Neveldine & Taylor

By Jonathan Hayes

 

I was sauntering (yes, I saunter) down Fifth Avenue one beautiful day this spring when I spotted Michael Weston walking with a friend. Weston’s name might not be familiar, but if you watch movies or TV, you’ll recognize him – he’s one of the finest character actors around. You might remember him as the young psychopath in Six Feet Under who carjacks David Fisher, dousing him with gasoline and torturing him brutally:

 

 

When I saw Weston on the street, I wanted to approach him and tell him I’d just seen one of his movies, and that I thought he was great in it. I decided not to interrupt his morning, and I’ve regretted it ever since. In Pathology, Weston plays a psychopathic junior pathologist who persuades other young residents to kill people and then challenge their colleagues  to figure out how they did it. It’s a typically arch slice of gonzo exploitation from the writer/director duo Neveldine & Taylor, whose films are so over-the-top that they make the bloodiest Tarantino flick look like a PBS documentary on the history of the finger sandwich at Wimbledon.

 

 

 

In Pathology, for example, it’s not enough to have doctors on a murder spree, their moral decay must be underscored by autopsy room slaughter orgies, with the pathologists smoking crack while shagging hookers and each other on the dissection tables. (Don’t click on the following, more representative, clip if you’re delicate, btw.)

 

 

 

I wanted to tell Weston that I was a forensic pathologist, and that I’d just seen Pathology, and just how wrong everything about it was, and just how much I’d loved it.

 

Writers and lay people often ask me just how realistic shows like CSI are. I think that Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor have the right attitude: who CARES? If the story really moves and the dialogue is strong, the only people who’re really going to sweat the forensic science will be the occasional entomologist, pissed off by the misrepresentation of scene interpretation by arthropod succession. It’s all make-believe – you just have to decide on what your own tolerance for the improbable or impossible is. And in Crank 2, even the characters are aware of the absurdity of their narrative, commenting frequently on its implausibility.

 

What I love about Neveldine & Taylor is their unapologetic embrace of excess – not just the extreme violence that is a hallmark of their work, but the excess sex, the excess swearing, the formal excess of their visuals and soundtrack. We all know what “good films” should be like – take the slate of any Best Motion Picture Oscar contenders and you’ll see nearly identikit films about decent heroes or heroines struggling nobly against overwhelming odds. And the closer the films come to the ideal of “goodness” – which is to say, the more they resemble a period Merchant and Ivory production, ideally plus Nazis, or a physical disability, or both – the more likely they are to win. The 2010 nominees were far more interesting than usual (in part because there were ten of them, which let weirdness seep in at the margins) but seriously: do you think any movie other than the anodyne The King’s Speech ever stood a chance?

It’s not that The King’s Speech was a bad film – on the contrary, it was very good. But sometimes, you just need someone to come along and gut the plump burgher of Good Taste.  We need someone to validate the flawed and the profane. Vulgarity and tastelessness provide an important balance for etiquette and decency, and they work best when delivered without apology. So we have South Park, one of the funniest, most incisive forms of social critique we’ve had in decades, half the dialogue bleeped for obscenity, rendered in primitive cut-out blobs. 

 

Most of all, raw, deliberately graphic and extreme work that flies in the face of traditional notions of decency and “art” is exhilarating – it’s fun to see someone speak the Unspeakable. Even when it misfires horribly, as it usually does, I’m grateful when writers and directorss say Yes to risk. Case in point: in Crank 2, we are shown the genitals of a horse (erect!), a ferret and Jason Statham; it’s delightful.

 

Neveldine & Taylor have now finished five pictures: Crank, Pathology, Crank 2: High Voltage and Gamer. They also wrote the script for Jonah Hex; they were slated to direct, but walked away from the project over “creative differences”. Hex, a flaccid commercial failure, is interesting, since it shows how critical the team’s creative visual approach is to the written material. Pathology is satisfying, but I think much of the pleasure I took in it related to its scabrous trashing of my profession. Gamer, a sci-fi thriller set in a future where video gamers play first person shooters using living people as their combat arena avatars, had some good ideas, and looked great (a lot like the amazing Xbox video game Gears of War, actually), but ultimately failed to connect. The heavy material and the presence of “real” relationships (the major warrior and his wife and daughter) dragged the narrative down.

 

The masterpieces of the Neveldine & Taylor oeuvre are unquestionably Crank and Crank2: High Voltage. And I think they are legitimate masterpieces, particularly the sequel. The title is a polyvalent pun – “crank” can mean variously to move quickly, to intensify, an irritable eccentric, an aggressive rotational action, and methamphetamine, all of which apply to these movies. 

 

This is high concept cinema at it’s finest. (I’ll now spoil a little here, although nothing you wouldn’t guess from the fact that there’s a sequel). In Crank, anti-hero Chev Chelios (a ridiculous name, and one of my all-time favourites) is a professional hit man who wakes up to discover that his enemies have poisoned him with a drug cocktail that’s shutting down his adrenaline system. Unless Chev Chelios manages to keep his heartbeat rocketing through constant stimulation (exposure to drugs, pain, danger and, of course, sex) his heart will stop. And there you have it: Speed in a thorax.

 

Chelios (Jason Statham) is a defiantly one-dimensional character. Told by his drug-abusing, defrocked physican/pimp friend Doc (Dwight Yoakham) that there’s no cure for the “Beijing cocktail”, Chelios chooses to spend his remaining time on the planet exacting revenge. What follows are 90 minutes of the most intense, obscene, violent action captured on film. (On video, actually – the films are shot in high-definition video, many by Neveldine himself on rollerblades with a hand-held consumer grade video camera, dragged behind a car unprotected at 50 mph.)

 

 

Crank is a cathartic, noisy blast of pure adrenaline, a sky dive with a malfunctioning shute distilled into two drops of pale yellow liquid, cut with bleach and blown up your nostrils by an Indonesian shaman while a Latvian dominatrix screams for her money. It’s disorienting, exhilarating and incredibly, exaltingly, blindingly fast.

 

But if the first film was a complete rush, Crank 2 is a hurricane blast – faster, denser, harder, stronger. The yellow liquid is now shot into your veins by syringe, and the dominatrix has found a gun. At the end of Crank, Chev Chelios plummets 10,000 feet from a helicopter over L.A., managing during freefall to snap the neck of his worst enemy and to leave a farewell message on his girlfriend’s voicemail. He smashes into the roof of a car and ricochets off onto the street, facing a camera, inert; we hear his last two heart beats, see his pupils dilate, and then he’s dead.

 

Crank 2: High Voltage kicks off with a squad of triad goons scooping Chelios’s body off the street with a shovel, and rushing it off to a lab for resuscitation. Learning that the plan is to keep him in suspended animation, harvesting his impressive organs whenever a crime lord needs replacement tissue, Chev Chelios escapes. He discovers that he’s been fitted with an artificial heart; Doc informs him that to stay alive, he’ll have to recharge himself constantly with electricity. Chelios races off to recover his heart, along the way repeatedly zapping himself with any current he can get his hands on. Or his tongue. Or his nipples – you get the picture.

 

 

The other characters are as one-dimensional as Chev Chelios – effectively, this is cartoon violence, so it makes sense to have a cast of caricatures. The film is a delirious picaresque set in a Los Angeles populated exclusively by ne’erdowells and demimondaines – all the men are homicidal thugs, all the women are whores or strippers, even Chev Chelios’s girlfriend (Amy Smart). The language is graphically sexist, racist and homophobic, and yet the film revels in its population of misfits, rewarding the audience with a final climactic Battle of the Marginalized on Catalina in which an army of Latino gang-bangers confronts armies of gay, black leathermen in body harnesses and studs, and multiracial prostitutes in almost nothing.

 

Crank 2 is a completely postmodern film, the purest exercise imaginable in speed and surface, sound and fury signifying nothing but sound and fury. As a formal composition, it’s an astonishing achievement – it’s hardly surprising that the film was screened at the Whitney Museum of Art.

 

Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone will love these films as much as I do – I’m sure many will absolutely loathe them. But for me, these things are an astonishing blast of fresh air.

 

So, what about you? Do you ever find extreme things can be completely refreshing, or is that just me? Remember: there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure.

 

 

 

 

22 thoughts on “Neveldine & Taylor

  1. JD Rhoades

    "But sometimes, you just need someone to come along and gut the plump burgher of Good Taste."

    Oh boy, have I got a movie for you. Check out HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN. The Boy and I watched it just last night. That movie is INSANE, and some of the dialogue has to be experienced to be believed. It's like the "takeaway" quotes were written by a psychotic institutionalized 12 year old who needs his meds adjusted. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll look at each other and go "WTF does that even MEAN?"

  2. PK the Bookeemonster

    With movies and books, if were all the same taste life would be boring. Not my cuppa but I applaud your love of what you love. πŸ™‚
    Me? In books, I love historical mysteries and cold case crimes. Movies, it depends on the movie. I loved The Hurt Locker, my favorite movie of all time is Gosford Park, and I was in the theatre for the new Star Trek movie with shiny eyes and gripping the seats when the opening music started.

  3. Sarah W

    I adored The King's Speech, I still cry during certain Disney movies (no guilty pleasures, right?), and I enjoyed the hell out of Crank.

    One of the reasons Chelios works so well, I think, as a one-dimensional, id-driven character (besides being embodied by Statham) is that there isn't *time* for him to be anything else. Angst and introspection are for people with spare time, and neither the character or the audience is given a second to spare (okay, a few, but I used most of mine on stunned recovery, wild laughter, and remembering how to breathe).

    That still of Neveldine on rollerblades doesn't surprise me at all — it's difficult to imagine this film being shot by someone sitting safely and comfortably (relatively speaking) behind a camera rig.

    It seems like there might be more time for character development (or deconstruction) in Pathology. The premise is certainly interesting.

  4. David Corbett

    God. Mr. Hayes, you made my f**king morning. If I may, sir, quote thee:

    "Crank is a cathartic, noisy blast of pure adrenaline, a sky dive with a malfunctioning shute distilled into two drops of pale yellow liquid, cut with bleach and blown up your nostrils by an Indonesian shaman while a Latvian dominatrix screams for her money."

    I swear to God I paid that woman.

    I loved this post so much I slathered it up on my FB wall, sent out notices to friends, and read it twice. The second time savoring every clip.

    My own vote: THE DEVIL'S REJECTS, if only because the soundtrack includes one of my favorite C&W tunes of all time: "I'm at Home Getting Hammered While She's Out Getting Nailed." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0VwGdo7GXU&feature=related

    I have to admit, I want to like this kind of flick more than I generally do. Tried to watch HOSTEL II, for example, and was bored to tears. But you have, yes, inspired me. I be crankin' in short order.

    Okay. Maybe one more read.

  5. Louise Ure

    I'm channeling David Corbett this morning. I picked out that same quote to copy, to tell you, "Damn, man, that's the way movie reviews should be written."

    I rarely give myself license to watch something this outrΓ©, but your blog this morning provides all the motivation I need.

    Well done, Jonathan.

  6. Jonathan Hayes

    Dusty: "A homeless vigilante blows away crooked cops, pedophile Santas, and other scumbags with his trusty pump-action shotgun." – right up my alley. Did you catch this on premium cable/pay per view/Netflix?

    PK: I liked GOSFORD PARK, but at the end of the day, it didn't transcend the BBC costume drama thing for me. I should give it another watch.

    Sarah: That's exactly it – the lack of time for anything but action is the definition of a thriller. Lee Child says, more or less, "I write the kind of books where no one stops to do laundry", which sums it up quite nicely.

    PATHOLOGY was a bit of a missed opportunity, I think, although it certainly has its moments. It has the same hyperkinetic visual style and narrative extremism of the CRANK movies, but somehow it doesn't work. Maybe it's just a bit too predictable.

    Thanks for the praise, David and Louise – much appreciated! The films aren't for everyone, but the CRANK films are so well-articulated, so pure, that you can't help but be carried along – at least, *I* can't. THE DEVIL'S REJECTS looks interesting, but with R. Zombie, I worry about there being too much dwelling on pain – I hate torture porn, because it knocks the violence out of the realm of the cartoon, with its zipless pleasures, and down into the real world, where real things hurt. It was funny, I got an excellent review from USA Today for PRECIOUS BLOOD, but Carol Memmot warned readers that the book was violent, saying "Think SAW III". Now I am a bit of a movie wuss, and have never seen a single SAW movie. I recently watched HOSTEL, and fast-forwarded all the way through it. I still have daymares about Takashi Miike's AUDITION.

    Rob, for extreme Bieber, try this: http://youtu.be/QspuCt1FM9M . Justin Bieber's "U Smile" slowed down 800%.

    It's actually very beautiful, and the fulll, 35 minute version is easy enough to find online.

  7. ZoΓ« Sharp

    Hi Jonathan

    Wonderful post. I, too, admit to loving Crank, and now have Crank II on my watch-list. In the same vein, might I recommend Unleashed with Jet Li, Morgan Freeman and Bob Hoskins – and if that cast list doesn't make you want to give it a try, it's probably not going to be your kind of movie.

    In other markets, I believe Unleashed was titled Danny The Dog. It's about a young man (Li) who has been brought up as a Pit Bull. Whenever his gangster master, (Hoskins) removes his collar, he'll fight anything that moves. A surprisingly moving movie, with some great fight scenes as well ;-]

  8. Melanie Atkins

    Just put those movies on my to be watched list. Love extreme films. My fave right now is For Lover's Only, a strong, intimate, independent film shot by Mark and Michael Polish using a single small camera in twelve days in France for $0. Amazing and beautiful. It's near the top of the queue for independent films at iTunes.

  9. Vince Keenan

    I had no interest in seeing next year's sequel to GHOST RIDER until I learned that Neveldine & Taylor were behind it. Their proposed tagline, which alas they won't get to use: "Fucking your shit up in 3D."

  10. frazer churchill

    Crank 2 is fucking briliiant. A truly Avant Garde movie that breaks all the rules in the best way. The final shot will live with me forever.

    My 3 best last shots ever :

    1> Electraglide in Blue : James William Guercio

    2> Ride the High Country : Sam Peckinpah

    3> Crank 2: High Voltage : Neveldine & Taylor

  11. Alafair Burke

    Funny you should write about this today. The husband took a well deserved day off today (post-McQueen), and we spent the afternoon watching Attack the Block (instead of cowboys and aliens, this one is London thugs and aliens). In one scene we see the aliens eat the face of one of the thugs. It wasn't quite the "Oh no they di-unt" moment we had together watching Piranha, but it was pretty great for a Wednesday.

  12. Reine

    Jonathan, what a blog to fucking wake up to in the morning!

    I don't know how I missed that episode of Six Feet Under. I thought I'd seen each of theml 27 times. But I don't remember that one at all. I have to go check HBO GO now to see if it's available there. Wow- and thanks!

    I read for the story not the action, but that doesn't mean I want the action to stop (as with laundry sorting stuff). However, I don't like to see the visual version of what I can read when it comes to violence. I learned this when my husband took me out on a date to see A Clockwork Orange. The first violent scene made me close my eyes, and I didn't open them again until the lights came on in the theatre. Step says that was going to be our last date until my cute little dress changed his mind.

  13. Jonathan Hayes

    Zoe – I didn't love that Jet Li film. I think it was one of those cases where there was too much realism, too much pain for me to have fun with it. I grew up going to HK movies, and have been watching Jet Li for a long time; he's amazing, but by the time he did UNLEASHED, he was shifting his attention to mainstream Western audiences, and the charming schlockiness of his earlier films kind of fell away. I didn't want him to be a Jackie Chan-like buffoon, hungry for attention and affection, but I also didn't want him to be Michael Caruso.

    Melanie: FOR LOVERS ONLY doesn't seem to have (at least from the title and budget) the over-the-top action I crave. Want to say more about it?

    Vince: I think Nic Cage just might be the definitive Neveldine & Taylor star – looking forward to finding out.

    JD: I'll certainly check it out.

    Frazer: Amen. Looks like I also have to see RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY.

    Alafair: I'm really looking forward to seeing that – particularly in light of the current block attacking the city thing going on right now. I lived in council housing while I was in medical school, in Brixton, at the time of the riots, btw.

    Reine: You have to rewatch it. It was a several show arc, actually, with the occasional callback – you'll remember when you see it.

    And your husband sounds like a decent fella.

  14. Melanie Atkins

    Jonathan, FLO is definitely not an action movie, but I love its simple intimacy. It's definitely different from most movies out today. Don't get me wrong; I love action movies. But sometimes I want to wind down with something beautiful, something different. And that one fits the bill.

    I'm going to search Netflix for Crank, Crank 2, and Hobo with a Shotgun. Not all at the same time… I might explode. Tee hee! But I'm intrigued. Friday night is looking good…

  15. JT Ellison

    Oh yeah, baby. I'm all for extreme, though I'm not big into the gross out stuff. But I will hook up to an adrenaline iv anytime. Nicely done!

  16. Jonathan Hayes

    JT: The CRANK films are purely cartoonish – undeniably violent, and occasionally kinda gross, but usually funny and satisfying.

    Provocative, Alex! What do you mean – what kind of extreme *is* THE KING'S SPEECH?

  17. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Jesus H. Christ, Jonathan, that is some heavy shit.
    Those trailers are insane. God, what fun!
    Thanks for the adrenaline rush.

  18. forum watches

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  19. Jonathan Hayes

    Stephen, if you haven't seen them, they're really worth a viewing. CRANK before CRANK 2.

    Forum Watches: thanks. I agree with what you're saying, and plead lack of sleep.

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