Crank High Voltage

Crank: High Voltage (hereafter Crank 2) was not screened for critics, but they take their roles as cultural gatekeepers very seriously, and voluntarily produce assessments. Crank 2 has received mostly favorable reviews, with Salon and the New York Times among the dissenters. Neatly all of the reviews agree that the film is violent tripe, but the positive and negative reviews break on whether the films’ acknowledgment of its cartoonishness makes it safe for consumption.

This movie is not safe for consumption, and that’s what makes it great, one of the best theater experiences I’ve had in a very long time. To use a blunt and cliche comparison, the film is so punk. But let me elaborate on how it’s punk. The plot of the first Crank: this world is so boring that if I don’t get some excitement I’m going to die. I don’t care about anything so I’m going to kill until I do. Chev Chelios and co. have got no feelings for anybody else, are pretty vacant, and want to destroy passers-by. They may do so smirking, but don’t let that fool you–they mean it, man.

According to some critics, Crank 2 celebrates pornography, violence, and racism. But the things it celebrates it also hates, and the things it trashes are the very worst things in the world. The film invokes a cesspool of filth in order to systematically destroy the most beloved & pernicious tropes in Western Culture: the narrative of true love, the allure of beauty, and the Hero’s Quest. This does not excuse the cesspool; it merely explains it.

NOTE: spoilers to follow. Since I only remember Chev’s name, I will instead use the names of actors (when I know them) and character descriptions (when I don’t).

True Love, or Twu Wuv, still flickers as a barely-there ideal in Crank 2. One might conclude that the film rejects love for lust, but it also makes a series of decisions which downplay or recontextualize potentially lurid situations. Amy Smart accepts Chev’s lifestyle and refuses to rat him out to the cops. Chev, for his part, entertains an airbrushed, power-ballad fantasy of ending up with Ms. Smart. But their attraction is tenuously portrayed, and tempered by Smart’s temporary disgust at Chev’s scar, and Chev’s shock 9wiht maybe a trace of disgust?) at her striptease. Everyone is shot in the harshest of light, on cheap cameras. Ling, who is usually cast for sex appeal, is entirely a figure of derisive humor. Smart, ostensibly the Good Girl of the first movie, has become a stripper. While her striptease maintains some modesty, employing tape to cover her nipples, the filmmakers later give us an extreme closeup of those nipples, exposed.

But if the film aims to titillate, it certainly has a weird way of going about it. The film does not cave in to lipstick lesbianism when Amy Smart is locked in the back of a cop car with a randy fellow stripper; Smart knocks the other girl out. While there are occassional displays of naked bodies, the most compelling image of one is the shocking, hilarious image of two leaking implants. There might be something vaguely sexual here still, but it’s a fetish at best–the woman’s breasts are essentially ejaculating.The extended sex scene at the racetrack is not hot at all–as Smart and Chelios increase in intensity, they take up ever-more-ludicrous positions and abandon attempts at realistic simulation.

But let’s return to Chev’s vision, because it’s key to understanding the film’s positioning of subjectivity and sympathy. Back in reality, Chev is actually on fire, and kissing Bai Ling instead. It is merely the last of several quasi-fantasy experiences, such as his Godzilla battle with in power grid, and his 70s-tv blackout. These  visions reveal that Chev, the protagonist, has a consistently warped perspective as he seeks out his heart and kills dudes. Although the film clearly marks these scenes as slightly different from the normal goings-on of the film, there’s enough carryover from one to the other that we should question the reality of the regular storyline as well. The refrain of “Fuck you Chelios” is rendered first in videogame pixels, later in 70s typography, and finally as the words of actual characters. Chelios experiences the most severe alterations in perspective when he receives high voltage jolts or loses consciousness. If these manage to rearrange everything the viewer sees, wouldn’t it make sense to say that other minor alterations occur when Chev recharges with a lower wattage? In other words, if the movie resembles a videogame, it’s because Chev Chelios sees life as if it were a videogame–to an increased degree when he’s received some artificial stimulation.

Fittingly, Chev’s mental predicament–seeing the world through the distorted lens of popular culture–is exactly what many fear will happen to them or their children if they see movies like Crank 2. Instead of merely being an example of brain-rotting trash, Crank 2 is a movie about how trash would really rot your brain. It challenges the lazy post-Columbine media on the role of video games by showing us what it would actually look like if this were possible. While we sympathize and live vicariously through Chev, the film also takes care to keep us at arm’s length, give us some critical distance.

In at least three points in this movie, Chev assumes the guise of movie monster: the Godzilla homage, the skin-melted wreck on Catalina island, and the waking mute of the credits. He’s also literally heartless during the course of the film.  The Chev Chelios of the first film started as human, but as the tagline reminds us, he’s now undead, or something more than human now: “He was dead . . . but he got better.” The first thing Chev does after escaping his captors in the beginning of the film is crash headfirst through a windshield, calmly get up, and zap himself with jumper cables. This monster speaks in language we don’t quite understand. He uses a dialect which the filmmakers only sometimes deign to translate. They even mess with POV to tear us slightly away from Chev. Consider when he first exits the Chinese surgeons. We start with a handheld shot of the are just outside the door. Just when we might conclude we’re seeing things from Chev’s point of view, he pops in frame from the left. Although his mental state influences what we see on the screen, we are not him.

I haven’t gone deeply into the violence and the racism yet, but even in these depths there is treasure.

To be continued . . .

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