Monday, December 21, 2009

Crank as the Ultimate Video Game Movie

I’ve finally ended my reign as the last American male who hasn’t seen the movie Crank. I don’t remember the original or its even zanier sequel getting all that much attention when it first came out, but it seems that both have attained minor cult status on video, and it’s easy to see why: like all the best genre movies, both Crank and Crank 2: High Voltage relish their B-movie status, throwing all verisimilitude, logic, and dramatic pretensions out the window in favor of pure, anarchic fun. It’s the kind of attitude that made this year’s Zombieland work so well, and it’s the formula that many of the most beloved action and horror films, from the Evil Dead series to the cream of the Hong Kong action crop, do so well. It’s such a simple plan that it’s surprising it’s not employed more often: start your movie off with a bang, and then don’t let up ‘til the credits roll.

I’m a little late to the party on this one, so I’m not going attempt to review or discuss either of these films in the more traditional sense. I do want to try and tackle their style, though, because while watching them it occurred to me that these two films seem to encapsulate the so-called “video game aesthetic” as well as anything I’ve seen. In the past, a “video game” movie was something like 1995’s Mortal Kombat, or 1994’s utterly forgettable Street Fighter (which has the depressing honor of being Raul Julia's last movie); that is, movies adapted from video games. In recent years, though, some directors have started employing the feel and construct of games as a recognizable filmmaking style. Crank appears to be the exemplar. Directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor are using this aesthetic at every turn throughout both movies, and while the effects are probably jarring or even confusing to people that didn’t grow up with Nintendo, for those that did, it’s too obvious to ignore.

Right from the beginning, Neveldine and Taylor cue their audience in to the kind of style they’re using. The opening credits are done in a blatant arcade game mode, complete with old school 32-bit graphics and Donkey Kong-style sound effects. When they finally do cut to the first scene of the movie, it’s a point-of-view shot of hit man Chev Chelios (Jason Statham, proving why he deserves two action movie franchises) waking up in his apartment to find that he’s been injected with the “Beijing Cocktail,” a mixture of decidedly un-groovy drugs that is slowly stopping his heart.

This opening scene works like a video game in two ways: the first is that it’s the classic “cut scene” that seems to open every action video game. That is--introduce the hero, let us know what his problem is, and then on to the ass-kicking. Some movies have used this method--Commando comes to mind--but traditionally they require a lot more throat-clearing in the form of character introductions and exposition before they really get down to business. Video games have always eschewed that kind of backstory out of necessity, since anything the person playing the game can’t control is really just filler, and needs to be dispensed with as fast as possible. The fact that Crank does the same is a definite clue as to what kind of movie you’re about to experience.

The second key aspect of the opening scene is that it sets the stage for a particular style of framing--establishing Statham as a video game hero who is essentially being “played” by the movie--that the filmmakers are to use throughout both films. For the rest of Crank, and in Crank 2, he’ll often be shot in a very deliberate and almost intentionally stilted style that is designed to recreate the look of a character within a game. Here, the idea is point-of-view, the kind of style used in so-called “first-person shooter” video games. But Neveldine and Taylor often employ a third-person style, as well, in the form of tracking shots that follow just behind Chelios as he walks down the street. Of course, the whole of both movies is not shot in this fashion, but even when they’re not using a particular type of video game framing, both Crank films take a cue from the particular set-design and set up of action video games.

The most notable example occurs at the beginning of Crank 2, when Chelios, still alive but now sporting an artificial heart with the battery on empty, escapes from the Chinese gangsters who were holding him hostage. He makes his way out into a kind of industrial park, where a collection of shipping containers have been stacked and arranged in such a way as to create a makeshift maze. Naturally, there are roving groups of armed guards, who Chelios both avoids and guns down at will. This kind of situation--where equal amounts of stealth and fighting are required--is found time and again in video games, and the style of filming, which again employs a healthy dose of centered third-person framing, is one of the franchise’s most obvious nods of the head to the arcade aesthetic. The shipping containers are also a nice touch. I’m not sure what it is, but in my experience every action video game--and quite a few movies, as well--have at least one sequence in a compound filled with shipping containers.

There are plenty of other video game elements to Crank worth studying, from the Godzilla-inspired fight sequence in the second film to the movie’s use of a map--courtesy, apparently, of Google Earth--to zip from one location to another throughout Chelios’ frenetic dash to get revenge, but I’ll let them be for now. The overall point is that these movies, juvenile though they may be, do seem to represent a small step forward for filmmakers interested in trying to mix media, whether it’s with music videos, computer animation, or video games. In the past, a “video game movie” was a movie that just borrowed hackneyed characters, plot lines, and elements from titles out of the Sega Genesis catalogue. But now it might refer more to a particular style, feel, and tone that’s more referential--oddly postmodern, even--than it is anything else. The purist in me wants to say that anything that contaminates the precious style of movies as they are is a definite step in the wrong direction, but as long as this kind of stuff is here to stay, it might as well be done right. And Crank, for whatever else you might say about it, gets the genre of the absurd, R-rated action movie oh so very right.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The New Great American Director?

Recently, I finally got a chance to see Goodbye Solo, the third movie from director Ramin Bahrani. Like both of his previous films, Chop Shop and Man Push Cart, it’s gotten rave reviews from all the major critics, including Roger Ebert, who proclaimed Bahrani “the new great American director” in the intro to this excellent interview from March of this year.

Whether or not Bahrani is going to go down as a pioneering filmmaker is too early to say, but Goodbye Solo certainly isn’t going to hurt his chances. Like Chop Shop, it’s a marvelously realized movie that attaches the heaviest of implications to what might seem like a small, simple story. It’s all buoyed by a mesmerizing performance from Souleymane Sy Savane as the title character, an immigrant cab driver who forms an unlikely friendship with an embittered old man, played by (no kidding) former Elvis bodyguard Red West.

There’s certainly no denying Bahrani has only gotten more accomplished with each movie he’s made, and after only three films he’s already established a recognizable style and set of preoccupations. Watching Goodbye Solo I kept thinking of the final scene in Dirty Pretty Things, another movie that followed the plight of immigrants, in which Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character describes himself and others like him as “the people you don’t see.” That seems as concise a definition as any of the kinds of films Bahrani makes. He follows food cart operators, poor families, and cab drivers, and finds in their stories the kind of poetry that usually only shows up in the work of other so-called “great” directors like Herzog and Bresson.

The most interesting thing about Bahrani is that he’s built his reputation solely on his brilliance as a storyteller. Usually, the young directors with the most heat on them are those with the flashiest style or the most audacious plot structures. Bahrani’s plots are audacious, but only in their elegance of execution. Whether you like his movies or not, those are the kinds of films that tend to stand the test of time. And while I still wouldn't proclaim him the next great thing in American movies, he’s certainly making the case with each film he puts out.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

In The Company of Men (1997)

Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men follows two mid-nineties corporate types--complete with wacky ties--who’ve just been dumped by their longtime girlfriends. To collectively get back at the opposite sex, they come up with a particularly devilish plan: while on a six-week business trip in fly-over country, they will simultaneously begin dating the same woman, gain her affection, and then unexpectedly blow her off and skip town (it may be juvenile, but I couldn’t help being reminded of The Dennis System). It’s the kind of thing that inadvertently happens in countless relationships, but the kicker here, of course, is that the two bastards are doing it on purpose.

The duo involved in this nefarious scheme couldn’t be more different. Chad, played with a really despicable gusto by Aaron Eckhart, is an unapologetic misogynist who sees people as pawns and dupes to be played for all they’re worth. He puts off the impression of being just a fast-talking, opportunistic jock--the kind of guy whose handshake is always a bit too strong--but by the end of the movie your not likely to think of him as anything other than an out-and-out sociopath. Howard (Matt Malloy), meanwhile, is an unassuming, bookish-looking middle manager, but LaBute establishes early on that he likes to think he’s every bit the smooth operator that Chad is. Together, they decide to take on the task of breaking the heart of Christine (Stacey Edwards, who is terrific), a shy, good-hearted typist who works in their building and--oh yeah--also happens to be deaf. No one could accuse LaBute of pulling any punches when it comes to taking his comedy extra black.

This may all sound too dark to take, and at times it is, but on the whole LaBute manages to balance the woman-hating style of his lead characters with a healthy dose of satire, not only of masculinity and the vampiric nature of some modern relationships, but of corporate culture in general (Chad, for one, seems like he would fit right in with Patrick Bateman and company from American Psycho--which would make a fitting, if not uncomfortable, double feature with this film). It all amounts to an unusually good exploration of why bad people do the things they do, which is a much tougher trick to pull off than it sounds. I remember once hearing a critic say that this movie encapsulates the whole notion of “the banality of evil” as good as anything outside of the Coen Bros. canon, and I think they have a point. LaBute seems fascinated by the duplicitous behavior that outwardly upstanding people are capable of, and it's something he’s explored throughout his career. In fact, his recent effort The Shape of Things seems nothing if not an expansion of the ideas he’s playing with here. (That film, interestingly, is told not from the point of view of the victimizer but of the victim, who, even more interestingly, happens to be a man.)

My only problem with In the Company of Men, outside of the grating-but-sparse jazz score, is LaBute’s visual style. It’s become sort of a joke at this point that no director who comes to film by way of theatre (as LaBute did) can ever display even the most minimal deftness of visual style, and he’s no different. The film is all static shots and takes so over-long that the actors occasionally stumble over their lines. I wish I could say that this insular style allows us to focus in on the gleefully mean-spirited nature of LaBute’s dialogue, but really it's just off-putting and sometimes a bit tedious. Still, In the Company of Men provides more than enough substance to get over its lack of style. This includes a real killer of an ending--the kind of scene that’s bound to stay with you, probably for a few days longer than you’d like it to.