Crank: Exploitation Actioner, Starring Jason Statham

An exploitation actioner, better seen at a midnight screening with a bunch of friends after a couple of drinks, “Crank” offers a non-stop visceral entertainment. It’s like being at Disneyland on a scary and thrilling roller-coaster for 81 minutes, which the film’s running time, though not one second is wasted.

One of the fastest-moving pictures to be seen in years, “Crank” is based on a simple idea, which is actually summed up in the ad campaign, “Poison in his veins. Vengeance in his heart.” The character is Chev Chelios, played by Jason Statham (“The Transporter” pictures), who is quickly becoming a B-action star.

Statham plays a professional hit man with a lethal serum in his bloodstream that will kill him if his heart rate falls below a certain level.

Aware of his predicament, he runs around like a madman in this race-against-time thriller for about an hour–the story’s real time is almost identical to its reel time. Writer-director Brian Taylor has said, “We wanted to do a movie
where a guy is moving and moving all the time. Our movie is like “Speed,” only instead of a bus, it’s a guy. If the guy slows down, he detonates, just like the bus,” in the 1994 actioner.

For those who care, the plot could be described in greaterdetail in one short paragraph. Hitman Chelios wakes up to a message on his machine that the vicious Ricky Verona (Jose Pablo Cantillo) had injected him with a Chinese poison that would kill him within an hour, which sends him on a rampage of revenge. Since only adrenaline can keep him alive, Chelios needs to stay on all the time, or else… To illustrate the point, we are periodically treated to graphic shots of his heart as his healthy deteriorates, the clock is ticking faster and faster against him.

There’s little sympathy for our dying hero. Chelios’ none-too-bright girlfriend (Amy Smart) knows nothing about his work, and when he tells her, she refuses to believe until she gets caught in the action. His mob boss (Sanz) couldn’t care less, while his doctor (played by the gifted Dwight Yoakam, who’s totally wasted here) can only keep him going for so long, often via cell phone from a distance. The whole picture relies heavily on cells, which might be part of product placement.

Literally and figuratively a road picture, “Crank” cashes in on one of our many new (post-AIDS) phobias, lethal poisoning, which is also the premise of William Friedkin’s “Bug,” an exploitation movie starring Ashley Judd that’s coming out soon (it bowed in Cannes Festival).

Setting their yarn in contempo La La Land (where else), directors Mark Nevldine and Brian Taylor (the flick is billed as Neveldine/Taylor) don’t believe in storytelling, logic, plot, or characterization, all the “old-fashioned qualities” of good movies. Instead, they treat their shabby material like an extended music video or videogame. The film’s rock score blasts loud as if to camouflage for the preposterous yarn that unfolds on screen.

What else can you do when your hero is a desperate, hysterical man zipping around various LA locations in search of a cure, and along the way steals any kind of drug he can get his hands on. If legit medication or cocaine is not available, nasal spray would do, since Chelios needs to keep on goingor rather running.

“Crank” brings back the high-concept B-actioner with enough gusto and lunacy to make the ride worthwhile watching for young male teenagers, who may get high themselves just by watching Statham escaping from a hospital by grabbing a cop’s gun and then riding his police motorbike dressed in a green hospital robe that reveals more than it discloses.

It’s hard to tell what female viewers will make of this picture considering that the only femme is an attractive but not smart or alert woman (played by Amy Smart, who looks very much like a young Goldie Hawn), as Statham’s nave yet slightly kooky girlfriend.

In what should be considered a rape scene, set in Chinatown, in front of visitors, girls on a bus, and innocent bystanders, Statham forces Smart to sex. When he can’t get a hard-on, he pushes her against a wall for to anal intercourse, which he then interrupts to take an urgent call on his cell. (You shatter at the thought that this act is set in the same place where a crucial scene of the sublime noir “Chinatown” takes place). Later on, frustrated by the incomplete sexual act, Smart gives him a blowjob during one of many wild chase scenes.

The hero, girlfriend, and villains are all standard-issue, particularly the Latino heavies and Asian gangsters. To the directors’ credit, all the action scenes, confrontations, and shootouts are set in seductive and dangerous locations, such as a rooftop in a chic Beverly Hills place, or a helicopter, with our hero literally dangling out of the aircraft.

Unfolding with the relentless energy of a videogame, the movie consists of big set pieces, some of which will make Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez (the young Tarantino and Rodriguez) proud, all shot with a restlessly dynamic handheld camera. The directors opt for frantic, unconventional ways of shooting action, extreme and distorted close-ups when they’re least expected, unlikely tracking shots, and one too many zooms.

There are at least four or five car chase sense, one of which is particularly amusing, with Statham’s SUV landing on the escalator of a busy shopping mall.

It’s impossible to assess acting in such a picture. Based on “The Transporter” pictures and “Cellular,” Statham comes across as a limited actor, even by standards of thriller and actioner acting, though he strikes me as one who could easily navigate through heroic and villainous roles. The little that Smart is asked to do–caught in the midst of a nasty shootout she insists on retrieving her purse–is embarrassing.

Big question is, how did Lionsgate get away with R-rating in our supposedly conservative climate; the excellent docu “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” (also opening Sep 1) tries to tackle this issue. The violence in “Crank” is outrageously gruesome and graphic, some of which done with blacker than black humor, exceeding De Palma on a good (or is it bad) day. Hence, a meat cleaver is used to chop a hand, there’s waffle iron, and another hand goes through a running sewing machine.

As noted, the sexuality is offensively misogynistic, and the co-directors don’t neglect “homophobia” either, though they are quick to “balance” it with some homoerotic overtones. At one point, Statham’s Chelios is described as a “man with a still hard-on,” which we get to see courtesy prosthetics that’s as “credible” as Mark Wahlberg’s penis in “Boogey Nights.”

“Crank,” in other words, is an actioner in which everything and anything goeswith frenetic speed and lunatic, even deranged energy.