Bourne is too shaky, Avatar is gorgeous but narratively familiar, the Fast franchise can never quite shake its street racing roots, Minority Report is meh, most of the superhero movies all blend together, and Drive, while one hell of a film, is way too restrained for me to truly think of it as an action movie.
No, the real king of the 2000s is a film that rarely gets the full recognition it deserves: Crank. It’s written and directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, and stars Jason Statham as hitman Chev Chelios who after ruffling some feathers in the criminal underworld of L.A. gets injected with a lethal poison that will kill him if he doesn’t keep his adrenaline levels high. Essentially, it’s Statham in the role of the bus from Speed. The movie is a crazy ride that never takes itself seriously. It’s loud, mindless (not to be confused with stupid), preposterous, occasionally outrageous, and, above all else, pure fun. It’s a movie that fully accomplishes everything it sets out to do, and does so in style.
While there have been a fair share of truly great action movies so far this millennium – Inception, The Dark Knight, The Raid, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, to name a few – Crank is the best of them all. Here’s why.
1. It actually delivers non-stop action.
So many movies are described as non-stop action, but few actually are. There are always lulls and breaks, dialogue-sections to enhance the plots of flesh out relationships between characters, or a myriad of other non-actiony things. Take Shoot ‘Em Up, for instance, a movie I tend to describe as “good, but why would I ever watch it when I could watch Crank instead?” It’s another mindless action flick with plenty of cool and outrageous amounts of gunplay going on, and yet it’s bogged down by stretches of plot that feel like padding. Shoot ‘Em Up has a humdrum story that adds nothing to the film and takes away from what you want to see, I.E. Clive Owen running, leaping and sliding around guns akimbo. Crank, however, is a different beast. Due to the premise of the poison being kept in check by adrenaline, there is an in-story need for the action to just keep rolling. Sure, there are some scenes focusing on dialogue here too, but they will generally be interrupted or interpunctuated by action, even if it’s just something minor like Chelios shoving his hand into a waffle iron to keep his heart going.
Of course, I’m not saying that story and dialogue are bad things. You get more invested when you care about what’s going on with the characters in a film, so they most certainly serve a purpose. Pacing is also a factor. As an example of this done right, there’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It has that long desert section in the middle that acts like a cooldown before the high-octane final act, and the film is better for it. But Crank’s non-stop approach works too, because it serves the particular story being told. And it makes no bones about it. When a film can’t even have establishing exposition without setting it during a high-speed car chase through a shopping mall, you know you’re in for something out of the ordinary.
Also: bonus points for Statham doing all of his own stunts.
2. It has interesting dynamic between protagonist and antagonist.
Another unique thing about Crank is that it’s made clear from the first scene that the villain has essentially already won. Ricky Verona (Jose Pablo Cantillo in a great turn) has injected Chelios with poison that will kill him. There is no cure. Chelios will die. It becomes a matter of just whether he can keep himself alive long enough to kill Verona before he goes down himself.
This opens up possibilities that the film takes full advantage of. In most action movie, you need to build up the bad guy as threat throughout the movie, to make you feel like the protagonist is in danger and might not make it. The antagonist has to be kept strong. He needs to always be one step ahead of the hero, whether in terms of brains, brawn, wit, or what have you.
In Crank, there is no such need, as the villain has already accomplished his goal. So Verona becomes an atypical action antagonist. Never during Crank is he seen as truly in command of the situation. He’s cocky and arrogant, but it’s clear that he’s just trying to overcompensate; in truth, he’s a small snivelling sycophant – more middle management than an actual crime lord – who has to rely on his stronger brother and his numerous henchmen to get anything done. He calls up Chelios on his cell phone just to taunt him, but all his threatening and gloating just gets brushed off by the snarky hero in hilarious fashion, causing Verona much frustration. He’s like an ineffective schoolyard bully who throws tantrums whenever he doesn’t get his way. Yet even this serves the movie, because even if we don’t perceive him as a continuous threat – the poison is the real danger in Crank, not Verona – he’s still such an annoying jerk that we can’t wait for Chelios to get his hands on him.
As for Chelios himself, well… He certainly doesn’t fit into the Bruce Willis Die Hard “vulnerable everyman hero” mold. Not at all. In fact, he’s quite unstoppable. If not for the poison, he’d be the archetypical invincible action man. Appearance-wise, he’s no Schwarzenegger-ish übermensch, but the attitude is certainly there. How much of it is based on desperation, though? He works successfully as a hitman, a job that would require a modicum of finesse and patience – qualities rarely on display from him in Crank. What we do see is him robbing a convenience store for copious amounts of energy drinks, riding a motorcycle while standing on it with no hands, and fleeing from a hospital in nothing but a patient’s gown. Is this desperation on display? Determination? The acts of a man with nothing left to lose? What would a prequel to Crank look like, with no threatening poison? This may be more pondering than what a movie like this should ever warrant.
3. The presentation matches the content.
Crank is a highly stylized movie. While it has some aspects of action movies of days gone by that I dig, you’d never mistake it for anything but a product of the 2000s due to its visual style. When the plot of the film has the hero scrambling to keep his adrenaline running, the directing and editing becomes key. This is where Neveldine, Taylor, and editor Brian Berdan shine. Through liberal use of montages, quick-cuts, fast-forwarding, cut-aways, color filters and other tricks, we’re constantly in the same mind-state as the protagonist: that of a frantic pursuit. Thankfully, despite this, Crank never descends into shaky-cam hell. I loathe when you can’t make out what is actually happening on-screen in movies, and it’s something a great many post-Bourne action films falls prey to. But Crank knows that it’s an action movie, and it knows that the viewers want to see the action. So when shit goes down, it keeps things clear and in focus.
The soundtrack is also worthy of mention, as it adds a lot of variety to a film that could easily be seen as one-note. There are songs by Quiet Riot, The Crowd, Harry Nilsson, Jefferson Starship, NOFX and more on display here, all adding unique flavors to various parts of the movie.
4. It’s really funny.
Chelios’ mildly annoyed look when an entire room of gangsters point their guns at him. Verona’s Seinfeldian telephone-slamming freakouts. Ditzy love interest Eve (Amy Smart) imploring Chelios to help her adjust the timer on her microwave oven. There’s a lot of humor crammed into Crank, and pretty much all of it works and suits the overall tone of the film. Statham in particular really has a lot of fun with his character, playing the sarcastic British badass to perfection. The sequel, Crank: High Voltage, did the slight mistake of upping the ridiculous comedy, which made for a movie that felt like it tried too hard to be silly. The original is more measured.
It’s all nicely integrated into the rest of the movie, too. Crank doesn’t have comic relief per se, because everything in the movie is equally ridiculous, so there’s nothing for it to relieve. It makes for a smooth viewing experience. Or at least as smooth as a high-strung film like this could ever be.