Sunday, May 10, 2009


Freshmen writer-directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s helter-skelter cartoonish actioneer “Crank” (***1/2 out of ****)qualifies as a brutal, violent, live-action, R-rated equivalent of the Energizer bunny battery commercial with agile “Transporter” star Jason Statham displaying amazing resilience as he rants and raves across L.A. on a mission of vengeance to liquidate the villains that are trying to dispatch him. Neveldine and Taylor have penned and lensed an audaciously original, first-person style, shooter video game melodrama for the attention deficit generation. “Crank” will literally nail you to your seat with its runaway plot that updates the venerable Edmund O’Brien death-by-poisoning thriller “D.O.A.” (1950) with a nod to Jan De Bont’s “Speed” (1994) where a bus wired to blow up will remain intact as long as the driver doesn’t slow down. Nevertheless, despite its homages, “Crank” amounts to a wholly unusual exercise in ramped-up, Dutch-tilt camera angles, enlivened considerably by its maniacal meth-head editing, Atari-video game graphics, Google map search inserts, and a gallery of truly warped minority characters. From the first frame to the last, Neveldine and Taylor ignore gravity and accelerate this epic into gear-grinding, overdrive with gleeful abandon.

A free-lance professional hitman, Chev Chelios, intends to quit the paid assassin gig so he can live a peaceful life with his girlfriend Eve (Amy Smart of TV’s “Smith”) who thinks that he earns his living as a video game programmer. Sadly, Chev realizes to his chagrin that he has picked the wrong day to pursue the straight and narrow. Our agile antihero awakens to discover that a vile Asian mobster has injected him with a lethal dose of synthetic ‘sci-fi’ Chinese poison. Indeed, Chev watches with incredulity on his big-screen television a DVD that nefarious Ricky Verona (Jose Pablo Cantillo of “Shackles”) made for him that shows the dastard administering a hypo of the deadly toxin to him in his bedroom the previous evening. Chev brought this all on himself because he iced an Asian mobster Don Kim (Keone Young of “Dude, Where’s My Car”), but the surprise is that Chev didn’t whack Kim. Nevertheless, Ricky boasts that Chev has no more than an hour to live.

Talk about suspense! Talk about cornering the hero in a cul-de-sac! “Crank” puts our protagonist into a death-defying tight spot like no other movie has dared in a long time! After he listens to sadistic Ricky Verona issue his death sentence, Chev destroys his television in a fit of rage and leaves a message for his disreputable doctor, Doc Miles (Dwight Yoakam of “Sling Blade”), to call him back for an hour elapses. Chev goes on a rampage for the remainder of the film’s testosterone-laced 88 minutes that provides a surplus of momentum and raunchy merriment for those willing to suspend their disbelief to enjoy the far-fetched frantics in store for them.

No sooner does Chev discover his predicament than he hits the road in search of Ricky. He calls his transvestite friend Kaylo (Efren Ramirez of “Napoleon Dynamite”) to put the word on the street that he is looking for Ricky. Next he storms in to see an African-American gangsta, Orlando (Reno Wilson of “Fallen”), who he believes is associated with the infamous Ricky, only to learn that Orlando is looking for Ricky himself to collect $7, 500 that the Asian owes him. Chev snorts some blow from Orlando and tears off in his car. At the Las Vegas airport, Doc Miles rings Chev up and listens to his description of the poison: “The flow of adrenalin is what’s keeping you alive,” Miles explains. “You’ve got to keep moving, Chevy,” he adds. “If I’m right, they gave you the Beijing cocktail.” Miles continues with his diagnosis. “It works on the adrenal gland, blocks its receptors. The only thing you can do to slow it down at all is to keep the flow of adrenaline constant. Meaning, if you stop, you die.” During this vital expository passage, Neveldine and Taylor don’t slow down the action. Instead, the entire conversation occurs while the L.A.P.D. chases Chevy who crashes into a shopping mall to elude them and smashes through its with reckless abandon until he slams into the escalator and bails out for a cab outside the complex. As cops swarm the mall, Chev rides off in the cab, plotting his next move. He gets the cabbie to stop at a convenience store where he pilfers a supply of energy boosting, over-the-counter medications and chugs a Red Bull.

Chev takes a plunge with another gangster, his boss Carlito (Carlos Sanz of “Backdraft”) who operates a West Coast crime syndicate, in his penthouse swimming pool and plies him with questions about Ricky Verona. “There is no antidote,” Carlito gives Chev the bad news. “Honestly, you should be dead already. It’s a miracle.” Carlito laments Chev’s hit on Don Kim. “The heat from Hong Kong has been more than we anticipated.” An unhappy Chev stomps away, commandeers the cab from the driver and receives another phone call from Doc Miles. Miles explains that the Beijing cocktail “. . . is cutting off your adrenaline. Excitement, fear, and danger, it causes you body to manufacture chemicals called ephedrine. Now, what these guys have done is introduce an inhibitor to his your system. Dude, your only chance is to massively increase the level of ephedrine in your body to force out the inhibitors.”

The funniest scene follows with our anti-hero terrorizing a hospital for anything to keep his heart pumping at ninety to nothing. Initially, a pharmacist won’t give Chev any epinephrine and alerts hospital security. While this is transpiring a bystander informs him to that nasal spray, which contains epinephrine will "tweak” him. Security pursues Chev through the hospital. He changes into a hospital gown and at gun point forces an EMT to jolt him with a defibrillator. Eventually, Chev kills Ricky’s brother by chopping off the thug’s fist with a meat cleaver and then using the guy’s own gun, still encased in his fist to blow his head to smithereens like a burst watermelon. Now, Chev has to keep his girlfriend Eve out of harm’s way and kill Ricky. He catches up with her about forty minutes into the action and confides to her in a Chinese restaurant that he wants to quit the business so he can be with her. He explains that he was supposed to kill the Triad's number one man, Don Kim, but he let Kim live as long as Kim cleared out of L.A. for 48 hours. At first, Eve refuses to believe him. She walks out on him and he follows her into a public place and booty bangs her in front of a crowd of on-lookers. Half-way into sex with Eve, Chev receives a phone call from Kaylo. Kaylo has found Ricky Verona and Chev pulls out of Eve and heads off to join Kaylo. Predictably, Eve is embarrassed when she realizes the spectacle that she presented to the scores of bystanders.

Chev catches a ride in another cab with yet another ethnic type and tastes some crazy stuff that is supposed to make him like the devil. When he arrives at the rendezvous to take out Verona, Chev gets a queasy feeling. Instead of riding the elevator up to the third floor, he sneaks up to the roof, catches one of Don Carlos Carlito's thugs and throws him off the building. Chev learns that Don Carlos has killed Keylo, strangling and suffocating him simultaneously, and Don Carlos' henchmen advise Chev to find a quiet dark place and die. They will deal with Ricky Verona, but for the time being Chev has become such a media figure with his antics, especially running around in a hospital gown with a steel hard-on that Carlito simply wants him to disappear. About that time, Eve walks into the building and Chev opens up on the Mexicans, blasting away at them while he grabs Eve and they make their escape. After they clear the building, Eve explains that she had to find out if Chev had told the truth about being a hit man.

Doc Miles equips Chev with an insulin pump to feed his body the ephedrine and he goes to visit Don Carlos and finds Ricky Verona with him. Don Carlos prepares to give Chev another injection when out of nowhere appears Don Kim and his goon squad. Another gunfight erupts. Ricky jumps onto Don Carlos' helicopter, but Chev leaps on board, too. Over Los Angeles the slug it out in the chopper. Ricky and Chev topple out of the helicopter and "Crank" concludes with Chev's falling body.

“Crank” amounts to the most jacked-up joyride of all cinematic joyrides. Jason Statham was born to play Chev Chelios and Amy Smart is ideal as his dumb, blond girlfriend. Hust when you think that the plot is set in concrete, something different happens and changes everything. “Crank” features a plethora of bloody violence, profane language (as many as 115 f-words), low-life sexuality, and rampant drug abuse. Virtually the entire cast reprised their roles in the superior sequel.


“Criminals Within” (** out of ****) exemplifiea one of many espionage thrillers that Hollywood immersed the market with prior to World War II. These pictures did not cost as much to make since the stories occurred in the United States and the villains were usually fifth columnists without uniforms. Ostensibly, this movie amounts to little, aside from its director, Joseph H. Lewis, who carved out a reputation for his himself in later films. “Secret Evidence” story contributor Edward Bennett penned the screenplay from “Texas to Bataan” scenarist Arthur Hoerl’s story. Hoerl’s output in screenplays far surpassed anything that Bennett. “Criminals Within” represented Bennett’s only screenplay, though he proved the story for director William Nigh’s “Secret Evidence.” The action replicates the typical Hitchcock thriller that incriminates an innocent man for a crime he didn’t commit. Everything about “Criminals Within” complies with the formula, right down to the racist abuse of African-Americans as secondary characters in traditionally subservient roles. Ironically, the African-American characters malign themselves. The maid character slams a door in her boyfriend’s face and later makes a joke that “it won’t turn black.” Early, she claims that her boyfriend couldn’t possibly know a character because the person is a gentleman and the boyfriend only knows people in prison.

Director Joseph H. Lewis gets “Criminals Within” off to a bang-up start. An U.S. Army officer meets with a civilian scientist at a huge, three-story, brick building, in a locked room with the legend Research Dept. and Chemical Div. inscribed on the marbled glass door panel. The bespectacled Professor Carroll (George Lynn of “Hitler’s Madman”) produces spherical glass containers and demonstrates the formula for a top-secret military explosive. “I wouldn’t risk putting anything so valuable in writing,” Carroll taps his head, “I keep it here.” He mixes the chemicals while the officer watches. “I shall demonstrate the process to you and you alone so that only you and I will know it.” Director Lewis frames the medium shot perfectly so that we see both individuals with the glass paneled door in the background. The shadow of an unknown assailant appears at the door between the officer and Professor Carroll. Lewis cuts to a medium shot of the man behind the door and the guy smashes the glass, thrusts his revolver through the crack, and guns down Professor Carroll.

The Army officer phones Military Intelligence and Martin forms a plan. “For the present, his death must remain an absolute secret,” Martin informs the officer. “I’ll be here to work with you.” Nobody else knew about Professor Carroll’s research except his younger brother, Corporal Greg Carroll (Eric Linden of “Gone with the Wind”), in Selective Service at Camp Madison. Corporal Carroll displays dexterity with playing cards and demonstrates considerable initiative in his job. Captain Bryant (Robert Frazer of “Robin Hood”), Carroll’s superior officer, summons him and inquires about a valuable document missing from his safe. Carroll knows the combination to Bryant’s safe because his superior often mumbles the numbers when he opens the safe. Since an important sheet of paper was never replaced in the safe, Carroll had filed the document away for safekeeping in a cabinet. Initially, Bryant believed Carroll had stolen the paper. Carroll remembers a list of scientists on the document, but the Bryant prohibits him from mentioning any names in front of Lieutenant John Harmon (Donald Curtis of “Bataan”) who is romantically linked with Alma. Interestingly, instead of a portrait of Franklin Roosevelt on Captain Bryant’s office, a picture of Abraham Lincoln hangs there. Bryant is concerned when Alma Barton (Constance Worth of “Meet Boston Blackie”) enters the filing room while Greg is searching for the paper. He fears that she may have access to privileged information.

Bryant detains Carroll in the guard house, but our hero escapes to warn his brother. You see, Carroll doesn’t know his brother has been murdered. Our hero gets a little help from parties unknown (actually Sergeant Paul) when he finds the jail cell key in his meal. Carroll goes to the Recreation Hall to telephone his brother, but his brother’s assistant answers and says he hasn’t seen the professor. Carroll conceals himself in an out-of-order phone booth in the recreation room with Barton’s blessing. Bryant visits around closing time. He tries to pry information out of a reluctant Barton. She conceals coded messages in the high heels of her shoes and regularly sends an African-American private with them to a cobbler, Carl Flegler (I. Stanford Jolly), who serves as the go-between for an espionage ring. Naturally, since “Criminals Within” is a pre-World War II movie, the identity of the foreign government is never disclosed. The cobbler passes the shoes along to men in suits ensconced in another office on the premises. The stylist villains have a torture chamber that they call a ‘fever’ room where they can rise and lower the temperature and force a person to talk.

Meanwhile, Barton grows scared enough of Bryant that she has him murdered in the Recreation Hall. Carroll discovers Bryant’s corpse in time to get away before Lieutenant Harmon shows up with security. Initially, Carroll throws Harmon off the trail by smashing a window and then taking refuge in the out-of-order phone booth again to mislead them. When he overhears the lieutenant phone Alma, Carroll slips out the window and heads to her apartment. Meantime, a sergeant who was a former newspaperman calls newspaperwoman Linda (Ann Doran of “Mr. Skeffington”) and she gets on the case. Linda employs a loquacious African-American maid Mamie (Bernie Pilot) whose boyfriend is none other than Sam Dillingham (Dudley Dickerson of “Kentucky”), the canteen orderly. Clearly, the filmmakers ignored military customs since Sam never wears his cap. Anyway, Sam has been delivering Alma’s secret messages without realizing it. Linda hustles over to Alma’s apartment and Greg arrives not long after. She hides in the hallway and Greg discovers Alma has been murdered. About that time, fifth columnist Stanley Hume (Dennis Moore) arrives and demands to see Alma. Greg clobbers him, stashes him bound and gagged in a closet, and leaves dressed in his clothes. On the way out the door, Linda intercepts Greg. They team up and narrowly miss Lt. Harmon and his MPs heading for Alma’s apartment.

Linda takes Greg back to her apartment and orders him a new suit of clothes because she thinks the military will pick him up based on a description of his apparel. In the meantime, Harmon and his MPs find Alma’s corpse and Hume tied up in the closet. No sooner does the military have Hume in custody than an attorney arrives with a write of Habeas Corpus to obtain his release. The commanding officer-in-charge gives these two a dressing down because they are using the hard-fought for privilege of all Americans to their fiendish advantage. This obvious bit of flag-waving exposition is as patriotic as “Criminals Within” gets in the course of its 70 minute running time. The two fifth columnists are cruising away from Camp Madison when they are overtaken by the inside man, Sergeant Paul (Ben Alexander of “Dragnet”) who is a double-agent of considerably higher rank in his country masquerading as a non-commissioned officer. He reprimands the attorney for showing up too early, thus tipping off the military that something is amiss.

Greg and Linda go to the cobbler’s shop, but he is captured at gunpoint and has to accompany them to their superior who threatens to shoot Greg if he refuses to divulge the name of the scientist. In fact, Greg never learns during the story that his brother was murdered. When Greg refuses to talk, the fifth columnists capture Linda and imprison her in the ‘fever’ room to break Greg. Surprising everybody, Linda smashes the observation window in the room and Greg gets the drop on the villains. The surprising but least believable moment comes when Linda exerts her strength to break the observation window. Everything is neatly sown up in the end with the capture of the spy ring.

This forgettable, low-budget, Producer’s Releasing Corporation espionage thriller appears to have been lensed largely within the confines of a studio. Aside from the checkpoint gate and the base’s name sign, we never see anything remotely resembling the actual exteriors of a military installation. “Criminals Within” was produced in 1941, but the film was not released until 1943. One character sums up “Criminals Within” concisely with the line: “Oh, brother, this is worse than a movie melodrama.” The best thing about this mystery is the identity of the traitor. “Criminals Within” qualifies as an efficient but unremarkable potboiler. Interestingly, Frazer as the distinction of being the first actor to portray Robin Hood in the cinema. Furthermore, director Joseph H. Lewis would helm bigger and better movies like “The Big Combo” (1955) with Cornel Wilde, “A Lawless Street” (1955) with Randolph Scott, and “Terror in a Texas Town” (1958) with Sterling Hayden. Primarily, Lewis is best known for his B-movie jewel “Gun Crazy” (1950) written by blacklisted scribe Dalton Trumbo based on MacKinlay Kantor’s story “Gun Crazy.”