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Crank Treats Action Movies As A Decadent Pleasure
You want adrenaline? Crank's got adrenaline
Crank is an action movie about the ridiculous gratuitousness of action movies. Hollywood demands constant sex, action, violence, and motion for its genre fans. Crank takes that to an extreme of literalness; hitman Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) is injected with some "Chinese shit" which will shut down his heart if he doesn't constantly flood his body with adrenaline.
So for 85 minutes he races around the screen, chasing vengeance, a cure, thrills and action for its own sake. Every time the movie starts to flag, and viewers are threatened with a moment of contemplation, characterization, or meditation, Chelios starts to die—and has to power on to the next ridiculous stunt: running a car up an escalator, cutting some thug's hand off with a cleaver, demanding a doctor use a defibrillator on him, rutting with his girlfriend in a public square, robbing a convenience store of redbull.
The ethos of unceasing excess is an aesthetic as well as a narrative convention. The soundtrack is all racing punk and crap hair metal, and directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor make extensive use of split screens, jump cuts, and sped up film rates, as if they, like their main character, need to fit as much into each moment as possible. The look is somewhere between a music video and found footage; everything looks cheap and grimy and bleary.
The film is meant to be trash. In that vein, it's quite mean spirited; homophobic and racist stereotypes flash by as quickly as the T&A. There's barely a pretense that Chelios is better than the thugs he's fighting. There's an obligatory scene where he has a come to Jesus moment and declares he's going to retire from the assassination business, but it's just there because that's a standard assassin-movie trope, to be thrown indiscriminately into the mix along with the gore and sex and car chases. Chelios assures his girlfriend he gave violence up for her right after he shoots people dead at point blank range. If he's reformed, he has a funny way of showing it as he murders his way across the city, casually beating up civilians, threatening people on gurneys, and, most despicably, cutting in line at the pharmacy window.
Statham is perfect for the role of Chelios. Other action heroes generally emanate cool, brutality, or scrappy grit, but Statham has always projected pissed-off frustration. James Bond or Jason Bourne are supposed to be slick and masterful; they flatter the viewer who identifies with them. Statham in contrast always projects barely contained exasperation. He takes the news that his heart is going to burst with the same irritated crankiness (see what I did there?) as he expresses when his girlfriend Eve (Amy Smart) asks him to fix her microwave clock, or refuses to finish her car-chase blow job because she doesn't want him to relax, sleep and die.
Chelios frustration rapidly evolves, over the course of the film, into jitters and paranoia, and break-down. As he ingests an escalating array of drugs—cocaine, epinephrine, meth, various unnamed substances—Chelios looks worse and worse. He's strung out, feral, dressed in ugly track suits or hospital gowns, running through the city with a massive erection caused by the wrong kind of injection. This isn't Daniel Craig or Matt Damon or even the effortful but admirable John McClain. Instead, Chelios is ridiculous, disgusting, unpleasant, feral, sweaty, amoral and headed for death. Adrenaline junkies may be protagonists, but they're not heroes.
The film isn't exactly a critique or a parody. It loves its action tropes and its speed and its own decadent vileness. But there's a sense in which its mocking its own viewers, or at least reveling in their ugly grotesque. If you love action movies, Crank says, you don't actually want to save anyone, or fight for righteous justice. You just want to see blood and explosions and press the dopamine button like an increasingly ecstatic and zoned-out rat. By admitting as much, the film allows itself to embrace its worst action movie self, or its best. Crank's genius, if you want to call it that, is in understanding the two are the same thing.
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