Drive Angry (Blu-ray)
Nicolas Cage, Amber Heard, William Fichtner, Billy Burke, David Morse, Todd Farmer
(Summit Entertainment; US DVD: 31 May 2011 (General release); UK DVD: 31 May 2011 (General release))
Gratuitous violence. Even more wanton nudity. A storyline centering on an escaped denizen of Hell, his vendetta against a psychotic Satanic cult leader, the Devil’s accountant looking to clean up the mess, and blond bombshell waitress with iron fists and a souped muscle car. If it sounds like a ‘70s exploitation classic, you’d be right…and wrong. Indeed, this is Drive Angry, a 2011 experiment in excess that argues for the viability and vitality of the drive-in dynamic in a post-modern (and millennial) world. Director Patrick Lussier, who cut his teeth with previous kings of the genre like Wes Craven (of the original sleazoid classic Last House on the Left) and startling remakes (the excellent My Bloody Valentine update) is dropping the whole monsters and mayhem shtick to go full blown balls to the wall with blood, breasts, and bombast. The end result reminds the viewer of a time when movies both pandered and took peculiar, often eccentric chances with its intended demographic.
In this case, we meet the long dead - but recently “revived” - John Milton (Nicolas Cage - no, wait…he’s actually very, very good here…), a former criminal who escaped from Hell’s Prison with a magical gun and a head full of hate. He is after Devil-worshipping DB Jonah King (Billy Burke), a fiendish false prophet who killed our hero’s daughter and husband and stole their infant child. The villain intends to use the baby at the next full moon, hoping the sacrifice will bring about the coming of the Antichrist. Along the way, Milton picks up a sweet young thing named Piper (Amber Heard). She has a chip on her shoulder and the keys to a revved up black Buick Riviera. As he pursues his prey across the American Southeast, he is followed by an equally malevolent figure known as The Accountant (William Fichtner), a sharp dressed man with an underworld contract to fulfill.
From the moment we meet Cage’s pissed off papa, a man with a laser like focus and the firearms to achieve his aims, Drive Angry sets itself apart. It purposely plans on being one the greatest guiltiest pleasures ever, a movie devoid of artistic merit to function solely on testosterone, gasoline, and gunpowder. From a hilarious sex scene/shoot out which sees Milton making it with a hopped up barmaid (all while systematically slaying his attackers) to a factory chase sequence seemingly built out of pure adrenalin, this is a movie that doesn’t stop, that’s absolutely relentless in its desire to cater to and entertain. In this case, however, the filmmakers are using the lowest, most miscreant form of cinematic snake oil possible to appease the audience. Call it “TNT&A” or “Eros and explosions” but Drive Angry delivers directly to the baser instinctual needs of the viewer.
Lussier has obviously learned his lessons well. From full frontal catfights to the aforementioned bedhopping bullet ballet, he is riffing on the ripe fruit from an era in low budget ludicrousness. Only artisans like Harry Novak and the late, great David F. Friedman would find a way to marry the mindless bloodletting of a solid shoot ‘em up with Devil worship and the craven carnal insanity. You could easily see Drive Angry sitting alongside beloved bug nut classics like Bobby Trap! , She Freak, and The Brotherhood of Satan. Lussier may be trying to break the modern mold of tired thrillers by reinvesting them with the electricity and kinetic force of films from thirty years ago, but what he’s actually done is make the movie Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez have been trying to emulate since From Dusk Til Dawn. In the realm of revisionism, this is the real Grindhouse.
It goes without saying that the acting is excellent - and yes, that included the human paycheck casher Nicolas Cage. Since he has sullied his acting reputation to the point of parody, it’s hard to believe that this Oscar winner (you do remember he has an Academy Award, right?) could be anything other than marginal. But here, he turns John Milton into one of those iconic bad/good guys, an antihero who can wow them with his shooting skills or seduce them with a single sloppy kiss. Cage delivers every one of his lines with the defeated perfection of a doomed champion. He knows he will die trying to make things right, but he’s not afraid of that fate. In fact, he accepts it with a ridiculous amount of quiet relish. And besides, he’s dead already!
On the other end of the cinematic spectrum are his two main targets - King and The Accountant. Of the two, Fichtner is terrific, using every quirk and Method turn to make his button down bounty hunter a true otherworldly presence. Like Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith, he manages to find the frightening in the slightly off kilter. As for Burke, his is a character give over to broad delusions of grandeur, and he embodies that ideal expertly. That just leave Heard as the hottie eye candy, but she is much more than that. She gives Drive Angry its humanity, its hope for a world where dead fathers don’t have to come back from the bowels of Hades to save their family from a freakshow fundamentalist nutcase. She may look good, but there is more to Piper than short shorts and a solid right hook.
All the while, Lussier channels the comic book category of the last two decades (you could swear this was all sourced from some geek certified graphic novel) while staying right in the rural restraints of a 500 foot outdoor screen. While the 3D effects employed for the theatrical release are a tad obvious in 2D (hands just don’t magically head for the camera lens once they’re blown off by a shotgun), the overall feel is full blown nostalgia. It’s the heated sweat steam of a 1975 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, its windows fogged while the image flickers across the faded hood. It’s a lazy Summer’s night in the middle of Peoria, a gigantic rectangular facade filling the otherwise ebony skies with a single monolith of light. It’s the tease, the come-on before the ultimate pay-off (or lack thereof). Certainly, no one is claiming that Drive Angry is art, but in a world of prepackaged high concept action ordinariness, it’s something very special - and seedy, and sinful - indeed.