Last of the Monster Kids

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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Director Report Card: Neveldine/Taylor (2009) Part 1

2. Crank: High Voltage

“Crank” became a surprise critical and commercial success. It rode Jason Statham's star power to nearly 43 million dollars at the box office, a good return against his modest 12 million dollar budget. Moreover, the movie's insane theatrics won fans among regular critics and action movie obsessives. In other words, a sequel made perfect sense... Except for one tiny detail. “Crank” concluded with its lead character dying rather spectacularly. The writer/director duo of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor did not let this hold them back. Chev Chelios would return from the grave and “Crank: High Voltage” would come to theaters two years after the original. The sequel is surely one of the most off-the-walls mainstream action films ever produced.

The film begins with Chev Chelios' climatic plummet from a helicopter above the streets of Los Angeles. After his body collided with the concrete, a group of Chinese gangsters appear and scrap Chelios off the road. Four months later, he awakens in a Triad laboratory. Chev's seemingly immortal heart has been transplanted into the 100 year old leader of the organization. Inside Chelios' chest is a high-tech robotic heart, whose batteries need to be charged on a regular basis. Chev immediately escapes, reconnects with his girlfriend Eve, attempts to retrieve his heart, crosses paths with old enemies, and goes on another insane rampage.

Neveldine/Taylor scoff at the challenges presented by killing off your main character in the first movie. It takes them about a minute to get Chev Chelios off the pavement. Not long after that, Chevy is back up, moving and killing again. In many ways, “High Voltage” directly copies the formula of the original. Once again, Statham's hero has to obey certain rules if he expects to survive. Last time, it was keeping his adrenaline up. This time, it's keeping his robotic heart charged. The directors used the first film's premise as a structure upon which to hang increasingly outrageous action set pieces. For the sequel, they push the same construction even further. Neveldine/Taylor don't see the reliance on formula as a weakness but as a set-up within which they can do anything.

Something that distinguished that first “Crank” from similar action flicks was its frenetic visual style. “High Voltage” builds on this as well. Different tricks are employed to gift the film with an energy nearly as unstoppable as its protagonist. After getting a jolt from a car battery, the camera spins around Chev in a hectic fashion, emphasizing his speed. Fast motion, slow motion, and jerky editing are utilized throughout. A playful use of subtitles and on-screen text appeared in the first movie. For the sequel, the directors build on that quirk. The gimmick of showing locations on Google Maps makes a big return. Wonky looking subtitles show up, even when a character is speaking English. A perverse idea is visualized by a light bulb literally appearing over someone's head. It all adds up to make “Crank: High Voltage” as crazy visually as it is narratively.

“Crank 2” isn't bigger than the original in one, obvious way. The sequel's budget was seven million dollars more than the first. Which is probably pretty good for a mid-tier action flick but still not much in the world of blockbuster entertainment. “High Voltage” can't be much bigger than its predecessor, so it's crazier. Jason Statham leaps down a parking garage, outpacing a car.  The violence is more explicit. Elbows are cleaved off, nipples are sliced away. A machine gun being fired inside the tight confines of a car results in blood splattering everywhere and the driver's intestines spilling out. A stripper is shot through the breasts, causing her implants to spurt out. It's nasty stuff and would probably veer too far if “Crank 2” wasn't so clearly an over-the-top comedy.

That's right: A comedy. The humor in the first “Crank” rose out of the absurdities of its action movie scenarios. “High Voltage” goes for broke, digging further into the original's over-the-top, offensive humor. Some of this stuff maybe pushes itself too far. The treatment of women – almost exclusively as frequently abused sexual objects – comes off as rather gross. Asians stereotypes are embraced, with a prostitute speaking in broken English and crude name puns. That's the kind of a movie “Crank 2” is. Nothing is off limits. So we get a flamboyantly gay character with “full body Tourettes,” causing him to suddenly gyrate in spasmodic fashions. We see a man's testicles electrocuted on-screen. “High Voltage” even mocks the first “Crank,” when the original's sincere ending is brilliantly deconstructed. You could be offended or you could realize its all exaggerated insanity and laugh along with it.

Helping sell “Crank 2's” edgiest material is Jason Statham's hilarious performance. Statham makes it clear that he'll do anything to sell a gag. When Chev is forced to rub up against random people at the race track to create static electricity, Statham tries to be subtle at first. By the end of the scene, he's dry-humping an old lady. Another fantastic sequence has Chev accosting a pair of men using a shock collar on a dog. Statham deadpans fantastically as he straps the collar on his own neck and verbally abuses the guys. Statham's ability to keep a straight face throughout the craziest situations makes him the perfect leading man for “Crank.” His ability to shrug off the wildest events makes “High Voltage” even funnier than it otherwise would've been. Statham also has a way with gloriously profane dialogue but you probably knew that already.

In the first movie, Amy Smart proved what a good sport she was. “High Voltage” takes her character to even wilder situations and Smart is still willing to play along. She first marches on-screen in nothing but a pair of booty shorts and electrical tape. Not long afterwards, she's left in the backseat of a police car to be pawed out by another stripper. Naturally, “High Voltage” reprises the original's public sex scene. Arguably, it tops it too. Smart and Statham have increasingly gymnastic sex on a race track. The scene concludes with a graphic shot of horse genitalia and Smart getting washed down with a fire hose. All along, Smart remains on the movie's juvenile, insane wavelength.

Probably a portion of the bigger budget went towards grabbing some recognizable names for the supporting cast. Dwight Yoakam and Efren Ramirez return. Yoakam is even more profane than last time, playing Dr. Mills as a skeezy weirdo, medical genius. Ramirez' character also died in the first movie but he returns as an identical twin brother. The character's particular condition allows Ramirez to give an utterly fearless physical performance. Aside from returning cast members, “Crank 2” features a number of cult icons, showing practically as guest stars. Bai Ling gives an entirely absurd performance, playing her demented character to the rafters. David Carradine appears under heavy make-up as “Poon Dong” – yes, really – and seems to relish the opportunity to act so silly. In one of his final screen credits, Corey Haim shows up sporting an amazing mallet. Fittingly, he plays a perfect white trash asshole.

There's a number of lovably insane ideas on display in “Crank 2.” Yet two sequences rise to the surface as especially inspired in their ludicrousness. Chev Chelios spends most of the film's first half chasing the man he believes has his heart, a glorious narrative red herring. After confronting him at a power plant, Chev gets a super dose of electricity. This leads us to a scene that can only be called “The Kaiju Interlude.” Chelios and his enemy appear as giants, wearing rubbery masks exaggerating their facial features. They swing through a miniature set in the clunky fashion familiar to fans of “Ultraman” and Toho movies. Melodramatic music plays on the soundtrack, the film grade even replicating movies from the sixties. And then it's over. There's no reason for this scene to be in the movie other than it's awesome. Which may very well be reason enough.

Amazingly, “High Voltage” tops the foaming-at-the-mouth insanity of the kaiju scene. Only a few minutes later, Chev is not unconscious. What follows is a visual montage of the words “Fuck you, Chelios,” shouted at the audience in different accents and context. This segues into a dream sequence of Chev, as a kid, on a British talk show. (We get another celebrity cameo here, with Geri “Ginger Spice” Halliwell, appearing as Chelios' mom.) That's a clever way to give the audience a peak at the character's back story. It also fits the movie's absurd sense of humor. Just when you think the movie only has offensive humor to provide, it throws a brilliant bit of nonsense like this at the audience.

By the final act, “Crank 2” has reached levels of sublime weirdness. The first movie's villain re-appears in the most surprising manner. We get a shoot-out between Latino gangsters and machine gun wielding leather daddies. It all leads up to Chev Chelios' most extreme act of self-abuse thus far. Yet in his head, he sees a day-glo, sunshine, eighties love ballad paradise. In its final moments, “High Voltage” even breaks the fourth wall. When Chev Chelios, his skin blistering and burning away, gives the audience the middle finger... How can the audience interpret that?  Are Nevldine/Taylor telling the audience to fuck off? Or is it a cynical statement on sequels themselves? Or maybe, as I believe, they're giving typical action movie rules the finger? If there's any movie that tells audience expectations to fuck off, it's this one.

“Crank 2” ends with a sequel hook, promising further adventures for the undying Chev Chelios. Sadly, the box office recipes proved somewhat disappointing. Perhaps “High Voltage” was too spicy a meatball for the normal action movie audience? While I'd obviously loved to see “Crank” become a trilogy, I wonder how Neveldine/Taylor would top a film as unpredictable as this one. Maybe they could drop Chev into some sort of post-apocalyptic world? Anyway, the original is probably fresher and some of part two's humor hasn't aged too well. Yet the sheer number of outrageous ideas on display makes “Crank: High Voltage” another instant cult classic that is massively entertaining. [Grade: A-]

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