A Rage to Live: In Defense of the “Crank” Films

I didn’t watch Crank and Crank: High Voltage back-to-back — it was more like a night and the following afternoon — but it was close enough. I now think some enterprising home-video tech geek, after Crank: High Voltage hits DVD and Blu-ray today, should rip both and merge them into one ferocious, hilarious three-hour experience. It’d be Grindhouse 2.

Since the sequel picks up exactly where the first left off, it’s a seamless mix. Call it Crank². Gulp the whole epic down like a can of Red Bull mixed with blood, sweat, jizz and breast-implant goo. (Okay, maybe not.) I took the long Labor Day weekend as an excuse to catch up on the Crank films, which have polarized critics and audiences: there’s the “OMG this is so fuckin’ crazy” camp and the “OMG this is so fuckin’ stupid” camp. Revoke my film-critic card if you will, but I had a ball. Here are the plots of both Crank movies:

Crank: Jason Statham has to keep his adrenaline pumping in order to stay alive.

Crank: High Voltage: Jason Statham has to keep electrocuting himself in order to stay alive.

That’s it. But within that framework, writers/directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (always billed as “Neveldine/Taylor,” like some business firm) turn these films into overwrought skate-punk extravaganzas high on testosterone. Like Smokin’ Aces and Shoot ‘Em Up, they’re far more comedies than action films — if they starred a young Bruce Campbell, more people would get what they were really about. Crank and its sequel form one gigantic piss-take on the action genre. In the crazier moments of the sequel, the only difference between it and a cartoon is that it isn’t actually drawn.

The Crank films, of course, chuck realism out a ten-story window and spit down onto it as it falls. They’re not meant to be taken seriously on any level, which is why I shrug at the flicks’ frequent sexism and racism and every other offense to politically correct sensibilities. These movies are the corroded battery of the action film, jump-started and throwing off sparks and acid. Neveldine/Taylor destroy cinema and manhandle it brutally into spastic life in two short strokes. They bring the narrative structure and graphic clichés of video games into the multiplex; some critics would rather keep that stuff on the console where it belongs, but I take it as more or less a wry acknowledgment that video games are essentially what action films have become. The Crank films just take it all the way.

Neveldine/Taylor’s approach isn’t only subversive, though; they also clearly love doing this stuff. They’re basically comedians of violent excess — the set pieces are timed for laughs, not thrills. I haven’t seen Gamer, their recently-released third film, so I don’t know whether they can carry over the Crank aesthetic into other stories or even want to. But the Crank movies, I think, are perfect. Not great; not important; but perfect, in the sense that the films are so happily and completely what they are, guided by an unwavering psychotronic-meets-cyberpunk vision of brutal urban life. Nobody should bother making a Grand Theft Auto movie now; Neveldine/Taylor have already made two — or one big one.

The whole raucously infernal saga could be read as the fantasy of a dying man, some accountant or librarian expiring of a heart attack alone in his apartment and imagining himself as a hit man poisoned for his efforts and running all over drug-encrusted, titty-laden L.A. in search of his enemies. That would explain some of the more extreme leaps of physical logic in the movies. But it’s more fun to take the events on faith and enjoy their sheer absurdity. By the time Statham hallucinates himself and his foe as kaiju monsters doing battle among electricity towers, it’s obvious that Neveldine/Taylor are going to shoehorn anything they deem cool into this bash. Reanimated severed head? Check. Close-up of a horse cock during a public sex scene? Check. Professional hot mess Bai Ling in full-on fire-breathing crazy mode? Check. The wanton playfulness on display here used to be praised to the skies (and rightly so) when Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson did it. If these movies had subtitles and came from Japan — specifically, if Takashi Miike did them (and let’s be honest: no Miike, no Crank) — some of their detractors would fawn all over them.

So when Crank: High Voltage hits stores today, curl up with both films and get acquainted with a brutal-cool form of cartoon art. It isn’t remotely good for you, and it doesn’t have to be. Nor is it the sort of rarefied stuff that wins Oscars or prizes at Cannes. But I call it art, unreservedly. These films have their own tempo, pulse, vision. They’re not sadistic or amoral so much as blithely unconcerned with anything but the next gag. They could’ve been cookie-cutter movies, and they are not. They come to the fork in the road separating the banal and the outrageous, and they always take the road less traveled. Most of all, they are brilliant slapstick in an era that usually leaves such things to the all-thumbs hands of Shawn Levy or Dennis Dugan. I will defend the Crank films as art in front of any court of film critics anywhere.

Explore posts in the same categories: action/adventure, comedy

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