As profound a piece of pop culture iconoclasm constructed this side of pre-activist Jean-Luc Godard, “Crank: High Voltage” is kinetic social reflexivity of the highest order. Surely to be taken by many as misogynist, bigoted and in poor taste, directors Mark Nevaldine and Brian Taylor tread a shockingly thin line between exploitive badassery and synthetic orchestration. They conduct an opus of visceral fireworks, but every single action or deed they film is tinged with a sense of irony. They aren’t merely making another balls-out action picture; their “Crank” films exist and function in terms of the society that created it. In other words, they one-up Tarantino by saturating their knowledge of not only the filmic realm, but of all kinds of stereotypes, consumerist culture and sexism and channeling it into a narrative that is seemingly effortless in the manner that it articulates modern mores and plights. In a profound paradox, it is society that has created their films, but it is they that consistently deconstruct (subtly at that) what not only film means as a form of artistic license and expression, but also the influence all of media exerts on one’s conception of their environment, particularly through advertising. It’s what Eisenstein called ‘Intellectual Montage.’ Nevaldine/Taylor are masters of it.
Where does one begin with a film which has its intertextuality and commentary so tightly woven into the narrative? I dare to say I cannot even think of another film that is remotely close to the “Crank” films, in terms of semiology not being adjacent to the narrative, but the narrative itself. It even transcends the bounds of allegory. It may be helpful to examine the perceived subject of the piece. What is “Crank: High Voltage” about? In purely surface terms, it’s about former hit-man Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) in manic pursuit to reacquire his heart, surgically removed from him within the first five minutes and replaced with a synthetic one. Whereas in the first film, Chelios had to constantly down adrenaline to keep his heart pumping, now he must consistently electrocute himself to keep his the synthetic heart working. If one wanted to construct even a simple symbolism here, it could easily be done. The paradoxical mundanity and artificiality of fast-moving inner-city life can only be subverted by a literal jolt to the system. But Nevaldine/Taylor are too cleverly making these assertions and providing such insights on the fly that the narrative, itself, is never bogged down by it. The narrative is the commentary, the commentary is the narrative.
Most brilliant about “Crank: High Voltage,” is that its precise narrative, will be construed by the haphazard eye as ‘trash’ because of its subject matter. Yes, the film does contain Asian, Latino, Black gangsters, red-neck pimps, eye-candy strippers, porn stars, spoken homophobia and racism, as well as an even more over-the-top public fuck scene than the first film. These elements should not suggest the film itself succumbs to such easy pigeonholing. Think of Nevaldine/Taylor as the new Paul Morrissey. Morrissey uses narratives of junkies, whores and johns in his thematic trilogy of late 60’s/early 70’s films (Flesh, Trash, Heat) but does not do so in an effort to romanticize or glorify. Nor does he chide them with pity and condescension. Morrissey, while politically opposed to such drug culture, sexual revolution and free love, treats his subjects with compassion and humanity, which he would continue with his satirical works “Flesh for Frankenstein” and his masterpiece, “Blood for Dracula.” “Crank: High Voltage” does comparable work, though it doesn’t quite nail the humanity like Morrissey does. Yet what it lacks in humanity, it makes up for through an understanding of human nature. Whereas indie claptraps like “Sugar” or “The Visitor” use a racial equality narrative as a means to pacify white guilt, or “The Hangover” pushes non-pc buttons without regard for consequence or conviction, “Crank: High Voltage” is positively profound. It is indicative of the pop mechanism that created it, by retaining such sensical representations of stereotype, be it visual or aural, and using it as urban deconstruction. In other words, earnest white liberal efforts to humanize the minorities they portray almost always result in pacified condescension. Knuckleheaded bro-culture retains the condescension, but refuses to mask it by removing the pretension. Perfectly equal, there is no sense of such ingratiating tactics in “Crank” because each character meets the other with a shared contempt, but mutual and honest respect and is defined by the shared misanthropy. This is what makes “Crank” so sophisticated, speaking just in thematic terms; the violence is both realistic and cartoonish (a more complex examination of pastiche than anything to ever cross the mind of Neil Blomkamp) which represents the confusion that over-saturation of violent pop art and media can cause, but the discourse is never boiled down to cynical calculations.
Intertextual, reflexive and adept, the film has it all. The opening news broadcast is certainly reminiscent of Verhoeven’s “Robocop,” another complex piece on the entanglement of technology, violence and modern society. Most interesting in terms of subverting the male gaze is an early scene with Chelios in a strip club. The camera moves and the shots cut to suggest simultaneous degradation and eroticization of its female subjects; it’s an ambivalent relationship, because nothing within the scene tells the viewer criticism is being made. But look at the low angle shots which feature grinning, sinister looking men dangling singles to place in the stripper’s g-string. The editing isn’t entirely unlike MTV objectification, but it certainly isn’t identical, given these subtleties. It’s eroticized only by the nudity; later in the scene, when an armed stripper has her breast implants shot out, the gun man gives a bit of a smile, and then flees. It’s a visually breathtaking juxtaposition, partially because the smile is so fleeting and brief. But it’s the lingering misogyny the viewer must deal with. The smile isn’t so much a celebratory indicator of such misogyny, but a well-placed signifier of how films, advertising, art construct what is expected or supposed to be funny. This applies also to the lesbian foreplay in the back of a police car. Chelios shocks his balls with a taser while it happens. The juxtaposition is irrefutable, as an indication of furthering degrees and combinations of pain and pleasure for sexual release. The later instances of eroticized homophobia and gender confusion further explicate such contemporary sexual politics.
Statham is Eastwood from the “Dollars” trilogy. He blithefully whistles the non-diagetic score which accompanies his walk throughout the film. Mull over the shot of him, bent over in the aforementioned strip club, gleaning information from a dieing man. It’s first rate homage and exemplary of the 1970’s psychological western, which employs a narrative of existential isolationism to mollify the pain of such loners. Chev Chelios embodies such malaise in his wandering pursuits for his personal holy grail and until he finds it, there’s only one thing he asks: