Say YES to Excess: Defending the ‘Crank’ Films

They’re gross, over the top, sexually pigheaded, and so filled with amplified ultraviolence that Alex DeLarge and his mates would definitely consider them “excessive”. The first film was a marginal success at the box office, but literally exploded on DVD. On home video, fans flocked to its mixture of video game hyper-action and subversive, in your face, cinematic counter-culturalism. So naturally Lionsgate would demand a sequel, especially since the last scene suggested the angry anti-hero Chev Chelios actually survived his thousand foot free-fall from an airborne helicopter. Yet with a mere $7 million in receipts over the 17 April weekend, it looks like Crank: High Voltage failed to find a warm Cineplex welcome.

It’s not surprising. The studio, clearly believing that they had something nominal and niche on their hands, decided against screening the film for critics. Even today, with few in the mainstream media present and accounted for, the title stands at 69% over at Rotten Tomatoes. Now, that’s currently better than Zac Efron’s 17 Again, Hannah Montana: The Movie, Observe and Report, or Knowing, but an argument can also be made that most of these opinions come from fringe geek onliners who fail to see cinema in the proper, non-blogger, perspective. Indeed, the overall view of the Crank films is that they are the byproduct of ADD-addled filmmakers Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (who use the oh-so-gauche moniker of ‘Neveldine/Taylor’ when they work), two a-hole hipsters who assault the artform with their too-cool-for-film-school sentiments.

Granted, Neveldine and Taylor throw everything they can at the screen, both Crank and Crank: High Voltage perfected examples of surfeit giving way to a kind of crazed creative aesthetic. And they are disrespectful to the genre in the same way that exploitation challenged the notion of what could and could not be shown in a commercial motion picture. If having fun with the format is crime, Neveldine and Taylor are as guilty as a pow-wow between Phil Spector and OJ. But outside the need to be aware of the medium’s mandates, there is nothing wrong with spending megabucks to make a wild ass carnival sideshow of filmic freaks and celluloid tweaks. Deny their artistry or skill, but the Crank films are the guiltiest kind of pleasure – one that’s inexcusable and insatiable.

When the first film arrived in 2006, it played like the ultimate endgame in a post-millennial reexamination of the action epic. For decades, the same old buddy/stunt dynamic was utilized to bring audiences to the edge of their seat. Neveldine and Taylor took the interactive element from the console experience, placed the viewer in the position of the players, and then turned everything up to 11. By adding this nu-world odor aspect, by supplanting carefully choreographed mechanical mayhem for seat of your pants pandemonium, the duo laid the groundwork for such au current favorites like Shoot ‘Em Up and Wanted. Sure, it’s all been sifted out of the Hong Kong craziness of the mid ’90s, but John Woo couldn’t hold a candle to the fanboy frenzy created here.

Indeed, Neveldine and Taylor are the exact filmmakers a demographic raised on the VCR and pay cable need. They are all allusion and homage, original thoughts filtered through a film education based in Cinemax and the faceless features of a direct to video market. They aren’t new or novel, but instead represent the necessary evil that arrives when you give audiences unlimited access to a specific artform and then provide the technology to help them copy their obsessions. They are Tarantino taken to ridiculous referential heights, one step ahead of the homemade auteur while barking up the talent trees that keep directorial dipsticks like Brett Ratner and Jon Turteltaub fully employed. And yet there is an artistry to what they do, a David Lynchian like dream logic which turns F-bombs and bare breasts into esoteric expressions of filmic fascination.

Some of the success has to do with their choice of leading man. For all his toned tripwire sexuality, Jason Statham remains one of the few examples of bristle bearded beefcake who’s not afraid to go balls out in pursuit of a performance. He’s willing to mock his own machismo, undermine his cool cockney charm, and wallow in wantonness both physical and ephemeral. There’s a moment in the first film when he literally exposes his behind in order to escape a predicament, proving that he’s more than just a typical Hollywood hero. High Voltage ups the ante, giving gal pal costar Amy Smart a chance to match the human adrenal gland naked thrust for thrust as they have public sex at a horse track…right on the finish line in the middle of a race.

Certainly, snobs who believe that names like Godard and Chabrol are the only ones capable of taking cinema apart and putting it back together in ways that countermand tradition and formula will be pissed, and for all this glorified grandstanding, Crank and Crank: High Voltage are really nothing more than cinematic confections, motion picture Pixie sticks laced with enough PCP, Meth, and Crack to keep audiences from seeing their Wizard of Oz like man behind the curtain crassness. Yet within a framework where everything reeks of high concept creativity, where stars and situations are dreamt up before a writer ever sees a single paycheck, Neveldine and Taylor work in wild, wicked, and wholly mysterious ways.

While their only other collaboration – the stunted script for the incredibly dopey horror film Pathology – failed to fulfill the promise offered by Crank, and their newest effort (the surreal sci-fi showdown Citizen Game starring 300‘s Gerard Butler) still several months away, we are left contemplating the legacy leached out of two intertwined spectacles. Of course, High Voltage leaves the door open for a tre-quel, and knowing these inspired insaniacs, there’s probably an idea already brewing to turn Chev, Eve, and the rest of the Crank army into the Lord of the Rings of racially insensitive thrill rides. While the motion picture is indeed an artform, not all films are Van Goghs. Many can barely beat Warhol to the soup can punch. Crank and Crank: High Voltage are clearly the work of some crazed underground anarchists – and we can all thank God for such a needed shot in the arm.