[22 September 2009]
It’s not unreasonable to assume that, if you were to die from plummeting a couple thousand feet from a helicopter, without a parachute, and crash first onto the hood of car, then bounce straight up into the air another hundred feet or so, and then finally slam back down onto the pavement – well, you’d be dead and you’d stay dead. Not so in the Crank universe.
Though it quite looked like hitman Chev Chelios (the ever unflappable and game Jason Statham) had met a rather definitive end at the screeching halt conclusion of the original Crank, not ten seconds in to the sequel and his still living carcass is being carted off by baddies to some back alley Chinese operating room, there to have open heart surgery to harvest his still beating and apparently indestructible ticker for use by some Triad gangster overlord. And of course they need to keep Chelios alive post-op, to keep his other organs in fine working order for future harvesting. Bad idea.
It says a lot about the ensuing wall to wall mayhem and cartoonish lunacy that follows that this set up is probably the least unbelievable thing that happens in Crank 2: High Voltage. Whether you are able to accept this idiotic, absurdist premise as, if not exactly realistic, at least not unreasonable, is probably a good indication of whether you will accept and enjoy everything else in the film.
This is a love-it/hate-it, either/or proposition – there is no half-way with Crank, and its puerile, ADD-addled, testosterone-crazed “aesthetic”. It refuses to compromise, apologize, or even bother to explain itself. It doesn’t give a rat’s ass what you think of it, and is never anything other than brutally honest about letting you know it. If its 90-minute parade of juvenile stupidity, depravity and gleeful nihilism doesn’t get the point across, then its final shot, of Statham—grinning like a lunatic, encased in flames, directly flipping off the audience—should finally drive it home. Crank 2: High Voltage is many things, but subtle it ain’t.
And it especially isn’t subtle about its aspirations, which is basically to copy the formula of the original Crank, except make everything bigger, louder, faster, stupider – more more more. Always more—and more of it. The piling up, and piling on, begins faster than in the first film, if that were even possible. Immediately after waking up after surgery to discover his own heart replaced by a mechanical one, Chelios is up and off and running, chasing down his misplaced ticker, dispatching baddies and destroying just about everything in his path, and juicing himself with whatever electrical source he can lay his hands (or any other body part) on.
The gimmick in the first film was that he’d been injected with a poison that would cause his heart to shutdown if it fell below a certain rate. In order to counter this, he had to keep up a pell-mell adrenaline rush for the entirety of the film, while looking for an antidote. So basically, run run run, shoot shoot shoot, keep up a certain level of excitement, keep the testosterone kicking in overdrive. Here, it’s basically the same thing, except now he has to keep his artificial heart constantly running with sporadic jolts of electricity. So, we’ve graduated from constant epinephrine shots to doing hits off of car batteries and power generators. And I think that’s as far as character development goes between the two films.
There’s a brilliant simplicity to Crank’s premise – designed to be a perpetual momentum machine, the exigencies of its setup (hero must keep self charged and moving or he dies) dictates the perfect complementary form, a hyper-freneticism in which no scenario, no action is too extreme, too outrageous, too absurd, to execute. It’s a chain reaction of Darwinian survivalism blown up a thousand fold, overcooked and overheated and boiling over with the sheer exuberance of being – and staying - alive. If the directive of the first film was to keep moving forward, quickly, at any cost, then Crank: High Voltage’s is to see how far too push it all without it completely flying apart in to incoherence and total self-combustion. Does it succeed? I don’t know. Does it matter? I don’t know. And I don’t care, and neither does the film.
Maybe I’m trying to assign some sort of existential significance to the content of Crank that it doesn’t warrant, or deserve. Maybe I’m just trying to defend my enjoyment of something that is, on the surface, indefensible. There is no question that there is an endless parade of vile behavior in the Crank films. You can lob any accusation you want at them – that they are sadistic, excessively violent, misogynistic, racist, homophonic – and the supporting evidence is there.
And while it’s true that, if you isolate any single scene, the film is truly disgusting and reprehensible, taken in toto, there is a certain amount of … I don’t know if “innocence” is the right word, but close enough – innocence to it all. Or charm, maybe. The sum is less offensive than the parts. It’s just too damn stupid to be truly evil, too goofy and unhinged to truly offend.
But there’s also a certain degree of nudge-nudge, wink-wink self-awareness for it to truly avoid all culpability. While the proceedings are truly moronic, the film is not stupidly made. The directing duo of Neveldine and Taylor are never not in complete control, even if what happens on the screen makes it seem like everything is off the wall and on the fly. So perhaps there is some point here, maybe it’s some sort of meta-level commentary on the general brainlessness, immorality of your typical action, blockbuster blow ‘em up.
So then maybe on this level Crank 2: High Voltage is actually knowing enough to come back around and flush itself of responsibility. It knows that we know that it knows that it is all just a big put on, that it’s so out there, that it ceases to mean, to signify. It’s a parody, it’s a parody of a parody, it’s beyond parody … I don’t know, it’s impossible to say, the film defies any sort of genuine critical appraisal, continually confounds you and, well, flips you off, literally.
The original Crank was a shocker. It was a film that no one expected, that no one wanted, that no one knew was what they wanted or needed. It was a grand shlockfest that had no aspirations beyond being shocking, wallowing in its B-grade mayhem, and it delivered. Call it whatever you want – cheap, ugly, exploitive - but it was never boring.
With a sequel, the shock of originality is gone, and the threat of tedium looms in every frame. So to counteract the law of diminishing returns, what we get is a film that is trying not only to outdo its predecessor, but also itself, scene by scene, frame by frame. I kind of knew that Crank: High Voltage was going all in for complete crazy when Bai Ling showed up, but I don’t think it was until the film morphed at one point, for no good reason, into a mock Japanese monster movie, with Statham and his adversary, recast in exaggerated rubber monster suits, in choppy slow motion, duking it out at a power station, that I knew Crank: High Voltage had finally truly gone flying off the rails.
There is some joy in waiting for it to slip, waiting for the film to miss the mark and come crashing back to earth (again). It never does – and a good chunk of the credit for this must go to Statham. If the Transporter films are his best, the ones that most typify and personify his effortless coolness and charisma, then the Crank films are the flipside to these, where his Transporter persona is completely unleashed of its professionalism. And yet, Statham still plays it cool throughout, never caving in to lunacy, game for everything, never playing it anything less than totally straight (until the very last scene). It is the only way the Crank films can work, and to him must go the lion’s share of praise (or blame) for their success.
Perhaps the most outrageous moment of all, though, comes not in the main film itself, but shortly into the hour long behind the scenes feature contained as a bonus on the DVD release. Talking about the initial stages of making Crank: High Voltage, writer/directors Neveldine and Taylor chortle that they simply can’t believe that anyone with even a modicum of responsibility or decency would greenlight the script for the Crank sequel, and they posit the very existence of the film as proof positive that no one at the studio read the script.
Now, what’s so outrageous is not that Crank 2: High Voltage was given the A-OK sight unseen (or unread), but the bold, highly implausible avowal that a scrip even exists. Watch any five minute chunk of Crank and please tell me that any of it was even scribbled out on a cocktail napkin, let alone a properly formatted screenplay. This is not meant as a dig – Crank’s by-the-seat-of-its-pants/kitchen sink aesthetic is one of its core strengths. Just don’t tell me that anyone thought this through beforehand. Who are you kidding here?
The rest of the making of footage is actually quite fascinating, despite Taylor and Neveldine’s self-important frat boyish approach to answering questions (this carries over in to the underwhelming commentary track). Due to the exigencies of production and budget, Crank 2 was shot almost entirely on cheap handheld digital cameras – a lot of cheap handheld digital cameras, apparently (many of which were just totally destroyed by the shoot’s end). This set up allowed for the film to be shot with a multiplicity of angles, fragmented composition, and fast flowing tracking shots that all lead directly to the ADD-addled, quick cut editing style. Oddly, the riot of cameras and varying angles actually somehow makes the action easier to follow than less. Everything is clear and clean, even when a million things are happening in the frame.
The downside is that postproduction clean up is just murder. With so many cameras and crew running around, it’s impossible to keep production crew and equipment from invading the frame of the film. In fact, the gag reel included as the other major bonus feature is devoted entirely to all of these goofs that made it into the final cut (the montage of scenes has arrows and hilarious text pointing out every single goof in the scenes in question, and there are tons of them). It’s a testament to, and justification of, the editing style that the audience never notices anything of these while watching the film – how could you when things are happening so fast and furiously, without even a second to stop moving your eyes and focus?
Rather than being lazy or ramshackle, I think the inclusion of all these goofs into the film is right in line with the overarching ethos of Crank 2, just another laughing middle finger thrown at the audience. Brilliant.