A studio known for making B movies, hiring a B list action star to be in a debut feature from a pair small time cinematographers can seem like pretty standard fair. But the unique combination of Lionsgate, Jason Statham and Neveldine/Taylor (Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor) created one of the most bold and interesting action films of the decade. Crank and it’s sequel Crank: High Voltage, manage to freshen up the stale action genre making It with dynamic digital cinematography, great action and a well developed story that plays to the best of the genre.
The contemporary action genre that exists today is very different to what it was in its heyday of the 1980s. As it exists now there are two distinct form’s. The most common is the blockbuster movie, commonly seen in cinema’s, often combined with the science fiction genre to create a movie with a huge budget, huge action and huge special effects. These movies involve solving or averting problems with world shattering consequences. A simple way, producers and screenwriters have to ratchet up the stakes for the protagonists and thrilling audiences.
The other form is where the 80s action stars moved to. The low budget, straight to video/dvd movie. Stars like Jean Claude van Damme, Steven Seagal and Dolph Lungran. These movies carried on the spirit of the 80s action movies but saw their budget and profits diminish over time.
Crank’s action is of much lower spectacle of a blockbuster like Transformers. Crank is more character lead with Jason Statham’s Chev Chelios on screen for much of the films running time. This makes Chev the very centre of the action gunfights and chase scenes that take place during Crank. And rather uniquely there are no explosions in the entire film.
The Crank movies narrative best resembles the revenge film 1970s. Crank, sees Chev getting revenge before a poison kills him. Even thought Chev is a gangster at the beginning of the film, and the audiences first introduction to him, Chev is little more that a victim. In Crank: High Voltage, Chev is trying to find and retrieve his heart which was stolen from him and again he becomes a victim through different means. The narrative ‘[shows] the hero moving from victim to vigilante with both the system’s and the viewers’ implicit approval.’ (Leitch, 2004, p.89) and that Chev ‘has the opportunity to occupy all three major positions associated with crime fiction: victim, detective, and criminal’ (Leitch, 2004, p.82) But like action movie’s, Crank’s narrative comes across as almost episodic, ‘allowing for wide variations in tone, the inclusion of different locations and incidentally introduced characters, and moments of spectacle, generally involving fights explosions or other types of violence.’ (Marchetti, 1989, p.188) Episodic vignettes of an almost surreal comic natural. The best example of this is in the second movie. A climatic encounter between Chev and his faux enemy, Johnny Vang, doesn’t turn in to a standard fight scene but instead morphs into a Toho Studio’s Godzilla style fight. With gigantic warped versions of the characters fighting in slow motion. Or another example would be a dream-like sequence of Chev riding a motor cycle while "Everybody's Talkin" by Harry Nilsson plays. The song itself is from Midnight Cowboy.
Also worth noting would be the sex scenes which take place in odd unusual locations. In the first movie, the middle of china town in the second on a horse track.
Sex scenes in action movies are frequently meant to titillate and have no plot reason for being in the movie. Neveldine/Taylor flip even this on it concept on its head by having the sex scenes matter to the plot. Chev must have sex with his girlfriend to survive.
However most audiences come to an action movie for the spectacle so does the quality of the story and narrative really matter that much?
This is almost like an old-school action movie where the stunts are real stunts and that’s what excites me. (Statham, 2006)
Where Neveldine/Taylor really come into their own is their behind camera skills. Both trained as cinematographers, and use the Crank movies to show off, as well as experiment, with the camera. With the directors behind operating the camera’s the frame is constantly moving and reframing on-the-fly. Neveldine/Taylor don’t storyboard anything take full advantage of digital film making techniques. Modern, Lighter camera’s allow them to use a highly mobile camera style that is beyond anything seen in in a blockbuster action movies without losing the quality of a blockbuster movie. But these long takes are also the kind seen in other films such as the Mean Streets and Goodfellas. The style of these shots were more standard mid-shot compositions designed to follow the characters through a space showing their connection to it. In Crank, the long take draws the connection of the psychologically state of Chev with the narrow concrete corridor representing his state of mind and options at present, only one, escape to his car. With the directors behind operating the camera’s the frame is constantly moving and reframing on-the-fly. ‘A sustained period of ‘experimental’ techniques – including rapid discontinuous montage editing, the use of a distorting ‘fish-eye’ lens, unstable ‘subjective’ camera-work’ (King, 2002, p.41) convey Chev’s problem within the film. He’s jittery, pumped on adrenaline and running for revenge. Varying the style of shots as well as using POV’s from inanimate objects and shop security camera footage of Chev help to ‘[Draw] attention to the way a film is constructed makes us aware of its status as a construct.’ (King, 2002, p.40) The consumer grade HD camera’s also allows the opportunity of getting shots that heavy film camera’s could not allow. Like shooting from the footwell of a car or shooting from inside a a flying helicopter.
We're trying to go back to the Mad Max style of filmmaking... put the camera in peril and put the actors in peril and do a lot of real stuff and stay away from CG if you can.” (Neveldine, 2006)
Neveldine/Taylor’s approach to the visuals of Crank seem to have their roots in the 70s new hollywood cinema movement. Smaller camera’s back then pushed the boundaries of where and what could be filmed. Crank is a hyperactive handheld approach, that both puts the audience amongst the action and creates a connection with the protagonist.
‘Explosive montage editing and rapid, unsteady camera movement have become two of the signatures of the major set-piece sequences of the contemporary Hollywood action cinema.’ (King, 2002, p.245)
The intensified continuity style editing found in blockbusters can be found in the Crank film but in a different way, due to the lack of coverage. The main bulk of the editing switches between two simultaneously running something fairly unique. More than once in the film, edits on movements are seamless. A result of Neveldine/Taylor’s A/B camera filming. The entire concept of editing resolves around creating fluidity, in time and space, from disparate pieces of footage, but Crank manages this easily. Although this is not constant and can only be witnessed in a couple of scenes. Split screens are used to full effect with the concept being played with to a certain degree. The splits change and move, and on one occasion both shots of the split screen are of the same character. Some of the subtitles are also fairly subversive to the concept of subtitles. Something that wouldn’t necessarily be considered. Where the subtitles are mocked as being unnecessary with the subtitles ready “BLAH BLAH BLAH.” or even POV subtitles, where the subtitles are backwards to the audience but normal to Chev who is reading them.
‘In that sense, it is absolutely of its time. More than that, it feels like an end game, a last act, an aesthetic requiem.’ (Bochenski, 2009)
With the Crank films, Neveldine/Taylor clearly show that they are both cine-literal. What results is an understanding, a comprehension and subsequent execution of genre conventions without being post modern. Similar to the likes of Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. Both these films manage to show off the technical accomplishments of there directors and the technology used used in there making. Whilst also managing to infuse a sense of life and freshness into a genre that has become homogenised and diluted. Thus, they manage to achieve greatness regardless of how under rated they are by critical community.
Gina Marchetti, ‘Action-adventure as ideology’, in Angus and Thally (eds), Cultural Politics in contemporary America, New York, Routledge, 1989.
King, G., 2002. New Hollywood Cinema. London: I.B.Tauris.
Leitch, T., 2002. Crime Films. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Neale, S., ‘Action-Adventure’ in Cook, P. (ed.) The Cinema Book, London, British Film Institute, 1985.
About.com Hollywood Movies, 2006. Jason Statham Talks About the Action Film, Crank. [online] Available at: <http://movies.about.com/od/crank/a/crankjs072606.htm> [Accessed 10 Janurary 2012].
About.com Hollywood Movies, 2006. Directors Brian Taylor and Mark Neveldine Discuss Crank. [online] Available at: <http://movies.about.com/od/crank/a/crankbt083006.htm> [Accessed 10 Janurary 2012].
Little White Lies, 2009. Crank: High Voltage Review. [online] Available at: <http://www.littlewhitelies.co.uk/theatrical-reviews/crank-high-voltage-4420> [Accessed 10 Janurary 2012].
Crank, 2006. [Film] Directed by Neveldine/Taylor. USA: Lionsgate.
Crank: High Voltage, 2009. [Film] Directed by Neveldine/Taylor. USA: Lionsgate.
Transformers, 2006. [Film] Directed by Michael Bay. USA: DreamWorks Pictures.
Mean Streets, 1973. [Film] Directed by Martin Scorsese. USA: Warner Bros.
Goodfellas, 1990. [Film] Directed by Martin Scorsese. USA: Warner Bros.