Monday, February 26, 2007

Trashy Movies

Stephanie was away this weekend, so I seized the opportunity to rent some movies I know she would be uninterested in. Besides my usual rental--the next disc of The Shield, now starting season 4--I got three movies, which turned out to be too ambitious for one weekend.

Haven't even put in The Shield yet, but the movies I did watch were last year's Jason Statham movie Crank, and the 2004 disaster Taxi, about which I have long harbored a wholly unreasonable curiosity.

Crank is good. Statham plays Chev Chelios, a hitman who has been injected with a drug that will kill him unless he can keep his adrenaline up through any means necessary. It's not quite great, but if you decide that Crank is a movie that you want to see, it's exactly what you'd want. It has the hyper visual style of your Tony Scott movies like Domino, but it's so suited to the story that it doesn't feel gimmicky. The movie is intended as one protracted, exhausting adrenaline rush, and the visuals complement that. In fact, as the filmmakers explain in their "Crank'd Out Mode" picture-in-picture commentary, they reverse-engineered the story to suit their frenetic shooting style. The writing/directing duo behind Crank come of as an unpretentious enough pair, even if their banter is occasionally too self-satisfied and obnoxious. They were both camera operators who started working together when they realized they shared a love of getting shots in dangerous, risky ways, like getting pulled on rollerblades. One of them jokes that it was only natural to team up, since when you put their two 60 I.Q.s together, you get 40. "I'm good at math," he adds.

This gleeful embrace of mindless stupidity is all over Crank, which the auteurs report was written in four days. But damned if the thing doesn't have violent energy to spare and, befitting the premise, tremendous momentum. Statham and the filmmakers clearly have a lot of fun throwing it all together. Amy Smart's role is surprisingly small and thoroughly degrading--she's pretty much there just to have sex with Statham on a couple of occasions--but she debases herself so gamely that it's easy to enjoy. And it is funny that the girl Statham talks so much about being in love with is kind of an idiot and clearly not worth it.

Crank would be better if a higher budget had allowed staging certain stunts more practically--in particular, a car crash in a mall is brilliant in conception but is undercut by a sheen of fakeness. Still, it's an understandable, forgivable flaw--staging the stunt practically would probably push the thing into Bruckheimer territory.

On the other end of the spectrum is Taxi. It's easy to say that it fails at its goals; harder to say is what it's actually trying to do. Having seen the French version, and being obsessed with car movies, I was following this from way back. I found the alterations for the U.S. version both horrifying and hilarious. Re-casting the villains as supermodels for no logical reason was a masterstroke--transparent pandering at its best. Re-casting the speed-obsessed cabbie as Queen Latifah? Also hilarious, but far less promising. Shoehorning the sassy black woman stereotype into Taxi was a bizarre choice. It seems almost like a parody of bad Hollywood executive meddling with source material. Who is this movie for? Queen Latifah's audience is not interested in a movie whose hook is a tricked-out taxicab, and the action-comedy males who want to see car chases and bank robbing supermodels are not exactly Latifah's fanbase. It's a classic example of trying to broaden a movie's appeal and creating instead a movie for no one.

Still, while Latifah's stereotypical black lady sass is over the top and grating, and she never convinces as a tomboyish car junkie with NASCAR dreams (oddly enough, a description that also matches the protagonist of Herbie: Fully Loaded, also written by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon), she does have some amount of presence and charisma, which is more than can be said for her co-star, Jimmy Fallon.

Fallon, whom I found tolerable enough in Fever Pitch, is an absolute disaster in Taxi. Latifah is not funny either, but I understand that where she's concerned we're supposed to accept sassiness as a legal tender substitute. Fallon has neither sass nor laughs. His desperation is palpable in an early scene where he does a Cuban accent for an interminable length of time, or in several scenes where he acts nerdy and neurotic all over the place. He's just throwing nervous energy into the atmosphere, but no jokes land and the whole thing is just an ordeal.

Meanwhile, the movie is meandering around, with a script as aimless as Fallon's performance. For a movie whose pretext is a cool car, it is content to go a long time without letting us see it. A long dry patch in the middle of the movie has the car impounded, and leaves us nothing to hang onto but Latifah and Fallon's sparkling comic banter, and not one but two on-the-nose scenes in which characters confess what they "always dreamed of" doing (NASCAR driver and cop, in case you were wondering--good thing they made speeches about it).

The cool cab itself is a preposterous affair that transforms according to the logic of the Gadgetmobile--one part slides out of sight, and another slides in, impossibly, from the same space. But that's okay; that's the one part of this that it's still possible to love. The driving scenes are staged well enough, but they're nothing spectacular and there aren't nearly enough of them.

That the character bits and comedy are awful shouldn't be a surprise, since the director is Tim Story of the equally unstylish and inept Fantastic 4. But Jimmy Fallon still brings his own unique comedy vacuum to bear. We see this in a featurette called Jimmy Fallon: Tour Guide, in which Fallon leads a camera around set, desperately riffing on things with the lamest results imaginable. Fallon, on a spare yellow hood, obviously from the taxi: "No, that's not part of a taxi. Why would you think that?" Fallon, on some pallets leaning against the wall: "These are from our big pallet scene." (They're not, they're just pallets. Fallon goes on to recite some fake dialogue in which a captain yells at him about pallets.) Fallon, on a video monitor with a shade around it: "What's that, a wood chipper? I demand a wood chipper on all of my sets." Fallon, on some dark utility area under a deck: "Hey, it's my dressing room! Stay out of my dressing room! Good place to smoke. Keep all my bongs in there." It's like watching a real-life David Brent or Michael Scott, but without the underlying self-awareness.



Zack said...

Are DVD special features ever worth watching? Deleted scenes when the movie's really good, maybe ... but those times I've watched featurettes or commentary or behind the scenes footage I come out thinking I've just wasted my time.

Jimmy Fallon is, at least on camera, entirely without worth.

Kenny said...

Special features are good if you really love the movie, and if they are well made and not just puff pieces. But sometimes they are also great when the movie is really bad, especially if you are surrounded by a group of ironically-minded friends. The Firewall feature with Harrison Ford and the director was hilarious, as you could feel how much they secretly hated each other. The Jimmy Fallon feature was awful, but as proof of how unfunny Jimmy Fallon is without depending on a bad script, it was valuable.