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Arts & Culture

Not Screened for Critics: The Wicker Man and Crank

There have always been films that the studios have chosen not to screen for critics; the reason usually being that studios feared they had a dud on their hands and wanted to avoid bad reviews on opening g weekend. But in the past few weeks we've had more than the usual amount on no-can-see pictures. Snakes on a Plane started the late summer trend and now both The Wicker Man and Crank (both opened on September 1 throughout San Diego) chose to open without letting critics take a peek at them.

Snakes on a Plane was not only justified but also smart in not uncoiling itself for critics in advance of its opening. That film was created on the Internet and those Internet fans deserved to get the first look at their silly, designed-to-be-bad creation. Similarly, Crank had nothing to gain by making itself available to the press. It's a simple-minded action film that delivers exactly what its ads promise. No surprises, no art. Reviews would do no good. But The Wicker Man, written and directed by acid-tongued indie filmmaker Neil LaBute should have been previewed for the press if only because by not screening it in advance it was immediately doomed to receive a more severe critical thrashing than it deserves.

The original 1973 The Wicker Man was a slow-building British horror film scripted by playwright Anthony Shaffer (who's probably best known for Sleuth ). The story involved a devoutly Christian policeman who receives an anonymous letter informing him that a young girl has mysteriously disappeared from Summerisle, an isolated island community. The policeman's somber attire and demeanor are a sharp contrast to the bright, happy and sexually free inhabitants of the island. The tension steadily mounts as he uncovers evidence that leads him to believe that the locals are part of a pagan cult about to sacrifice the young girl in an occult ritual.

The film was horribly handled by a string of distributors who hacked fifteen minutes off the original running time and promoted it as a standard horror film. After all it did star horror icon Christopher Lee (who reportedly made the film for "no money" and felt it was possibly his best work). But the film had neither the gore nor the special effects to satisfy audiences lured in by the misleading ads. Two years later, some film enthusiasts sought out the film's director Robin Hardy and found a near full-length version of the film at Roger Corman's offices. They released a restored version of the film, which finally found an appreciative audience. It didn't deliver traditional horror but rather an intelligently crafted tale that built to a disturbing and unexpected climax.

I haven't heard any rumors of Neil LaBute's version having been subjected to studio cuts, but it does seem like The Wicker Man is once again being subjected to a misguided ad campaign and poor handling by a studio. The ads promise a "mind-blowing conclusion" and the artwork serves up what looks like a girl version of the evil Damien from The Omen. So basically, everyone goes in expecting a twist and something shocking at the very end. Those are expectations that are hard to live up to under any circumstances.

LaBute reworks the original story so that the police officer, Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage who also serves as a producer), receives a letter from a former girlfriend (Kate Beahan) asking him to come to Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of her daughter. When he arrives, he discovers a creepy commune-like community where everyone seems suspicious. It's also a community dominated by women and by a female leader (Ellen Burstyn) who claims to be channeling the goddess they worship. No one in the village can remember the girl but we, like Edward, immediately suspect that everyone is lying.

LaBute's film fails in comparison to the original. But it's not so horrible that it deserved to be unceremoniously dumped into theaters in the final dog days of summer. It fails because it is obvious where the original was subtle; it sets you up to be scared rather than genuinely surprising you with the twists and turns it takes. The original film drew tension from the contrast between the devout Christian cop and the free-spirited islanders. In LaBute's film, there's not really a contrast so much as there's an immediate conflict, and that proves less interesting and less suspenseful. This is the second film that LaBute has adapted from other material and once again it proves far less interesting and successful than the films he's made based on his own material. Hopefully this failure will drive him to adapt only his own work in the future.

While The Wicker Man fails to improve on its original source material, Crank sets such low expectations that's it's difficult to say that it fails. It sets out to make what is essentially a remake of Speed but without the bus. Jason Statham is Chev Chelios, a hired killer who gets injected with a poison that can only be kept at bay if his adrenaline is pumping. So like the bus that can't go below a certain speed or a bomb will detonate, he needs to keep moving or his heart will explode. It's like Speed meets Run, Lola, Run. Chev hits the ground running and doesn't stop as he tries to track down and get revenge on the lowlife hoodlums who injected him. Predictably he does a lot of running, driving recklessly, drug-taking and even gets his blood pumping by having sex with his girlfriend in the middle of Chinatown.

Crank aims low and delivers. But for a film that's about keeping adrenaline pumping, it's strangely lethargic. Sure it pulses to a fast music beat but scenes are cut badly and without true pace, and the story sputters along creating unnecessary complications that get in the way of fast forward movement. This should have been done by those extreme parkour guys from District B13, now there's a film that knows something about rapid, heart pumping action. But Crank, written and directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor ("extreme visual sequence creators" for Biker Boyz ), is ultimately an action film without any action flair or inspiration.

Crank tries for humor with Chev's ditzy girlfriend (played by Amy Smart) but the jokes tend to fall flat and just feel forced and uncomfortable, like the sex on the street. Statham just looks pissed off for 90 minutes and maybe that's because he's stuck in this lame film. He's done far better work in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, and he's displayed a more stylish flair for action in the two Transporter movies.

The Wicker Man is rated PG-13 for language and disturbing images and violence; Crank is rated R for language, violence and sexual content.

Companion viewing for The Wicker Man: The Wicker Man (1973), In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors

Companion Viewing for Crank: District B13; Run, Lola, Run; The Transporter movies