Whenever we interview anyone for Den of Geek, we try to throw in a curveball of a final question by asking them, “What’s your favourite Jason Statham movie?” Obviously, there are plenty to choose from, but to date, the most common answer is Crank. Simon Pegg loves it. James McAvoy loves it. Rupert Grint loves it. The list goes on, and for good reason: it’s bonkers, and brilliant, and almost completely unique.
The contrivance that kickstarts Crank’s action is a great one: hitman Chev Chelios (The Statham, naturally) has been poisoned by a rival gangster, injected with a synthetic compound that blocks his adrenaline receptors. To stay alive, he’ll need to jack himself up with as many stimulants as possible. Cocaine helps, as do energy drinks, but the best way for Chelios to keep going long enough to get his revenge is to throw himself into as many dangerous and violent situations as he possibly can. Carnage ensues.
That’s pretty much all there is to the plot, but it’s all there really needs to be. The nature of Chelios’ predicament means the film just gets to pile one ludicrous set piece on top of another. Chelios can’t slow down, so neither does the movie. He’s like a souped-up shark, or the bus from Speed; if he stops, he dies, so he just doesn’t stop. The action is relentless and endlessly inventive, as Statham bulldozes his way around a city entirely unprepared for his brand of deadly momentum. It’s dizzying.
Terrifyingly, it’s also soon to celebrate its tenth birthday. Crank was released in September 2006, and immediately nabbed itself a reputation for being over-the-top, ultra-violent, and compulsively watchable. Watching it now, on DVD, it’s exhilarating, but at the time, on a full-size cinema screen? It was one hell of an experience.
Pinning down exactly what made Crank so special is tough. It’s got a lot going on, so while your first time watching it is likely to be the most thrilling, it rewards re-watches because of all the bizarre details thrown into the background, and there probably isn’t a limit on the number of times you can enjoy Statham tossing out snappy one-liners while chopping gangsters’ hands off. There’s an irrepressible energy to the film, and the credit for that has to be divided up between Statham and writer/directors Neveldine/Taylor.
Statham, at the time, was already a rising action star. He’d made his mark in gritty British fare like Lock, Stock, And Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), moved to Hollywood to appear in mid-level actioners like The One (2001) and Cellular (2004), and even graduated to leading man status in The Transporter (2002) and The Transporter 2 (2002). He had shown himself to be a compelling performer; he was already a bankable star, already a force to be reckoned with.
His directors, on the other hand? Not so much. No-one had heard of Mark Neveldine or Brian Taylor – or Neveldine/Taylor, as they’re credited here – before Crank. But they’d definitely heard of them afterwards. Crank was their calling card, and it felt like a mission status. The two of them wrote the film together and directed it together, one taking the A camera and the other the B camera, shooting largely handheld (and often on rollerskates!) in a hyper-stylised, hyper-kinetic style that borders on obnoxious. Actually, it probably crosses right over into obnoxious on more than one occasion, but it’s so exuberant that it’s easier to just get swept along with it than try to pick it apart. Images bend and swirl, the screen splits in two, three, or four, and huge onscreen subtitles point out locations on (trademarked!) images from Google Maps. It’s a loud movie that’s exaggerated in every possible way.
And, yeah, looking back ten years later, there are things that feel dated. The whole movie has a crude, fratty tone to it, and while bad taste is clearly the point, there are a few times when it feels like it goes too far. Its sequel, Crank: High Voltage, attracted a lot of criticism for its apparent misogyny and racism, but many of those same criticisms could also be levelled at the first Crank movie. There are virtually no women in it, and those there are mostly exist as sex objects; only Amy Smart gets much in the way of dialogue, and her character is a perpetually dazed stoner who’s mostly there to give Chelios a bit of depth. The various different gang members tend to be defined mostly by their race, and there’s a joke about terrorism that’s clearly meant to satirise racism and hysteria but is still uncomfortable to watch.
There are also too many homophobic jokes and insults to count, including the seriously grim rape and incest jokes Chelios makes to his enemy. That kind of stuff feels like it probably would’ve been edited out of a 2016 film, probably at the script stage – and the film wouldn’t suffer for losing it. Though Crank doesn’t seem to endorse the views its characters sometimes express, it’s hard to deny that they’re pretty gross. Maybe it’s just that these are unpleasant characters in an unpleasant world; most of these moments feel misjudged rather than hateful, and are more likely a symptom of the film’s deliberately provocative sensibilities rather than anything more sinister. But in the end, loving Jason Statham doesn’t have to mean blindly worshipping every character he ever plays, and Chelios definitely isn’t a straightforward hero.
He’s not a terribly nuanced one, either, but then he doesn’t need to be. This is a film about eye-popping visuals and chaos; its premise might be a brilliant excuse for ever-escalating anarchy, but it does require the villain to be idiotic enough to choose ‘the Beijing cocktail’ to kill Chelios instead of, you know, just shooting him. The whole thing is about as deep as a washing up bowl, but there’s not a dull frame in it. In contrast to the other action films of its day, even the Statham-fronted ones, it felt dangerous. Made for $12 million, it’s scrappy rather than polished, but it uses that to its advantage. Statham did all of his own stunts – even the final helicopter showdown – and it feels authentic, as well as madcap. It throws out so many ideas that some of them were inevitably going to be bad, but more of them are great. It feels new, and exciting, and, yeah, maybe a little bit transgressive.
Part of that is that Crank draws on video game imagery as much as movie imagery, but without actually being based on a game. It came out right in the middle of the wave of pretty terrible game adaptations: it came after the first two Resident Evil movies, plus Doom, Silent Hill, and BloodRayne, with Hitman, DOA: Dead Or Alive, and several more Resident Evils just around the corner. Most, if not all, of those movies missed the mark for both gamers and cinemagoers, but Crank does a pretty good job of invoking the feel of playing a fast-paced beat ‘em up or first person shooter, while swerving any obligation to faithfully represent beloved game characters on screen. Borrowing from rather than slavishly recreating games meant Crank felt fresh rather than nostalgic. Now, it maybe doesn’t feel quite so innovative, but that’s because other films since have tried to recreate what Crank did – it’s hard to imagine, for instance, that the likes of Hardcore Henry could ever have been made in a world without Crank.
Sadly, looking at what the filmmakers did next is less cherry. For The Statham, of course, things worked out pretty well. Crank showed that he could be funny as well as intimidating, and that opened up new possibilities to him, including a role opposite Melissa McCarthy in Spy, without harming his action cred. But Amy Smart’s had more luck on TV than in movies. And writer/directors Neveldine/Taylor have been kind of unreliable since, often due to circumstances beyond their control.
There was Crank: High Voltage in 2009, of course, which had a higher production budget (still not massive, though – it was made for $20 million) but took less at the box office. Neveldine/Taylor’s dystopian thriller Gamer hit cinemas in the same year, but was even less enthusiastically received, failing to scrape back its comparatively plush $50 million production budget. Pathology, a grimy horror set in a medical school that Neveldine/Taylor wrote but didn’t direct, fared even worse, with a lifetime worldwide gross of a little over $3 million.
And then there was Jonah Hex, which again was written by Crank’s dynamic duo, but directed by someone else. Production was troubled, and their script was more or less thrown out – they’d envisioned a hardcore, unhinged version of the character who’d indulge in some down-and-dirty action, which Warner Bros didn’t get on board with. Still, it dented their reputation a bit to be associated with a flop as widely denounced as Jonah Hex. Another comic book movie, Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance, could’ve sorted things out, but again it wasn’t as edgy or extreme as promised, and though many of us here at Den Of Geek liked it, it wasn’t well-liked generally.
Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor are still working, though at the moment they’re focusing on separate projects, so it’s not like this is a story with a tragic ending. It hasn’t even got an ending yet. But it’s kind of disappointing that creating one of the most daring and memorable action movies of the mid-2000s didn’t lead to glittering careers full of more opportunities for awesomeness.
As for Chev Chelios himself, well, he might not have run out of lives just yet. Despite being shot full of poison, dropped out of a helicopter, then scraped off the pavement and fitted with a faulty artificial heart, it seems like he might yet respawn, because last year Mark Neveldine said that an approved treatment for Crank 3 had been written. Jason Statham’s apparently keen to revisit the character, while production company Lakeshore Entertainment are reportedly on board as well. That’s no guarantee that another sequel will definitely happen, of course, but it does sound pretty promising.
And since we know that so many of our favourite interviewees – like us – love Crank, it’d be a shame if a third film never got made, wouldn’t it?
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