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Jason Statham is singularly unique in the realm of action stardom. He's not a big guy – muscular, but not big – and though fit he certainly isn't a bodybuilder. He isn't known as a martial artist, though his stuntwork does find athletic roots in kung fu and karate. He isn't particularly attractive (sorry, Jason, not my type) and he doesn't really have a gimmick that carries him from film to film. And yet, Statham is now a household name of action stardom, getting consistent work headlining vehicles that he more than any other actor can pull off with antiheroic charms. So what is it about this unconventional action star that has made him so appealing over the past two decades? I'd say the key lies in the range he exhibits in Crank: High Voltage.
Why not the original Crank? Extremity, mostly, since High Voltage does a lot of what shows off Statham's stylistic range in more outlandish and demonstrative ways. Also, the shit that happens in this movie is just way more fun to talk about.
First, Chev Chelios is about as quintessential a protagonist as one can get for Statham, with the absurdist limits of the tough guy caricature turned up to eleven. Chelios is driven by a singular motivation – getting his heart back – and the necessity of that drive turns Chelios into an unstoppable killing machine. Armed with whatever random or bizarre weapons he finds lying around, Chelios is quick with a one-liner (often nonsensical in Neveldine/Taylor's signature fashion), but he's usually just as willing to do what needs doing without excessive comment. Statham is excellent at conveying just the sort of bravado any particular scene needs, not relying on any one trick of hypermasculine cheese to keep an audience invested and giving his performances a surprising amount of world-weary human dimension for roles that mostly call for over-the-top gunplay shenanigans.
But let's not forget what makes Crank: High Voltage special in the first place: Chelios is literally powered by electricity, and gaining access to electrical charge is what powers the film's many setpieces. It's a comic book conceit blown up into anarchic splendor, and Statham is incredibly game to roll with sticking jumper cables to his nipples and tongue, grabbing hold of a transformer until he catches fire, and fucking his girlfriend in the middle of a muddy racetrack under the guise of needing the electrical friction. Statham isn't afraid to put on a shock collar for a gag, grind against an old woman for the shock value, or to take a crotch shot for a laugh. He's an actor who takes his performances seriously, but that does not mean the performances themselves are serious, often integrating larger-than-life cartoon antics into his tough guy persona so as to become a self-parody without sacrificing his basic action charm.
And it's not as if Statham doesn't have the chops to carry an action scene without that self-depreciation. He has the determination of a Terminator but the mortal body to take the sort of punishment Arnold would just shrug off. What he lacks in pure size, he makes up for in unwavering confidence and cool anger. This allows him to bat away a rival's gun without effort or theatrics, or to run his way through a chase scene without slowing down, or to take on an army of police officers in hand-to-hand combat and believably come out on top. But despite his superhuman ability to come back from being beaten, bruised, and blown up, he always takes his hits with believable pain, making his overcoming comebacks all the more satisfying.
In essence, Jason Statham is a jack of all trades as an action performer, proficient in stuntwork, charismatic stardom, and comic timing in a way that few of his contemporaries can compare to. He's scrappy and equally as often receiving a beating as he is giving one, but he's such a badass when getting beaten down that when he comes back for more he's impossible not to root for. And that too-cool persona lends itself perfectly to moments of exaggerated surreality, which is the bread and butter of films like Crank: High Voltage. Name another actor who could pull off the insane move of growing to kaiju size, wearing a papier-mache representation of his own face, and duking it out in a film that never addresses the shift nor utilizes it again. That's the kind of gonzo move that is Statham's signature, which makes any crazy premise he's involved in – from shocking himself to gain superhuman energy to fighting a giant shark – feel like a sure winner.