In “Crank,” hit man Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) awakes to discover that he has been drugged with a synthetic poison from China that will kill him in “about an hour.” It’s a fate, he soon learns, that can only be temporarily held at bay by keeping his adrenaline pumping.
It’s a concept perfectly suited for a movie — one that you can almost hear being pitched to Hollywood executives. (The 1950 noir “D.O.A.” is one predecessor.) Unfortunately, Sandra Bullock isn’t driving this bus.
Chelios is his own driver, keeping his foot hard on the gas, recklessly racing to stay alive and exact revenge on his creative killer before his heart gives out.
Since giving up an Olympic-level career in diving, Statham has been carving out a niche as a minor action star, playing hardheaded British gangsters, first in Guy Richie’s “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch,” and more recently in “The Transporter” and its sequel.
In “Crank” (which wasn’t screened in advance for critics) Statham plays an impressively offensive and unlikeable character whose single-minded goal — to stay alive long enough to kill — leads to some loathsome solutions.
To keep his heart rate up, Chelios (no apparent relation to the hockey star, Chris) snorts cocaine off a bathroom floor, guzzles Red Bull, picks a fight with a gun-totting gang, eludes police on a car chase through a mall, has sex in the middle of Chinatown, sticks his hand in a waffle iron — and most curiously — headbangs to Billy Ray Cyrus (“Achy Breaky Heart,” fittingly).
His rampage runs through all kinds of stereotypes — a ditzy blonde (Amy Smart) who gladly puts out with dozens watching; a preening homosexual (Efren Ramirez) who daydreams about his previous night out dancing; and personality-less Chinese mobsters, led by Don Kim, played by Keone Young from HBO’s “Deadwood” (who sadly doesn’t say “Swigin” once).
While Chelios tries to figure out how to find Verona and whether his boss Carlito (Carlos Sanz) double-crossed him, he attempts to contact his doctor, Doc Miles (Dwight Yoakam) to find an antidote. The dependably excellent Yoakam plays Miles with a lazy helplessness. It’s only death, he conveys.
But “Crank,” like Chelios, is pulled downward by its nihilistic rush for a rush. Writer-directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s previous work lies mainly in making commercials — the quick-cutting aesthetic employed here.
Neveldine and Taylor play Chelios’ manic, pointless rage for a gleefully violent romp, stomping on anything and everything along the way, including the life an old woman’s parrot — and the reputations of its cast.
The intelligent, fun Smart has cheered up movies before (“Just Friends”), and Ramirez proved an excellent, deadpan sidekick as Pedro in “Napoleon Dynamite.” Neither need stoop for a doomed hit man.
Statham remains a captivating force of energy on screen. But if he’s going to ascend to the big leagues of action stardom, he has the talent to do it without sacrificing everything for the sake of a quick pulse.