I meant to write this about a month ago when Hobbs and Shaw was released, but I thought of that film as a good opportunity to reconnect with my once-favorite Jason Statham vehicles, and the ones most transparently aware that they are vehicles for a character called “Jason Statham”.
The protagonist of Crank is a hitman, a killer for hire. In one thoroughly offhand moment, never referenced again, he admits this to his girlfriend, exposing his bullshit claim about being a video game programmer to her. This feels like a smiling admission of guilt on the filmmakers’ part, the film’s winking Rosetta Stone, or maybe its cheat-code: this really is a video game, and perhaps video games have some relationship with societal violence, or maybe blaming video games is merely a ruse, a distraction from the hard work of exposing real violence in society at the political level. Writer-director Neveldine and Taylor’s response, collectively, is a proud “we don’t care, we’re making our film anyway”.
I’ll be the first to say that I really don’t know what to make of that morally, except that the impishly amoral Crank is Neveldine and Taylor’s attempt to tease out the aesthetic essence of video game filmmaking much more eloquently than any formal video game adaptation ever has. When that aforementioned protagonist, Chev Chelios (Jason Statham), fails to fulfill one particular hit, he is immediately targeted for extermination, and the rest of the film is transparently a series of levels and trials haphazardly disconnected by narrative fragments that only register as real at the most abstract level.
In point of fact, Crank’s first subversion of the time-honored cinematic trope of the hitman being hunted for failing to kill a target is that Chev has already been killed before the film begins, poisoned and left for dead: Crank, in other words, has no business with formalities, no time to waste. When he is informed that he can delay the effects of the poison seeping into his heart by keeping his adrenaline up by any means necessary, he proceeds to try to hunt down the killers in the most direct manner possible, his life depending on it. It feels like a high-concept joke: a thoroughly immoral action film that is, in an entirely ironic way and without any emotion, all-“heart”, a mockery of the fact that we expect this film to make any excuses for itself, to have any character or soul. We aren’t interested in salvaging his soul, but in keeping what amounts to one of those video game heart icons from filling up with poison, symbolizing a player character’s demise.
Crank is edited by Brian Beddle, the star stylist here, stitching together Crank with a jagged ludicrousness and defiance of cinematic continuity. He essentially does what he was usually doing for director Tony Scott in the mid-00’s, glitching and fragmenting his film and hop-skipping around rather than submitting to the tyranny of physical continuity in his scene transitions. While Scott’s films were viciously self-serious though, Crank benefits from a more zestfully cartoonish sensibility for self-mockery; Scott’s typical sensibilities do percolate here, but they comingle with a sub-Bunuelean attitude of malignant neglect toward seriousness in what amounts to Neveldine and Taylor’s deliriously unhinged, absurdist riff on a “Jason Statham” vehicle.
Or more accurately, a vehicle that drives into Statham again and again, punishingly throwing him around and around, bruising and battering the man it all-but acknowledges is a movie-star-as-metaphorical-superhero, someone who isn’t “real” and therefore can’t really be harmed. We usually champion Tom Cruise for his ability to A. run and B. take punishment for our pleasure, but Cruise has nothing on Statham here, an abstract meat-puppet designed not to centralize a narrative but to be flung around Neveldine and Taylor’s imagery. Crank is a stylistic tour-de-force, a gleefully disreputable aria of freeze-frames and split-screens, thoroughly post-modern in its essential disdain toward reality (and the presumption that it can access something we call “reality”). It’s also totally neglectful of the finer points of cinematic finesse, replacing fine-grained perfection with glorious opprobrium. A somewhat heavily conceptual take on the noir classic D.O.A., Crank is a shrewdly self-aware sleight-of-hand with Statham’s star persona that ends up being ludicrously manipulative of that persona. Apropos of bullshit, it assumes that we’re simply here to watch Statham in situations, a Cinema of Attractions with Statham as the Star Attraction.
Armond White and a few other (often contrarian) reviewers rather famously compared Neveldine and Taylor to Brian De Palma: aesthetic provocateurs who defy conventional thematic acumen and turn their camera against us, relying almost entirely on the image for conveying meaning that looks rather definitively like anti-meaning. The comparison works foggily, but the ensuing years haven’t been kind to the pair, who didn’t exactly go on to set the world on fire. They released a sequel to this film in 2009, and their other 2009 film, Gamer, literalized the implicit concept here – video games as storytelling – and thereby reduced it, turning it into a narrative conceit rather than a formal canvas for experimentation. It became “about” video games conceptually rather than learning from video games formally or stylistically embodying video game logic in any way. And Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, their 2012 collaboration with Nicolas Cage, a dream pairing if ever there was one, was much less of a Herzogian derangement than either Crank or Herzog’s own collaboration with Cage from 2009, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.
But Crank does, in its own way, bring to mind De Palma’s own collaboration with Nicolas Cage, the similarly misunderstood Snake Eyes, a sometimes misbegotten film but one with an extraordinarily thoughtful, and defiantly cinematic, take on spectatorship and the act of viewing. That film begins with an incredible sliver of prelude, a minute-long in-camera shot of a news reporter covering a hurricane outside a boxing match in Atlantic City, as a number of passers-by make fun faces behind her, teasing the camera and enjoying their moment in the spotlight. That is, until she is cut off for calling the inclement weather a “hurricane” rather than a “tropical storm,” the latter a more benign term more conducive to selling fight tickets and getting audience members out of their houses. She then repeats the news in a more audience-friendly fashion, the film effectively using its early video-cam shot to expose the democratic possibilities of video cameras for spontaneous background participation while also questioning whether this democracy is really any less mediated than anything else, any less prey to the manipulation of other, unseen background interests.
Crank’s own shot-on-video-tape existence extends this curious texture, albeit without De Palma’s trademark psychosis. Crank’s thoroughly loopy news reports, although not as openly as in the sequel, feel like odes to (or if you are unsympathetic, debasements of) this De Palma-esque skepticism about filtered knowledge. They radiate a disarming sense of spectatorial slipperiness and uncertainty that suffuses throughout the entirety of Crank. (Although this is more pronounced in the sequel, where news reporters practically admit that not only their reports, but the film which contains them and is ostensibly meant to reveal what the news reports obfuscate, is transparent bullshit.)
But, comparisons aside, De Palma’s attitude is thoroughly, if teasingly, paranoid, whereas Neveldine/Taylor are essentially wryly absurdist about their cinematographic play. This is a gloriously, self-evidently dumb film, in other words, although its moronic and adolescent qualities are less detriments than simple facts of existence. Despite (or because of) its manifest idiocy, it’s also thoughtful about cinema at a very basic level, about how to depict its chosen object of depiction, and what it means to “depict” in a way that I can’t claim is true for a fairly significant majority of Best Picture winners in the past couple decades. Not bad for a glitch-afflicted, animation-addled cartoon of gleefully harebrained proportions.
Crank: High Voltage
The signature moment in Crank: High Voltage can only be described as Jason Statham Kaiju, a slippery little number where an actor – possibly Statham himself – wears a Jason Statham costume, full mask included, and goes to town on an enemy while both dwarf the surrounding environs, the two characters embellished to several hundred feet by the camera of directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor. The episode is entirely imaginative, evoking the mind of directors at play without any pretensions toward literal reality. It’s a terrific sequence not only because of how unexpected it is but because it literalizes an implicit realization the directors have spent these two films toying around with: Statham really is a persona, a costume, a typographical entity more than a man. He’s a figuration, a single-minded effusion of cinematic cool who we witness not because he sacrifices his star persona by diffusing his identity into a character, as most actors do, but because he eschews character entirely, thinning the membrane between performer and meat-puppet. He is himself, and only himself.
With this, it becomes clear that the Crank films work, at least in part, because they have perhaps the most openly tenuous relationship to character out of every one of Statham’s films. Statham plays a guy ostensibly named Chev Chelios, sure, but he’s transparently Jason Statham, and Neveldine and Taylor are transparently disinterested in shuttling a character through a narrative when they can play with the type itself. To this end, Crank 2 is filled to the gills with little playful devils, scenes that amuse because the directors are so giddily and conspicuously excited about manhandling Statham for a minute rather than because they can link these moments into a gestalt that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Take the orgiastic way they admire his heart in the opening scene, quite literally dissecting him for audiences to see, exposing him for us and implying, rather wryly at that, that Statham is a combination of man and machine, flesh and metal, reality and artifice, a figuration by an actor and a director (or directors) who, at their best, have no business pretending to access any presumed reality. In that opening scene, Chelios is saved from imminent death (but can an archetype die, the film ponders) by Chinese gangsters who need Chelios’ apparently superhuman heart to transplant into an affiliate. They replace that heart with a mechanical one so that he can survive long enough for them to remove his other organs. That Chelios wakes up during this surgery sequence, literally witness to his own internal essence, visualizes the irony of the killer seeing their own demise, only to not actually die. And then we’re off to the races, quite literally, for the rest of the film.
And all that really matters is how much Neveldine and Taylor prod and prick that race, as in one deliriously hilarious edit where they flash ahead in a foot chase to “9 seconds later” in the same chase for no apparent reason, a kind of tacit admission that we’re only here to watch the moments where something abstractly amusing is occurring. At one point, there’s a shot of a Greek statue where the videotape seems to burn up in the moment, signaling another allusion that, in turn, exposes the cheekily disreputable intent here: an action movie Persona, a full-on low-brow avant-garde head-trip, with all those hyphens very much intact, and the slipperiness of personal identity very much on the mind.
Indeed, Crank 2 might even go too far in this direction, experimenting well past the point where it entertains the audience and into the realm of a purely hubristic formal exercise on the directors’ part, an attempt to expend their budget on showy tricks for their own Pavlovian satiation. High Voltage almost feels too conspicuously stylized, more like an accountant’s take on the original film’s mindless menace, as though it is marketing its outre-ness rather than living it. It has a slightly more administrative notion of why it needs to lose its mind, in other words. The first film seemed to legitimately fly its own way, playing hooky from action-cinema school and having a ball with its own rulebook. This one has a field day with the original, but it too often feels like its merely paying the bills, showing-off that it can one-up its forebear, signifying that it can say nothing in a particularly interesting manner.
Still, the film’s wryly self-deprecating texture is bracing, to say the least. When Statham calls his doctor, the only person who can save his own life, and explains the situation, this would-be angel of life simply scoffs, claiming “that’s pretty out there”. Even he can’t believe what Neveldine and Taylor hath wrought.