Crank 1 (2006) & Crank 2: High Voltage (2009) are loosely conceptual action movies that reflect, orgiastically, their own times. The newly familiar objects of U.S.A 2000 are accorded X/treme cybernetic special effects which draw from the amped-up template of The Matrix but dispense with the ideas, mystic philosophy, and costly sci-fi premise. Instead, the violence in Crank, which would have only previously seemed buyable in a sci-fi flick, is played out in the present-day and the patterns are sequenced against the same backdrops as tabloid snapshots and pre-gentrified industrial neighborhoods.
Chev Chelios, our hero - an aggrieved and persecuted Los Angeles gangland strong-armsman - plays the existential video game for an audience inundated by compulsive GPS locution, hyperdrive fitness fashion, Abu Ghraib-style sadism, and a deep precipitation of stylized movie violence from the late 70s onward. Chev is injected with a vague serum, referred to in occupational terms as "The Beijing Cocktail," that will kill him if his heart rate slows down. Of course, Chev gains this knowledge by watching a video on TV recorded by his uppity rival, Verona, a Chicano jangsta with a goombah name. Chev is poisoned, the chemical nature of which is explained as “that Chinese shit,” temporarily counter-activated by a substance given him by a Haitian cabbie, “some hardcore shit made from plant shit."
Chev is aided by his personal physician, Doc Miles, a source of the movie’s pan-fried biological information, played Method-style by Dwight Yoakam as a burnout crackhead heart-surgeon/pimp-daddy, less Dr. Oz than Dr. Benway from Naked Lunch. To keep his adrenaline up, Chev does cocaine off the floor and fucks his girlfriend in public before an audience of gawking L.A. Chinatownees. These are very good twists on the trials and tribulations of the One Man Army action hero, but seem to come from a directing team who never did blow and rarely got laid. Still, Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor treat drug-kingpin movie tropes the way Kenneth Anger did biker dudes in Scorpio Rising. Chev Chelios is naturally a man who takes life at mach speed, and his survivalist street nack gains him Puma sneaks, a retro tracksuit, and the ability to raid Kwik-E-Mart for limitless hi-energy drinks and neuro-enhancing pills. He is on the cannonball binge we all fantasize we were on, too.
Crank 1 and C:2 embellish scenes with a cookie jar of hypertext: pop-up style addendums; gratuituous, faux-explicative subtitles; and a super-RAM’d Google maps-app that guides the viewer through Chev's vengeance journey. The controlling nihilism is a joke - at one point Chev’s desperation causes him to point his mammoth handgun at an innocent, gurney-stricken patient rushed to the emergency room - but we want to see Chev Chelios succeed. Don't we all imagine ourselves in a race against time terrorized by grade-Z stock scumatorium bad guys? It is mildly amusing that Chelios spends a chunk of screen-time in a hospital gown with his bum hanging out, and there is a nice gag about an Epenephrine-induced boner. Jason Statham tactfully plays the hard-ass deadpan that made Arnold Schwarzeneggar, in his day, so compelling and hilarious and iconic, and Chev’s East End limey accent is a helpful tinge, as J.C. Van Damme’s Belgian inflections were fitfully Borat-esque.
In all fairness, the filmmakers don't really save Chev at the end of C:1, though his eyes blink and nostrils flare after falling thousands of feet from a helicopter, on his cell phone no less, leaving a remorseful message for his girlfriend, to the placid yacht rock of "Miracles" by Jefferson Airplane. Chev bounces off the top of a car into the middle of L.A. traffic, back on his old turf. But the staggering implausibility shouldn't exactly be mistaken for innovation in the genre.
“My strawberry tart!” Crank 2: High Voltage keeps the gags and zingers going with a few but not enough fresh twists. C:2 ups the Opti-Man conceit - once Chev's superhuman heart is extracted by sicko ghetto doctors, they next prioritize the disjunction of his One Man Army dick. Amy Smart is back again as Chev's ditzy, harangued ladyfriend (boned again in public, this time on the turf of Hollywood Park Race Track). In the climactic blinged-out rooftop showdown, it is revealed that Chev’s old enemy, Verona, is not quite dead. Verona’s fall from the sky was supposed to have killed him at the end of C:1 as it did not Chev Chelios – Verona exists now as a decapitated head floating in a jar of electron-induced fluid, a warped version of the New Human, gurgling trash-talk from a Creature Shop noggin with the equal wrath New Yorker readers regard Sarah Palin. But Crank: High Voltage is too much the “part 2” in a trilogy, with neither a satisfied cliffhanger nor any rounding out of the installment's story. Instead, C:2 juices up the obsession with defacement of sex organs, including chopped-off male nipples and silicone that bleeds from a stripper’s shot-up fake tits. An egregious Bai Ling (herself a walking & talking mutant sex object) is thankfully whammed in the air by a speeding car.
Spoiler: C:2 ends with Chev cowled in flame after a peculiarly invigorating electric shock. The Doc replants Chev's strawberry tart, and one can only assume that Poondong, played with cheap inconsequential camp by David Carradine – the B-movie guru’s final role - will feature more prominently in Crank 3. Did they cast Mr. Carradine as the arch-villain only after Warren Beatty backed out? Who will next play the mad and giggly Poondong? This author suggests a career-bending Ben Affleck. As the inimitable biblionaut Q.R. Markham postulates, Chev Chelios may very well return transcendentally in Crank 3 as "pure energy riding the power lines like a datastream lawnmower man."
We should enjoy the Crank movies now, because their inferior spawn will be glutting the multiplexes and online cable channels without psychic mercy in the not-at-all-distant future - no matter that Obama might intone a different paradigm than had before. The sensibility is already straight from a Cold War, Art Brut pulp paperback - Chev is directly incarnate of Mack Bolan, The Executioner, a Vietnam Vet vigilante, and Nick Carter, the inviolable Killmaster, an American grindhouse 007. These testosteronovels are innately descriptive by the name-dropping of luxey brands and gun jargon. John Rourke, ex-CIA survivor of a nuclear holocaust in the early-80s Survivalist paperback series, is armed with “Detonics stainless under his right armpit in the double Alessi rig.” Sunglasses and motorcycles are given similar schmancy cataloguing. In Crank, the placed products are things any urbo-buzzhead can find at Duane Reade, the Apple Store or on Ebay. Too bad though, that the old Anco Theater on 42nd Street wasn’t around anymore for 2AM screenings of these depraved extravaganzoids. . .