Sunday, January 21, 2007

Is Crank Smart or Crap?

Some day when the hyper-active Crank is on TV and you Tivo it and if your recommendations are enabled, Tivo will record every Quentin Tarantino movie in sight for you. This isn’t to say that Crank doesn’t have flashes of originality. Made for a reported budget of just $12 million, the movie was released by Lionsgate early last Fall and went on to gross close to $40 million worldwide. Yet the film has elicited such polarized reactions from people who’ve watched it that I decided to see it for myself.

The first thing to know about Crank is that it is not just influenced by video games but patterned after them. The opening title for Crank is displayed as an old 70s style pixilated video game title. And the first sequence you see is modeled after a first person shootout game in which the lead character Chev Chelios, played by a rather cranky Jason Statham, stumbles on a rather sadistic DVD.

The prime mover for the plot is fairly straightforward – as retribution for a disagreeable hit, Chelios has been injected by a rival with something called a Beijing Cocktail. As a result, his heart will shut down but he can keep himself alive for a little bit longer by making sure his adrenaline is always pumping and charging his heart. It’s like Keanu Reeves’ Speed, only the bus has been replaced by the human body. It’s Speed: The Intravascular! And first time directors Mike Neveldine and Brian Taylor take the kinetic narrative of Speed and amp into a relentless rampage in this movie.

The movie is very violent to the point where the violence becomes self-referential. It is also satirized copiously with humor, most of which felt rather funny. In particular, much of the humor revolves around Chelios’ attempts to keep his heart ticking rapidly. In one audacious scene, he plows his car through a mall with the cops chasing him. Later still, he steals a cop’s bike and stands on it with his arms off the handle to keep himself in peril, and ostensibly his heart pumping. When all else fails, he jams his hand in a waffle maker to push his heart rate up. Through all of this, Statham does a fairly decent job coming across as a not-too-smart slug who’s doing his best to survive by desperately making the most of what is available to him. He spends a good chunk of time running around in a ridiculous hospital gown flashing his butt all over town.

When it’s staging some scene that looks right out of a video game, Crank is briskly entertaining. But the thrills feel largely vacuous. Much of this is because a backdrop or character development is completely side-stepped in the movie. The question I was left pondering was: are the filmmakers smarter than this movie makes them appear at first glance? Are they making the ultimate bit of male pulp fiction driven by the adrenaline rush of video games or are they making a statement about how our society reflects the world inhabited by gamers?

Stathom’s girlfriend Eve is played by Amy Smart, who has been led to believe that her hit-man boyfriend is actually a video game programmer. Later in the movie, when Chelios rescues her from a kidnapping, he indulges in all sorts of violence on the side to make sure she continues to be unaware of what is going on around her. Was this just a lame retread of a concept that has been done before or is Eve supposed to represent the portion of the audience who is clueless about the dangers of the world we live in?

And finally what is with the rough treatment of women in the movie? Women show up caged in bubbles or servicing men in particularly humiliating scenes. In one particularly troubling one, Statham finds his heart rate flagging in the middle of Chinatown. He then begs Eve to have sex with him to save his life. Just as you are beginning to think this is a joke that isn’t working, both get boisterously busy even as they are watched by scores of people, including a bus-load of girls. Later, Eve morphs from someone who is rowdy enough to have sex in public into a wallflower who freezes when chased by bad guys, so Chelios has to lift her up like a dummy and stuff her into the car.

Moments later, Chelios is driving his car at high speed in scenes reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto, shooting the bad guys to Sunday and having sex with Eve in the car - all at the same time. Does Eve represent women in general in some highly misogynist video game, her catering abilities pre-programmed in some testosterone-soaked menu to perform one of several degrading things to enable yet another adrenaline rush?

I suggest you watch Crank at least once to answer these questions for yourself. Based on my experience, there are a few things to keep in mind that will help. You know how people sometimes ask you to leave your brains behind when watching a particularly illogical movie riddled with plot holes and entirely focused on thrills? Crank is like that, only your brain needs to be between your legs. Second, women are treated very poorly in this movie so keep that in mind if you want to invite someone to watch with you. Lastly, make sure you like Jason Statham before you get into your chair - there is a lot of him in the movie.

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