As B movie material is increasingly transformed into star vehicles, a low-stakes contest has been brewing over who can make the most hopped-up, over-the-top grindhouse throwback. Movies like Shoot ‘Em Up, Crank, and Machete (to say nothing of the recent twofer, Grindhouse) compete for the attention of a small but enthusiastic audience, happy to proclaim themselves hungry for blood, nudity, and dialogue that may or may not register as a sarcastic comment on itself.
Into this fray enters Drive Angry 3D, with one of something like a foolproof premise: a mysterious badass auspiciously named John Milton (Nicolas Cage) breaks out of hell to exact vengeance upon a bloodthirsty cult that has murdered his daughter and stolen her infant child. It’s a movie designed as a series of chases, violent confrontations, and dubious one-liners, at once minimal in its story development and maximal in its volume. As a result, it doesn’t have much in the way of real tension.
But it does have energy. Director and co-writer Patrick Lussier, recently of the 3D My Bloody Valentine remake, doesn’t have the film-geek bona fides of the Grindhouse guys; he doesn’t make winking half-comedies like Rodriguez or genre-elevating pastiches like Tarantino. He seems less interested in paying tribute to old-school exploitation than grinding out one more cheesily disreputable genre film into the multiplex.
One could accuse Drive Angry of trying too hard, straining to climb completely over the top. It does, after all, crossbreed a sex scene with a shoot-out, cram fistfights and shootouts into car chases, score all sex-and-violence with guitar licks, and cast nut-job du jour Cage as its hero. He has an amusing knack for bringing absurdity into straight parts and playing his patently absurd roles weirdly straight. And as it’s hard to get goofier than a grizzled, gun-slinging escapee of hell, here he’s stoic and deadpan rather than manic, à la his Bad Lieutenant-style freak-out.
But the film has no shortage of tics and the off-kilter line readings, here delivered by Billy Burke, playing the icky cult leader, and especially William Fichtner as The Accountant, an emissary of Satan in hot pursuit of Milton. Fichtner, wearing a neat suit and making even facial cuts look dapper, plays his part as sort of a chilled-out Christopher Walken Lite, bemused but businesslike.
It’s not unusual for villains to steal scenes in this sort of movie. The girls—short-shortsed and long-haired—are also prone to stand out. In Piper (Amber Heard), Drive Angry finds its reason for being. Milton finds his way into her sweet vintage Charger (Drive Angry isn’t strictly a road movie, but it does fetishize classic autos on the side) and, in the tradition of the Eastwood-style hero who considers sexual desire a potential weakness, he treats her more as a sidekick than lust object. Exploitation purists, then, may be disappointed that Heard only wears cut-offs for about half an hour, rather than the full movie, but Piper’s rough-and-tumble feistiness—she curses, she shoots, and she throws countless punches—is actively sexy (the glorious opposite of, say, a passive Megan Fox in the Transformers movies) and Heard, like Cage, commits to the tasks at hand with gusto.
Though Milton has the freaky backstory, Piper gets some of the movie’s most striking idiosyncrasies. She’s the one who picks up a guy in a bar to have him strip and paint her toenails (Milton, for his part, is busy with the aforementioned mid-coital shoot-out—but even then, faithful Piper abandons her relaxation to deliver perfect sidekick assistance). Though Lussier makes sure to maintain his title as king of gratuitous 3D nudity (after a brief challenge from last summer’s Piranha remake), his film seems genuinely to respect Piper. If Drive Angry lacks the gonzo inventiveness of Mark Neveldine and Brain Taylor’s Crank series, it lacks its gamer misogyny, too.
Even if Drive Angry doesn’t bring the panache of a Rodriguez or Tarantino, its Southern-fried silliness does hit the spot—at least for a certain sort of viewer. Such material doesn’t often play well with wide audiences accustomed to bland boilerplate, another unfortunate side effect of the upgraded-B-movie phenomenon (indeed, Drive Angry is already on its way to becoming Cage’s biggest wide-release flop of the past decade). For that certain sort, however, Drive Angry offers 105 minutes of haul-ass fantasy, pretending it’s an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser rather than a cult item.