There’s no two ways about it, Drive Angry is a mess. At times, it’s a gloriously enjoyable one, and at others, a frustratingly puerile one, but a mess nonetheless.
It’s an incredibly rare occurrence for a film to leave me so utterly divided, especially one that chooses quite openly to take a visceral grindhouse route in the opening minutes. But I imagine that’s, in part, down to not being able to quite maintain the balance between what’s naturally cool and what’s forced and uncomfortable to watch.
I’ve heard several other people talk about Drive Angry‘s pure popcorn entertainment appeal, but more often than not, that disclaimer is just another way of politely rubbishing it. I don’t hold to that view. I love horror and action, trashy or otherwise, but the recent grindhouse blend has had really uneven results as far as I’m concerned. I loved Planet Terror, but hated Death Proof, while Machete was fun, but nowhere near as much as I’d hoped it would be.
Then along came the prospect of Nicolas Cage, on a vengeance mission, after escaping from hell, looking like a cross between Cameron Poe and Johnny Blaze. I thought Christmas had come early. But, sadly, The Cage is only partly used to his full potential and only a small part of the film’s problems.
The idea of a Nicolas Cage movie a month should be the cinematic equivalent of nirvana for me. Yet, as February takes hold, I can’t help but feel slightly let down for the second time this year. Don’t get me wrong, Drive Angry isn’t as dull as Season Of The Witch, but it isn’t too much better in many ways, with yet another director failing to channel Cage to anywhere near his best form.
I recently preached the virtues of his often overlooked restraint in certain films, but Angry was not the film to keep him in check, especially when the man himself is supposed to be so damn pissed off (It’s right there in the title!). Yet that’s what’s happened. Everyone knows that Cage’s brand of mania is one of his most distinguishing traits. So, why not use it?
One of the movie’s straplines uses ‘The good, the bad and the ugly’ to describe it, a perfect summation and one that I’ll happily exploit for this review.
The most outstanding part of Drive Angry are the two performances from William Fichtner and Amber Heard, who spend the entire duration not just giving their all, but lifting the entire film into another league when they’re on screen.
Heard has been steadily carving her mark as an actress into the action/horror genre, appearing as the titular star of All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, the generic blonde beauty in 80s throwback, Never Back Down, before pinching a cameo in Zombieland and recently coming to the attention of John Carpenter for this year’s The Ward.
With each performance she seems to become stronger and clearly relishes the chance to break from being stereotyped, mixing genre work with independent cinema. But in Angry she also gets to become more physical when she has punches to throw.
Sadly, there are far too few female heroines filling cinema screens these days, with Angelina Jolie and Milla Jovovich leading their respective budget categories. So, I’m keeping an eye on Heard’s potential to join them, especially when her next project should raise her profile even higher in the form of The Rum Diary with Johnny Depp and the ever excellent, but much underappreciated, Aaron Eckhart.
Speaking of superb-but-often-overlooked actors brings me to William Fichtner. Fichtner first came to my attention after rivalling Timothy Olyphant in Go, for the most unnerving and sinister performance in that film, with the former playing the somewhat predatory Detective Burke. Here, he’s given free rein to steal every scene as The Accountant, going on to effectively steal the entire film in the process, with incredible ease.
The moment Fichtner appears on screen, the entire quality of the picture changes up a gear (car pun unintentional), as he delivers one of his funniest and sharpest turns to date in what might be a career best performance, while managing to spark Cage to life in the few scenes they share. I also noticed every minute of screen time passing when Fichtner wasn’t around. He’s that integral to the film’s quality.
The Accountant also claims Drive Angry‘s finest moment, which involves a track from KC and the Sunshine Band combined with explosive vehicle surfing. It’s priceless.
Things take a turn for the worse, however, when it comes to the wasted supporting actors.
Director Patrick Lussier’s last film, My Bloody Valentine, also chose to use film legend, Tom Atkins, in an attempt to channel some of his energy from one of my all time favourite horror films, Night Of The Creeps. But in Angry, Atkins is hamstrung by some cringe-inducing dialogue and very little else.
Elsewhere I was excited by the appearance of David Morse, yet another fine actor. But he’s hardly on screen at all and has very little to do with the time he’s given.
Bluntly? I got the overriding impression that Lussier seemed more preoccupied with thoughts of how to squeeze more full frontal nudity into the picture than in fully utilizing his incredible cast.
Which brings me to the ugly part of proceedings, namely, the puerile element of misogyny that sits uncomfortably in amongst everything else, leaving a slightly bad taste in the mouth. It’s a similar problem that I’ve encountered in the likes of The Devil’s Rejects, where the attempts to be shocking seem so painfully contrived that all they actually manage to do is draw attention to a lack of imagination, wit and skill.
Remember how My Bloody Valentine sought to use full frontal nudity and violence in an attempt to shock? Remember how it absolutely failed to do so? Well, Lussier didn’t, and used the ever dismal logic that ‘more is better’ by putting more naked women and more violence into Drive Angry, without the slightest idea that too much of a good thing can be incredibly tiresome. It’s the cinematic equivalent of someone telling a joke which makes you laugh once, but then that person tells the same joke again and again and again, for an hour and a half. Eventually, you’re the one that wants to become violent.
I’m no prude and appreciate the grindhouse sensibilities, but putting your friend and co-writer in a ‘comedy’ sex scene again might be funny to you. Just leave it out of the film. And directly lifting a scene from the glorious Clive Owen-starring Shoot ‘Em Up won’t go unnoticed, especially when you make an inferior copy.
Add to this the Paul W.S. Anderson school of feminism, which involves taking your love of the strong female roles created by James Cameron and Ridley Scott, then having a half assed attempt at it yourself, without a single clue how such things work and getting it completely wrong. Attempting to sell an audience a strong, sexy woman just on the grounds she can throw a punch, when you’ll then spend most of the film leering over her exposed flesh, with the camera never further than a few inches from her behind, isn’t going to work. Consistency is everything. So, pick a side and stick to it.
What is shocking about the film is the suitable use of 3D, harking back to the days of Friday The 13th Part 3-D and Jaws 3-D, when the gimmick value of three dimensions was used in exactly the right calibre of film, with no pretentions whatsoever. I have to confess to not being the greatest fan of 3D (whatever happened to the hyphen by the way?), based on purely discriminatory reasons. I have an eye condition which means my vision is imbalanced, so it doesn’t have the same wow factor for me, while 3D has also stopped me from seeing a fair amount of films in 2D, unless I can make one of the limited screenings during the day, when I work.
Drive Angry’s 3D was shot using 3D cameras and it shows, as body parts, bullets and all manner of appropriate wonky CGI debris fly through the screen with gay abandon. But, as with most of its ilk, I don’t think it’ll lose anything at home in 2D.
There are moments to love and moments to hate in Drive Angry, which still leave me struggling to get a handle on the film as a whole, with William Fichtner and Amber Heard deserving a star each, even if the other elements of the film let them down.
Overall, the film works best when it tries the least, as it seems to constantly take one step forward, then two steps back. I can see how certain elements should have worked better, but in trying to force-feed the cool moments in such a heavy handed way, they actually become quite off-putting.
I think filmmakers would do well to observe that, when the likes of Tarantino and Rodriguez have struggled within the confines of contemporary exploitation, it might be better off dead.
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