Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, April 21, 2017

Director Report Card: Neveldine/Taylor (2006)

The directorial team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor are two of the most distinctive voices in modern action cinema. These guys strap cameras to themselves and follow their actors into action sequences that push pass absurdity. Their best films aren't quite homage or parody. Instead, they are over-the-top exercises in genre filmmaking, pushing story conventions to the breaking point in the name of awesome action and juvenile humor. Their movies are designed to make you go "Can you believe this shit?," with a big toothy grain. And that's exactly the point. This Report Card will also include Mark Neveldine's thus far only solo credit and a few of the movies they wrote but didn't direct.

1. Crank

When “Crank” came out in 2006, I knew nothing about the directorial team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor. When I finally sat down to watch the movie, a few months after it came out, I didn't expect anything but another Jason Statham flick. I figured it would be entertaining but forgettable, a disposable bit of action cinema junk food. What I got, instead, was a film that mixed over-the-top action with absurdist humor in service of an adrenaline pumping screenplay. From that moment on, I knew this pair of crazy directors were one to watch. Maybe most people who saw the film had a similar experience. “Crank” would become a surprise box office success and would be far better received than most of the stuff Statham starred in. Of course, it became an instant cult classic.

Chev Chelios is a dead man. A professional assassin by trade, Chelios has recently suffered from a moral crisis. He's considering giving up the killing business to be with his girlfriend, a hopelessly naive girl named Eve. That is until he wakes up incredibly sick. A Latino gangster named Ricky Verona has dosed Chev up with a synthetic poison, “The Shanghai Cocktail.” The drug will kill Chev quickly unless he keeps his adrenaline pumping. Chelios indulges in drugs, sex, and insanity to keep his heart pumping. He heads on a rampage across the city, hoping to stay alive long enough to get his vengeance on the men who killed him.

There have been many attempts to turn video games into movies over the years. Very few of these films are good, as video games have totally different narrative and pacing needs than film. Far more successful have been films made in the spirit of video games. “Crank” takes inspiration from the likes of “Grand Theft Auto” and arcade classic “Berzerk.” The former is referenced when Chev hijacks a car. The latter makes an actual cameo. Like a hyper violent Sonic the Hedgehog, Chev Chelios has to keep collecting power-ups to survive. Except instead of magic rings, he's grabbing drugs and thrills. This is a basic set-up that just happens to allow for as much mayhem as the filmmakers can squeeze in. “Crank's” debt to video games is announced early on, with the pixelated opening title sequence. To nail the point home, a video game version of the movie plays after the end credits.

What really drives “Crank” is the frantic direction. The directors shot most of the movie with special handheld rigs, granting “Crank” a constant sense of movement. This is fitting, as its rare that Chev Chelios stops moving. Neveldine/Taylor add even more wild tricks to this already frenetic style. When Chev slams his foot on the gas pedal, the camera vibrates with excess energy. After getting a dose of some weird drug, he has a bizarre hallucination of a glowing face. Split screen – sometimes as many as four – show up to convey as much information as possible. Sometimes, security camera footage switches places with the movie's action or additional screen appear inside the film. It's a wild looking movie, suiting its bug nuts narrative.

Neveldine and Taylor push their style as far as they can go, often playing with the limitations of the screen itself. More than once, they throw subtitles into the movie for the hell of it. Sometimes this is used to spell out a long phrase. Sometimes its done just to emphasize a point. Later in the film, Chev actually sees the subtitles. This links to an earlier moment, where he asks if he has a swear word written on his forehead... Just for the word to actually appear on his head. “Crank” doesn't just include a bunch of wacky stylistic flourishes to match its rushing story and twisted sense of humor. The directors were visibly attempting to play with the rules of the medium itself.

Aside from the insane direction, what really distinguishes “Crank” from a typical Jason Statham movie is its sense of humor. “Crank” is the kind of over-the-top macho fantasy that could've come from a twelve year old boy's mind. In keeping with that approach, its humor is often crude. A sequence involving black gangsters employs numerous racial epitaphs. Chev often uses homophobic taunts against Verona. One sequence has him tossing a Middle Eastern cab driver into the street and shouting “Al Queda!” This stuff is pushed so far that it becomes absurd. This pairs nicely with the movie's other ridiculous elements. Like a deadpan Statham driving through a mall, a sequence that concludes with a car on an escalator. Or a hospital tech being casually threatened, concluding with a bare-ass motorcycle ride across the city.

For a self-aware, juvenile power fantasy like this, there was no better man for the job than Jason Statham. Statham's incredible physicality and easy charm as a performer led him inevitably to action movies. While the likes of “The Transporter” and “The Mechanic” were entertaining enough, they didn't make much use of Statham's great comedic timing. In “Crank,” the Steak shows off how damn funny he can be. Chev murders assassins when his girlfriend isn't looking, nonchalantly attacking bad guys while keeping a straight face. When Chelios is under the influence of countless drugs, Statham gets to act more frenzied and nutty. You couldn't have asked for a better Chev Chelios, someone who just says “fuck it” and goes with the insane material.

Pairing perfectly with Statham is Amy Smart. Smart plays Eve, Chev's utterly clueless girlfriend. While Statham plays his part as profane and on-edge, Smart goes for as laid back as possible. The moment when he visits her in her apartment is hilarious, Smart totally unaware of the insanity her boyfriend has been getting up to. Eve is unaware... Until she can't deny the truth anymore. Smart is willing to go with the film's wild whims too. After realizing Chev really is an assassin, she excitedly declares “My boyfriend kills people!” Of course, Smart's best moment is the notorious public sex scene. How Smart goes from uncomfortable to totally into it, in seconds, is hysterical. Smart is totally on “Crank's” adolescent wavelength, having no trouble with wearing very little clothing all throughout the movie.

There's some talented performers in the supporting roles as well. Dwight Yoakam has a showy part as Doc Miles, the physician that attempts to help Chev throughout this adventure. Despite his other career as a country singer, Yoakam's performance is delightfully sleazy. I mean, the greasy haircut helps a lot. Yoakam is surprisingly willing to dig into the profane dialogue and has lots of fun with it. Jose Pablo Cantillo is also well utilized as Ricky Verona. Cantillo mostly plays the part as a colorful Latino gangster, which certainly suits the film. Yet I like the little flashes we get at Verona's insecurities, making the character a little more fleshed out. Lastly, there's Efren Ramirez as Kaylo. A flamboyant homosexual, Kaylo is somehow an associate of Chev's. Ramirez, better known as Pedro, has fun shattering his squeaky-clean image with the absurd character.

All of this stuff probably doesn't explain why “Crank” became a surprise box office hit. I think the big action sequences can probably be thanked for that. The action pushes the small budget as far as it'll go. I've already mentioned Statham driving a car through a mall, though it remains a high light. Another back alley brawl begins with somebody getting their hand chopped off. Amusingly, the bloody stump is utilized to punch someone while the severed hand also comes into play. A shoot-out in a Chinese sweatshop features quite a few bodies falling off a building. There's a hugely bloody shoot-out in the last act, providing enough arterial spray to satisfy the action nuts. And how do Neveldine/Taylor top all of that? With a fist fight that dangles outside of a helicopter and continues even as the fighters plummet towards the ground.

“Crank's” approach to sex is pretty juvenile, fitting the mindset that drives the entire movie. Yeah, not only does Chev and his girlfriend do it in a crowded street, a bus full of Japanese schoolgirls also put in an appearance. Yet there's something a little more interesting about its approach. After escaping the factory, Chev and Eve speed down the street, pursue by attackers. In order to keep that adrenaline pumping, she goes down on him... But not to completion. So, instead, he gets out and shoots the bad guys to death. Because in the over-the-top world of action movies, sex and violence serve much the same purpose.

“Crank's” delirious action would probably threaten to burn out viewers if the directors weren't so careful to balance out the pacing. There's a few cool down scenes, balanced out between the crazy theatrics. Such as that aforementioned scene in Eve's apartment. Or Chev getting a special injection from Doctor Miles. Or a rather bizarre moment in an elevator, where our hyper-violent hero begins to hear voices. This delicate balance is really shown off in the last scene, which is actually kind of poignant, featuring Chev apologizing to his girlfriend in his final moments. It's an effectively quiet moment after eighty-eight minutes of riotous carnage.

The first time I watched “Crank,” it left me with a rushing head. The movie got me nearly as pumped as it did Chev. The action was enormous, the humor was hilarious, the direction was crazy, and the performances were perfectly matched. Without the lack of expectations I had upon that first viewing, I didn't know if subsequent rewatches would have a similar effect. Luckily, “Crank's” insanity is evergreen. The directorial duo would build their reputation on this firecracker of a film, allowing them to create a number of other totally nuts motion pictures. Personally, I'm thankful for that. [Grade: A]

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