Monday, May 19, 2008

A little of the old ultraviolence: Jason Statham in Crank



Compared to the much more meditative, languorous, and talky films of the rest of the world, American cinema thrives on speed, and it keeps accelerating. A film like Speed (1994) plunges the viewer into a series of severe deadlines, an elevator triggered to fall, or a bus that cannot slow down without exploding, and we learn of Keanu Reeves’ character as he battles to stay alive. Action films like this deliver an adrenaline high based purely on movement, and more recent movies like Running Scared up the ante even further by stirring the random rampaging instincts of video games such as “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” into the mix until the phrase “never a dull moment” determines everything. I found Running Scared both disturbingly crude and prophetic. How fast can these sick, jaded new sensibilities move towards but one long blur of ultraviolence, sex, and gore?

Part of the answer can be found in this week’s Crank. I like much of Jason Statham’s previous work, especially Transporter series, in part because Statham somehow makes male-pattern baldness look good, and in part due to the fancy French production of Luc Besson. A former Olympic diver born in London, Statham established his laconic acting style in gangster films such as Snatch. In the manner of a younger Clint Eastwood, he usually doesn’t have to say or act very much, and it doesn’t matter how many rounds of machine guns or bazookas or rocket launchers he has to barely escape from, Statham rarely looks more than mildly exasperated before he chases down a plane on foot so he can conduct a one-man air-assault on a convoy of gangsters driving semis.

With Crank however, Statham ditched the French producer and replaced him with a young directing, screenwriting team (Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor) who were obviously suckled on Quentin Tarantino films, and they cooked up an entire movie on a second by second deadline. A professional hit man Chev Chelios (Statham) wakes up one morning to find that gangster Ricky Verona (Jose Cantillo) has injected some Beijing cocktail in his system that threatens to bind with his blood cells and stop his heart if he does not maintain an perpetual adrenaline high. So, quite literally, if any scene gets dull in any way, Chev feels his heart stopping (something we get to see as the camera likes to look inside of bodies). Part of the fun of the film lies in all of the creative ways Chev tries to accomplish this. He steals a cop’s motorcycle and stunt-stands on it before plowing into a coffee shop. If his encounter with a bunch of African American thugs starts to drag, he head butts the biggest one and yells out “Do you want some white meat?” before taking them all on with a baseball bat. As he tries to track down Ricky for his revenge, the film takes the term “seize the day” to new heights as Chev chugs down caffeine pills, crack, and Red Bull speed drinks as he drives a car at top speed through a mall, eventually rolling the vehicle onto its side on an escalator. In need of epinephrine, Chev might casually hijack an ER unit racing down a hospital corridor, and since he tries changing into a hospital gown to evade the police, he ends up inadvertently flashing the viewer as he continues on his citywide rampage.

The film is definitely vulgar, anti-social, unethical mindless escapism, but Crank has witty fun in its shallow way. The directors like to pile every kind of camera technique—wipe cuts, split screens, druggy point of view shots, words written on the bottom of the screen, and they borrow from Oliver Stones’ Natural Born Killers the tendency to project scenes within scenes, so that Dwight Yoakam (who plays Chev’s depraved doctor) might appear talking on a wall as Chev runs by on his cell phone. Amy Smart has several humorous moments as Chev’s blond girlfriend Eve. When as he arrives at her apartment to breathlessly save her from a pack of gangsters, she asks him to go fix the timer on her microwave. Compared to Statham’s manic spontaneity, Eve moves at her own ditzy pace, and its funny to see Chev pause to let her hiccup before the next gun-fighting helicopter ride.

Ultimately Crank doesn’t care about anything except its endless capacity for a kinetic high, and by mixing in humor the film does create a buzz. As Chev points out, “We all gotta die sometime.” Statham shows us one way to go out in style.

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