Nicolas Cage is miffed; you might say perturbed. His daughter and her husband have been murdered and his infant granddaughter has been abducted. The perpetrator of these vile acts is the leader of a satanic cult of which his daughter was a former member. Cage proceeds to scorch the Earth between him and this madman in an effort to recover the only remaining connection he has to his beloved daughter. Along the way, he becomes involved with a waitress who accompanies him on his odyssey of rage. They are set upon by a mysterious suited man who calls himself The Accountant and seems to have a knack for seemingly impossible homicides. Will our intrepid anti-heroes be able to rescue the child before the forces of darkness claim her? What is the secret the vengeful rider seems to be harboring? Is that Tom Atkins?!
Sometimes unique providence shines upon a critic when he is presented with a film that perfectly speaks to him. Every element, every frame, every absurdity seems suspiciously designed to strike just the right chord. The drawback inherent in a situation like this is that it becomes difficult to write a review that will communicate the quality of such a film for the masses. In short, trying to convince you that Drive Angry is a great film outside of an extremely esoteric appreciation may prove difficult. Drive Angry is essentially the perfect example of Junkfood Cinema fare: technically terrible but nevertheless lovable. If that doesn’t sound like your particular brand of tea, I would advise against reading further.
The ways in which Drive Angry falls short of being legitimately good are epic. To begin, one would think that if a film incessantly touted its 3D gimmick then that gimmick would therefore be well done or at least satisfactory. The 3D in Drive Angry is laughable; the images succeed only at ghosting and being out of focus. It made me feel like I had forgotten to put in my contacts…I don’t even wear contacts. The performances run the gamut from woefully incompetent to outlandishly over-the-top. Amber Heard is less an actress as she is a Maxim cover with dialogue and every moment of her hyper-sexualized screentime is a chore. Cage is wildly subdued and his line delivery is atrocious. The film is also remarkably white trash, fraught with “hemi” this and “sumbitch” that. The country music accent on Billy Burke as the cult leader and the prominent scenes in the honky-tonk bar do little to quell its redneck stench.
But then there are the elements that, while still relegating Drive Angry to the realms of schlock, foster affection in the audience—or at least me—despite themselves. It is apparent that the screenwriter sought to avoid crafting a “typical” revenge yarn and wanted to infuse it with something unique. While failing to incorporate something wholly fresh into the plot, the spin it puts on the revenge story–when coupled with the performances–is absurd enough to allow for an atypical Hollywood film. It reminded me of the classic satansploitation films of the 70s. The playfully explicit violence, beer swilled from the top half of a skull, and the willingness to smash vehicle after vehicle in sacrifice to the gods of cinematic enjoyment allow for Drive Angry to seem plucked from another, arguably better, era of film. This wholehearted focus on entertainment value with little regard for technical mastery makes Drive Angry feel like Race with the Devil for the NASCAR set. There are also aspects that hint at what Roger Corman’s late 70s Ghost Rider would have looked like.
Nicolas Cage continues to operate under the new formula Hollywood has discovered for maximum Cage success: he is insane, so let him be insane. By not attempting to shoehorn him into “regular Joe” roles, no amount of poor performance can sway an audience away from his instantly likable self-parody, an effect made all the more sincere by the fact that Cage does not seem to be in on the joke. William Fichtner provides plenty of laughs as The Accountant. He seems to be basing his performance on a Christopher Walken android; an impressive feat to say the least. Despite his wooden silliness, he manages to be the best character in the entire film by utilizing a combination of charm and crowd-pleasing lethality. Tom Atkins is as badass as ever, if a bit underused. Then again I’m under the belief that no film not starring Tom Atkins should be considered for Oscar contention, so I may be a bit biased there.
When you bundle all this up, as the final credits roll, it’s hard not to appreciate the nearly inexplicable ride on which you’ve just been. Where 90% of the movie may be considered bad by 90% of the populace, there is still that small faction of us that harbor a soft spot for balls-out, unabashed exploitation. It harkens back to a simpler time when movies were allowed to just be entertaining and didn’t have to fit into a manufactured mold. Drive Angry is self-aware–but only barely–so as to avoid being obnoxious, as well as miles and miles of fun. It may be my favorite film of the still fledgling 2011.
The Upside: A veritable truckload of entertainment that smacks of the glorious yesteryear of exploitation.
The Downside: Those with more refined tastes may not glean anything of value from this outrageous piece of filmmaking.
On the Side: Nicolas Cage’s character is named Milton after the author of Paradise Lost in which two characters travel through the levels of hell. Surely this was no accident…don’t call me Shirley.