Back in the '80s, grade-Z movies gained hipster cred when a pre-Mystery Science Theater 3000 vogue of hunting down, viewing and snarking at such films became a mark of cinematic sophistication.
Of course, like all good things, this was eventually co-opted by The Man, first in the frat-boy-ized Buckaroo Banzai, then in the "take it easy; we'll do it for you" format of MST3K, and finally in Quentin Tarantino's attempt to make A-list versions of Z-grade movies.
But at the same time, the tradition of the Z-movie continued, mostly unnoticed by the co-opters. Horrors like Time Barbarians, N.Y.P.D. Mounted (starring Dennis Franz and a very unhappy horse) and Menahem Golan's ouvre—including such gems as 2000's Escape to Grizzly Mountain, in which Dan Haggerty basically just says, "Fuck it; I basically do grizzly movies"—were still made, ignored, sent directly to video and marked down to $6.99 for sale at the impulse-buy rack at the drugstore.
So there were basically two tracks of Z-dom: the ironically self-conscious version, wherein people viewed these films as a joke or a source for more elevated art, and the unironically unselfconscious version, wherein people with no discernible talents were given the opportunity to display that indiscernibility.
And then there's Crank: High Voltage. This is a full-throated Z-movie, with no higher pretentions, which nonetheless is completely aware of its Z-ness. It revels in it, but does not betray it to the frat boys, snarkers or sophisticates. Choosing to have its cake and blow it up and then have sex in it, Crank: High Voltage simply strings together a video-game-inspired theme (someone has stolen Jason Statham's heart, and he must constantly jolt himself with electricity to stay alive while he hunts for it) with some graphic sex (thank you, Amy Smart!) and a seemingly endless series of racial slurs and stereotypes.
It is not a good film, in the moral sense of "good," but it might be an entertaining film, and is in many ways an innovative film. For example, this is the first time I've seen "massive homo cunt" in the subtitles to any movie. I also can't recall ever seeing another film that used the word "slantard" as a slur for people of East Asian descent. And, in keeping with the film's need for constant speed and action, it includes the inter-title "9 seconds later," which I think is the briefest unit of time ever expressed in an inter-title.
So kudos to cinema pioneers Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who co-wrote and co-directed this film, for coming up with these innovations. And also for their refusal to refuse to pander. For example, the film contains a scene in a strip club. The problem with most strip-club scenes is that they contain nudity, but not blood-spattering violence. I don't want to spoil anything, but let's just say that, if you want to see what it looks like when a bullet passes through a silicone-enhanced chest, you might just want to check out Crank: High Voltage.
Also, Neveldine and Taylor understand that very few films have had the courage to deal with one of the most pressing issues of our time: the fact that Chinese crime lords want to steal the organs of white people—specifically, the heart, because the white man's heart is like that of a lion, and the penis, because the white man's penis is girthy and rich with history.
Or at least that's the story on Jason Statham's penis, which, sadly, doesn't appear in the film, though some video blurring of his crotch region during an intimate sequence indicates that it wanted to appear, but contractual difficulties made it impossible. I was surprised and frightened to learn that Chinese gangsters wanted to steal white penises, so I asked my Korean friend Soyeon, who saw the movie with me, if it was true. She said, and I quote, "I don't know. The Chinese are very different from Koreans."
Z-movies are very different from A-movies. There's no effort at social redemption here, no sense that the "hero" deserves to win (mostly, he goes around committing a series of public-service murders that have a very high collateral-damage count) and no strong concern with realism. (At one point Statham recharges his electrical heart by "skin-on-skin friction," which seems unlikely, although visually appealing.)
Further, Crank: HV is one of the most racist, sexist and violent movies I've ever seen. It's not, for all that, a bad film, except, again, in the moral sense of bad. It's even occasionally funny, if you think gay black bikers with guns are funny.
I was sort of amazed by the racism, though, and the fact that so many Asian actors were willing to speak in corny chop-socky accents. The most racist part is that of gang leader "Poon Dong," who's played by David Carradine. Carradine is largely thought of as a white guy, though he's no stranger to putting on the yellow face. The performance is slightly less offensive than the one Mickey Rooney gave in Breakfast at Tiffany's, and certainly more aware of its own racism, but I don't think Carradine or the film will be getting any awards from the Anti-Defamation League.
Still, it's nice to see that a couple of guys with consumer-level video-cameras (a Canon XH-A1 and a Canon HF10, total cost less than $4,000) can convince a bunch of semi-famous actors (including Dwight Yoakam, Corey Haim and Bai Ling) to demean themselves for 96 minutes of socially irredeemable instant gratification, and still get nationwide distribution.