Thursday, April 23, 2009

Review: Crank: High Voltage (2009)

Crank: High Voltage
96 minutes
Rated R
by Scott Mendelson

Crank: High Voltage is a movie that spends 90 minutes seemingly punishing the audience for having enjoyed the first Crank. The original picture was of course the definition of a guilty pleasure. It was loud, trashy, vulgar, and violent. But, underneath all of the mayhem and property destruction, there was a real movie with and an actual relatable plot. While the original film wasn’t terribly concerned about whether you felt for any of the characters, this sequel basically dares you to give a damn.

A token amount of plot: After plunging from a helicopter and landing on a car, the wonderfully named Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) inexplicably wakes up to find a group of evil Chinese doctors attempting to harvest his organs. Bloodshed ensues and he escapes, only to realize that his heart is missing and in its place is an electric artificial model. Sure enough, Chelios once again has only one hour to make things right, unless of course he can keep the electricity flowing into his body one way or another. Can Chev find his original heart in time for Doc Miles (Dwight Yokum) to put it back in?

The problem with Crank 2 is also its greatest asset. Unlike the original, which at least had a pretense of being somewhat earth bound, High Voltage raises the level of carnage and mayhem to the level of a cartoon. If Crank was attempting to be a film version of Grand Theft Auto, then Crank : High Voltage is basically a gore-drenched Loony Tunes cartoon. Among other highlights, elbows are sliced off, a shotgun is inserted into a man’s butt, and a woman watches as her fake breasts are punctured by bullets and her chest melts away. There’s an inexplicable climactic moment where a good guy pauses mid gunfight, turns around, and unloads into the back of the unarmed gardener. I have no problem with extreme violence, but the film makes no bones about being filled with gore for the sake of gore. The absolute lack of any emotional investment makes the picture feel much ickier than it would have been had it even pretended to be telling a story. The first few times I took slight moral offense at the heartless carnage on display. After that, I just became bored.

What made Crank work was that, amidst all the mayhem (which, gore and body count-wise, was actually relatively restrained until the climax), we had an undertone of a man realizing that he had wasted his life on the very day it was to end (to say nothing of the irony that he was killed in retribution for the one murder he chose not to commit). Yes, it was trashy, loud, and anarchic, but it worked on its own limited emotional scope, and the filmmakers stuck to their guns and actually killed Statham at the end.

Alas, the sequel betrays the limited investment that anyone had in the characters of the first film. Not only is Chev now not dead, but apparently he is in a position to save his own life for good if he can recover his um... stolen heart. People can certainly relate to the idea of knowing they've only got hours to live and taking revenge on the people who murdered them. I don't think many people can relate to the idea of having their heart stolen, replaced with an electric heart, and then having to get the original back from gangsters.

Dwight Yokum isn’t given nearly as much to do this time around. Amy Smart is given even less to do other than striptease, fight with other women, and end up… well, that’s a spoiler but I didn’t like it one bit. Random minor characters from the first film show up only to remind you that this is a sequel. To be fair, I did enjoy the climactic appearance of a major player from the first film (no spoilers, but I think they were paying homage to the video game Doom 2). As for Chelios himself, the first film walked a fine line between making him an impulsively violent hit man and yet still making him a vaguely noble samurai whom we could actually root for. This time around, the savage beast is unleashed and the film spends much time recounting what a menace Chelios really is (for the first time ever, Jason Statham is unlikable). If Chev Chelios is such a monstrous outlaw, why should we root for him to get his heart back and live to murder and maim again?

The answer of course is that all of these qualms are beside the point. Crank part duex is theoretically a thoughtless, soulless picture where violence and destruction happen on a grand guignol purely for the hell of it. But, when you’re working in a mid-budget R-rated action film, there aren’t really any prizes for gross outs and pointless carnage. Writer/Directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor are breaking no taboos and are operating in an arena where they have no limitations and no real restrictions. Thus they are not being ‘edgy’ or ‘daring’, but simply being loud and brutish. The irony of course is that the very video games that Neveldine and Taylor are attempting to emulate have in fact grown up in the last several years. Even Grand Theft Auto IV has created rich characters and shades of gray moral choices to balance out its wanton violence. Compared to the video games of today and even the original Crank, Crank: High Voltage is just too pointless and dumb to merit any real reaction at all.

Grade: C-

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