven Seagal movies were actually fun instead of the tiresome bores they are.
You'd expect Transporter writer/producer Luc Besson to have a finger or two in Crank's stew, as the insanity on display is very similar in vein to his legion of French action films. But this is a homegrown, Stateside affair, reportedly influenced by the classic rampage video game Berzerk. Neveldine and Taylor crafted this film for adults only. The kind of adult filmgoers who have been ignored by Hollywood for so long, in a world where R-Rated films are avoided by producers at all costs. Their kind are viewed as box-office poison, and whenever a film like Wedding Crashers makes a boatload of money, it's heralded as a major surprise since everyone is supposed to believe that thirteen year olds are the only people who go to the movies. So congratulations to Neveldine and Taylor for sticking up for the underdog - the over-twenty set who like playing Grand Theft Auto games yet somehow manage to avoid going on killing sprees long enough to hit the multiplexes for some obnoxious fun.
Statham plays Chev Chelios, a most unlikable protagonist, a Los Angelino killer for hire who awakes to find a DVD (subtly labeled 'Fuck You') sitting in front of his flat screen TV. Much of this segment is filmed in his drugged POV, and the soundtrack is also duly tweaked to reflect his altered state of mind. The DVD is a love letter from a rival hood (Jose Pablo Cantillo's Verona), who ostensibly objected to Chev's offing of a Triad bigwig. Verona and his boys hoot and holler on the video, which was apparently filmed in Chelios' bedroom while he lay passed out on the bed - this status caused by a baseball bat to the noggin' courtesy of Verona's big (and I mean big) brother Ricky. They take delight informing Chelios that he has been injected with a cutting-edge synthetic drug from China and will soon expire.
We later learn from Chev's doctor ‘Doc Miles' (played with a great casual flair by Dwight Yoakam) that the drug is called a 'Beijing Cocktail', and is a nasty concoction with no cure that cuts off the body's natural supply of adrenaline. Doc is about to board a flight home, but tells Chev to try staying alive the best he can in the meantime. What ensues is a mix of Speed (sans bus) and DOA on crack, as Chev does every and any drug in his path. He sniffs cocaine off the floor in a nightclub, takes epinephrine shots to the heart, downs countless cans of 'extreme' energy drinks and even gets hits from nasal decongestant sprays.
When he can't get a rush from chemical means, he does it through fighting, thrill seeking (standing Christlike astride a stolen police motorcycle while wearing an assless medical gown) or personal injury (burning his hand in a waffle maker). After a great homage to the Blues Brothers wherein Chev crashes his classic 70s ride through a mall and actually flips it sideways onto an escalator, he quickly pieces together a grand design to take revenge upon his wrongdoers. His mob boss contact is acting cagey, his girlfriend won't answer her phone and his Doctor is in the air, so Chev's only ally is Efrem Ramirez' Kaylo, a shy drag queen who helps track down the villain's brother (who loses a hand in a comically grisly scene).
The film lets the viewer know early on where it's coming from. The opening titles are a classic 80s-styled lo-res video game representation of a beating heart, accompanied by the song Metal Health by Quiet Riot. (The soundtrack is refreshingly quirky, with Loverboy and Nilsson receiving equal amounts of screentime.) When Chev starts a brawl with a bar full of burly black men, the outside of the building literally bulges outward before he is physically ejected from the front door. When a Haitian cab driver mistakes him for a crack head and insists he ingest the dubious contents of an unmarked brown vial, we see a twisted blacklight version of the world through Chev's eyes. When his phone rings, its tone speeds up and slows down intermittently. Not because it actually does, but because that's the way Chev's battered system hears it.
Chelios is a politically incorrect character (he kicks an Arab cabbie out of his ride and screams 'Al Quaeda'! to a nearby crowd, in addition to numerous other racial slurs and gay references), but Statham knows how to play him so that we still want to see the guy come out on top. It isn't until he finally contacts his girlfriend (played by Amy Smart) that we start to learn what he's really about. She doesn't know that he's a hitman (in yet another gaming reference, he has her believing that he's a video game designer), and she supplies the humour in numerous scenes in which Chev runs around frantically killing villains while her clueless, stoned out character continually misses the fact that silenced gunshot rounds are impacting on walls all around her.
Which leads to the notorious scene in which Chev, starved for adrenaline, decides to defile his girlfriend in a rowdy bout of sex in the crowded streets of Chinatown. In a similar vein to the Micheal Douglas film Falling Down, Chev's escapades become fuel for the media as they report on his spree throughout the day. The interviews with the witnesses of his sex act are particularly amusing.
Eventually he must decide if he should let his girlfriend in on his 'real' job, and we learn of some surprising twists to his character. Doc Miles does eventually arrive, shocked at the fact that Chev is still walking, and tries his best to keep him ticking long enough to incite a final showdown. The leadup to which involves a great elevator ride - wherein a Japanese businessman talks to Chelios with not his own voice, but those of Chev's acquaintaces and family members. It also exhibits one instance of the film's very clever play with subtitles (which seems to be occuring more frequently this side of the American release of Nightwatch's spastic titles). In one scene Chev asks an antagonist if his forehead has a particular 'C' word on it, and thanks to the digital titlers it does indeed. In the aforementioned elevator scene, when the Japanese man addresses Chev, there is an English subtitled translation on screen as expected. But then the filmmakers push the envelope by treating the titles as a physical entity - when the next cut is shown from the businessman's point of view, the subtitles are still there in front of him, but slightly out of focus and now reading backwards. Sure, it's gimmicky, but it's also very fun.
The final shootout is similarly tweaked, with Chev on the verge of a meltdown while a True Romance style multi-group battle occurs in front of numerous plastic bubbles containing go-go dancers. And yes, there is a wonderfully unrealistic scene in which a character has minutes to reflect on life while falling from a helicopter. The film also smartly deals with the mortality of its lead character. When everybody tells him there's no cure for his condition, they mean it. Not to say that there isn't an antidote that may or may not surface in the final reel.
The camerawork is suitably insane in a very Tony Scott-like fashion, but the action is still easy to follow. In fact, this movie succeeds remarkably at capturing what Scott miserably failed to do with Domino. There's been considerable internet buzz about how Crank is guilty of 'dumbing down' action films, as if the dumbest depths of the genre hadn't already been plumbed. In fact, Crank is like a politically incorrect breath of fresh air. It's nothing more than one man's descent into madness wrapped up in quirky filmmaking and countless action scenes. But what's wrong with that? Whether or not you're in on the joke, it's a blast. And it's a good sign that perhaps there are more trashy action/exploitation flicks heading our way in the future. Hopefully next time, us critic types will be invited. Because this time, we 'got it', and we don't want a shot to get rid of it.