21 April 2009

A SHOCKINGLY GOOD TIME

The passage of almost three years has done nothing to temper my embarrassing enthusiasm for Crank, the Jason Statham vehicle where he plays Chev Chelios, a hitman given an exotic poison that forces him into all sorts of ridiculously contrived situations where he must do something outlandish to keep his heart rate up. So I was honestly pretty excited for that film's new sequel Crank: High Voltage, and not in any kind of ironic hipster way, nor even in a guilty pleasure way, although God knows that I should feel guilty about it. And I'm happy to report that High Voltage lived up to my expectations.

It's not that it's altogether a better film than the first Crank, although it is a great deal more consistent (the first film started to lose steam pretty quickly at about the 2/3rds mark, whereas this film keeps up the pace pretty much right to the end credits, and even a short way into the end credits). As much as anything else, this is probably the fault of the unavoidable fact that the new film isn't, well, new: while Crank was, for all that it looks to be impossibly derivative, a mostly unique and inventive brainless action movie, High Voltage is pretty much exactly the same thing as Crank.

Ordinarily this sort of thing would bother me, and here's why it doesn't this time: Crank the First was, as far as my explorations have shown me, the most perfect example in movies of the tropes, visual style and narrative language of a video game given cinematic form. If there's one thing that any good video game player knows, it's that the sequel to a great game isn't a paradigm-changing experience; it's the same damn thing with new levels and enemies, a slightly tweaked look, and maybe one or two things changed from the original, just so that you can be certain that it's really new (this is the logic by which Capcom was able to stretch the Mega Man franchise into the tens of games, nearly all of which possess essentially the same gameplay as the 1987 original). This describes Crank: High Voltage to a T: the same "game engine", only the story has changed and there's a new set of enemies and helpful NPCs.

This time around, we find that Chelios did not in fact die from falling thousands of feet from a helicopter, though he didn't end up in very good shape. Unfortunately, the same people who nursed him back to life did so only to take advantage of his preternatural stamina, cutting out his heart and replacing it with a temporary mechanical doohickey, in preparation for harvesting all his other organs (in the first of the film's many great moments of Big Dumb Awesomeness, Chelios wakes up, briefly, right in the middle of his transplant). Now, being an angry British tough guy, and being played by the current cinema's finest master of that type, Chelios isn't just going to sit around and let them chop bits from his body. So he kills his captors and heads out to find the man who stole his heart.

To freshen up the gimmick, without fundamentally changing the nature of the beast, it turns out that Chelios's new ticker only has about one hour of rechargeable battery capacity. So at least once every sixty minutes, he has to find somewhere to give himself a high voltage shock, or he will die of heart failure. Oh, and strenuous physical activity shortens the battery life. So thank God a pissed-off assassin facing down a Triad gang in downtown Los Angeles doesn't have to worry about doing anything strenuous!

Without doubt, the movie's primary charm is that it redoes everything that made Crank a blast, just more of it. The same crazy-quilt mélange of music video-derived style - freeze-frame, sped-up motion, black-and-white, random floating titles, inexplicable music cues - is still here, and many of the new film's setpieces are at least conceptually similar to some of the biggest moments in its predecessor. If High Voltage is better than the first movie, it's because of its generally greater devotion to the specifics of video game logic, and to its somewhat loopier soundtrack (e.g. when Chelios is obliged to screw his girlfriend, Eve (Amy Smart) in this film to stay alive - that is all the more sense it needs to make - he does so to the wholly unexpected accompaniment of the Marshall Tucker Band's "Heard It in a Love Song"). If it is weaker, it's like I already said: there's much less sense of discovery this time around. But still, the directing and writing team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor have between them a boundless imagination, constantly topping one absurdly overstated moment with another, even more absurd.

In the end, it's hard to think of the film as anything but a live-action cartoon, even more than the first time around; and thankfully, the filmmakers don't seem to expect that we're going into their work looking for any more than that. High Voltage has an unusually large number of moments where it becomes inescapably clear that we're not supposed to take it remotely seriously: it is a relentlessly silly movie, far more than it is action-packed or violent, though it is both of those things. If it is a hard thing to accept a movie for being out-and-out silly, well then I offer my condolences. Sometimes, silliness is just what you need - not the kind of mindless stupidity that requires you to stop thinking and passively accept whatever garish tchotchkes a studio's $100 million bought for you, but raw, childish, goofy silliness.

The film is trash, absolutely: racist, sexist, homophobic trash at that. But there is trash and there's trash, you know? And if a film is absolutely delighted to splash about in its own trashiness, and constantly call attention to itself in that "Look what I can do!" manner of a hyperactive kid... I can't complain. High Voltage isn't great, but it's ridiculously fun. More popcorn movies ought to be like this.

7/10

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