Late one night a few years ago I was awake with one of my sisters channel surfing, looking for something to watch. General tiredness at that moment and the passage of time now mean that I have no idea how it happened, but we ended up finding and watching through to the end Crank: High Voltage, the 2009 sequel to 2006’s original Crank, both of which starred Jason Statham as a hit man with heart problems trying to both survive and get revenge. The film was absolutely batshit crazy, with more than a few moments when my sister and I exchanged a look communicating a mutual feeling of “whaaaat the fuck?” While my sister always refers to it afterwards as “that shitty movie we watched” I quite enjoyed the fucking ridiculousness of it all. Just as importantly it was something of a bonding experience for us. So when I saw the original and the sequel recommended by Netflix nostalgia and memory meant that I had to watch both films again.
At no point am I going to call either film a great movie. The dialogue in the first film relies too much on profanity and in the second relies too much on profanity and bad cockney rhyming slang rather than anything easily defined as wit, and both films are a bit to quick to jump towards racial, sexist and homophobic slurs. The acting often swings past simply campy towards bad, the rare CGI effects are lousy (though the practical effects are fun and look great), and you are constantly required to suspend your disbelief. The plots are simplistic, predictable and far to reliant upon exposition dumps. But, throwing a constant stream of ridiculous balls-to-the-walls action at the audience, the films are ridiculous good fun. In the first movie the protagonist is told explicitly that if he stopped moving he would die and the entire film takes this advice to heart, constantly dreaming up wacky scenarios and throwing out crazy stunts to keep our attention lest we be distracted by something shiny if the action slows down.
And both movies know exactly how ridiculous they are. Jason Statham plays, well, the same character he always plays (the characters might have names in the movies he plays, but have you ever referred to them as anything other than Jason Statham?) but he plays it with a surprisingly subtle straightness. As if he, like the audience, recognises exactly how batshit crazy everything happening around him is but just rolls with it regardless, forcing us watching to do the same. In doing so both movies also show that they know exactly how much like a video game they are. In the same way that a gamer simply accepts whatever thin plot is used to justify the mechanics required to keep the game fun and interesting (if they bother with a plot justification at all), Statham’s Chev Chelios responds to the various plot points with an “alright then.”
It goes further though. There are direct allusions to video games of course (the beginning of High Voltage is an 8-Bit version of the end of the first film) but as a gamer it was within the tone and pace of the action that I noticed it most. The way that Statham realises the need to keep his adrenaline pumping in the first film (followed by a confirmation from his doctor) is reminiscent of a tutorial level, and it is not hard to imagine an ‘Adrenaline Meter’ hovering in one corner of the frame as we watch him outrun the police driving through a shopping mall, or collecting power ups as he seeks out “High Voltage” signs and stickers in the second film. His habit of cutting through levels of grunts and seriously outclassed mooks before getting into a ‘boss fight’ was choreographed in such ways that I was half expecting the button prompts of a Quick Time Event to start flashing on the screen. Then of course there’s the ‘level’ like scenes, so that across the two movies we get moments akin to the ubiquitous stealth section, driving level, rooftop level, warehouse level, nightclub level, platforming section, (a very God of War-like) romance ‘achievement’ (NSFW, neither of them), escort mission, etc. Everything except a water level (which I expect will be the focus of the eventual third film in the franchise, Crank: Dehydration). Even the opening scenes showed a striking resemblance to common video game tropes (how often has a protagonist awoken in their home – or a strange location – before being given an info dump so the player knows the basic context? Or, maybe even more commonly, woken up in a mysterious hospital bed after catching brief semi-conscious glimpses of being operated on?)
Ultimately the Crank films are movies that try to act like video games, surprising given that it is often the other way around. Even more surprising given that I’d say it’s successful. I think where Crank and High Voltage succeed where other movies meant to look or feel like video games fail is that rather than attempt to simply replicate a particular visual style or theme these two maintain a very video game like tone, pace and structure. What semi-surprised me was that, while watching both films, I thought of two games in particular: Saints Row: The Third and Sunset Overdrive. Semi-surprised because, as I thought about it before beginning writing this, I didn’t think of more ‘cinematic’ games like the Grand Theft Auto series.
But it makes sense. Like the Crank films, Saints Row and Sunset Overdrive are cartoonish, humorous, unrealistic, immature, and varying levels of self-aware. SR‘s Boss (the player character) is, like Statham, pretty relaxed about the insanity they get up to, not questioning the inherent ridiculousness of, for example, driving a tank out an airplane and landing on an island covered in zombie gas. Or discovering massive cloning facilities while fighting their way up a massive skyscraper (before riding a giant sphere down said skyscraper directly onto the head of their enemy). SR:3 is self-aware enough to know how crazy everything is, but simply goes “why the fuck not?” and rolls with it. SO takes it further, frequently breaking the fourth wall or joking about the implausibility of various game tropes like long distance communication (“Don’t question how we deliver the story!”) or death (“You might [die]. I’ll probably just respawn over there!”) or plot (“How convenient…”). Given the sorta punk rock soundtrack and focus on keeping moving or dying in SO it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s channelling a bit of Crank itself.
More importantly, both games encourage constant movement and action to remain fun and exciting. SR:3 actively encourages the player to car-surf, drive on the wrong side of the road, perform aerobatic stunts, blow up the game universe’s version of the Smart Car, and stylistically bludgeon or machine gun through anything that gets in your way. Like the original Crank, SO tells you to never stop moving, because if you stop you die. While you jump, grind, bounce and wall-run through the city you’re relatively safe, something further reinforced by the awarding the player points for travelling stylishly. Staying on the ground, attempting to stop and use cover, or some other common mechanic in more ‘realistic’ shooters is a quick way to get overwhelmed and die. Both games provide a large sandbox environment, enough plot and context to provide an excuse to go batshit crazy, then encourage you to do just that.
The result is that they hold your attention. They keep you playing, trying different things, beating scores, beating down enemies. SO was the first Triple A video game my other sister finished in years (perhaps ever), simply because it was the first game that managed to draw her full attention for long enough to complete it. She’d stopped playing SR:3 simply because SO had just come out. If I was introducing someone to gaming these two are amongst the games I would use to do so.
That’s why the two Cranks work so well in my mind, they’re films driven by the mechanics of the world, accept that fact, and see how much fun shit they can do with it. That’s why, in my mind, they might not be great films but they’re great fun and great examples of how to make a film like a video game.