Less a movie than a blunt instrument, Crank is an explosion of sex and violence, set to a deafening soundtrack and cobbled together by a crazed editor. From the look of it, first-time directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor wanted to make a compact film -- it's only 83 minutes (they're long, long minutes) -- but refused to leave out a single one of the insane images and visual flourishes they'd been collecting in their heads in preparation for their cinematic debut (both men come from an advertising background). As a result, the film has a terrible case of ADD: Scenes are chock-full of unnecessary visual touches that, while striking and interesting if used judiciously, quickly lose their power when they show up in every scene -- several times.
Jason Statham plays Chev Chelios, a hitman with possibly the most absurd name in the history of cinema. He awakens one morning with blurred vision -- the handheld camera shows us his point-of-view -- and in extreme physical pain, but with no idea what happened to him. Careening around his huge, warehouse-style apartment, he comes upon a DVD resting on his (of course) giant flat-screen television. And from the obscenity scrawled on its face, we can assume the disc wasn't there when Chelios went to bed. The star of the DVD is Verona (Jose Pablo Cantillo), a cringingly stereotypical Latino Villain who chews through the limited scenery as he gleefully tells Chelios he's been poisoned with "some Chinese sh*t", and has just an hour or so to live. So the movie opens with its central character already dead (much like D.O.A. did way back in 1950 -- and then again in 1988), and the bad guy's confession already out of the way: Forget solving a crime (already done) or avoiding danger (no point): Chelios gets to spend the whole movie trying to track down and kill Verona before his time runs out. Needless to say, blood will be spilled, limbs severed and cars crashed in the process. And, as if the early setup wasn't enough of an excuse for pure action, it soon becomes apparent to our hero that when his heart stops pounding, he quickly begins to fade. Describing his symptoms by phone to his sketchy personal physician Doc Miles (country star Dwight Yoakam, wonderful as always), Chelios hears a lot of movie medical mumbo jumbo, all of which means that a rapid flow of adrenaline is the only thing that will keep him alive. Of course, since the conversation takes place while Chelios is high on cocaine and driving his car through a mall, one gets the impression he already knew the prognosis.
Now that all the excuses are firmly in place, Neveldine and Taylor can start the action in earnest -- and start they do. There are probably five minutes in the entire film not filled with the sound of either pounding music, gunshots or crunching metal -- and generally all three are happening at once. On his way to both find Verona and rescue his naïve girlfriend Eve (Amy Smart, playing the same role she always does, with about the same degree of success) -- she thinks he's a computer programmer -- from the thugs he thinks are heading her way, Chelios grimly rampages his way through Los Angeles leaving abject destruction (not to mention lots and lots of bodies) in his wake. (Crank is a very much a kitchen sink action movie: Everything is in there, sometimes twice. Everything.)
All of which could have resulted in a highly enjoyable movie. But Crank isn't. Instead, it feels more like an assault we have to survive, largely because, though the movie is full of the sort of jokes frequently used by action directors to disarm extreme violence (Severed hands: Always funny.), it has a unremittingly grim tone. Statham spends virtually the entire film either swooning or sporting a nasty, tough guy snarl, and he runs/drives/rides through the movie like a soldier assigned a task; it's as if he's trying to get through the 83 minutes just like we are, and is enjoying it just as little.
Jokes in action movies work best when there's a certain acknowledged absurdity to the film. When, after shooting dozens of men in Terminator 2, Arnold Schwarzenegger grunts "They're not dead," we laugh in spite of ourselves because the movie itself knows how silly it all is. Like everyone the Terminator meets in the film, our feelings for him are a combination of awe at his robo-Austrian physique and power, and gentle mocking at his inability to understand the world around him. Crank, however, has none of that. When Statham makes cracks about Verona's brother, or plays with that old reliable severed hand, it's all done with the same seriousness of purpose he brings to shooting his handler's henchman in the head, or terrorizing a hospital. And, since we're clearly supposed to think he's the coolest, baddest guy ever to be poisoned in his sleep, there's no room for mocking, either within the movie or without it. As a result the humor falls flat, and serves only to remind us of violence it's try to disarm.
At its core, Crank is nothing more or less than a male fantasy come to life. Bare breasts abound at every turn; rampant, consequence-free violence (at one point, Chelios gets shot; though he complains at the time, it's never spoken of again) and public sex, complete with cheering crowds, provide monotonous set-pieces. (The fact that the sex scene starts out with the woman -- his girlfriend Eve -- repeatedly shouting "NO!" and pushing him away is, of course, completely dismissed.) To that end, it's likely to do huge business with that tantalizing late-teen/early twenties male demographic, who will eat up the naughty, noisy allure of the whole thing, without ever noticing that it's sloppy and unfocused. Which is too bad, because there are fleeting moments in the film -- a quiet conversation between Chelios and Doc Miles, a wonderful, blissful scene set to Harry Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin' at Me" -- that suggest Neveldine and Taylor have the ability to do more than slap together naughtiness and action sequences. The inevitable box office success of Crank, however, is likely to bind them to that assembly line for a long time to come.