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NEW YORK – Midway through Drive Angry, Nicolas Cage’s avenging escapee from Hell brushes off questions by saying, “We don’t have time to explain.” The screenwriters of this explosively addled 3D grindhouse fodder appear to share that attitude, until they relent and sketch in some plot detail. Too bad they didn’t keep quiet.
There’s something deliciously perverse about high-octane trash like this opening on Oscar weekend, the holiest of times on the Hollywood calendar. Its star has spiraled so deep into self-parody that the prefix “Academy Award winner” on his name seems to exist only as a potential Ricky Gervais punchline. And it’s produced by Michael De Luca, illustrating that it’s possible to follow one of the smartest, most perceptive movies of the year, The Social Network, with one of the dumbest.
To be fair, the filmmakers are clearly in on the joke, albeit in a witless way that makes you wish Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez were on hand. Any movie that has Cage dispatching a marauding succession of redneck Satanists while smoking a cigar, slugging back whiskey and balancing a Pamela Anderson clone on his penis can’t be said to lack a sense of humor.
Mostly, however, director Patrick Lussier and his co-screenwriter Todd Farmer, the team behind My Bloody Valentine 3D, string together smash-up car chases, hyper-violent physical clashes, flying viscera and a dollop of sex and nudity with ludicrous dialogue and only a passing concern for logic. Much as 1970s drive-in pulp appears to have been the inspiration, it’s more a triumph of the exploitation video-game aesthetic in a derivative plot that fuses Mad Max with The Fast and the Furious.
Cage’s character is named John Milton, but this mumbling felon is no poet. He turns up in small-town Colorado on the trail of Jonah King (Billy Burke, swapping Twilight for True Blood-style Southern Gothic). A cult leader wearing Nick Cave’s old wardrobe, King murdered Milton’s daughter (he carries around her femur as a dandified cane), kidnapped her baby and plans to sacrifice the infant on the next full moon. Cue ticking clock.
While Milton abandoned his daughter long before either of them were killed, he knows what went down because in Hell, “The fire isn’t the worst part – it’s the video feed.” Does that make Anderson Cooper the Devil?
Milton hooks up with dirty-mouthed waitress Piper (Amber Heard). She obviously has a heart because she gives muffins to poor folks before walking out on her ass-grabbing diner boss and returning home to find a busty skank straddling her fiancé.
Heard gets to utter the insta-classic exit line: “Ah’m ‘onna tell ever’body what ah caught you doin’ with mah pink dildo.” She also gets to wear hot cutoffs, wield a killer right hook, drive like a demon in her deadbeat boyfriend’s souped-up 1969 Dodge Charger, and take several bone-crunching beatings while maintaining flawless hair and makeup.
Milton and Piper pursue King and his entourage from Colorado to Louisiana, tailed by clueless cops and by an uber-cool underworld emissary in a sharp suit who goes by the Accountant (William Fichtner). Sent by Satan to fetch runaway Milton, he’s the movie’s most droll character among this bunch of cheesy cutouts, and Fichtner more than anyone on-screen has fun winking at the audience. Cage gets with that program only in his final scene after spending the rest of the movie in disappointingly earnest brooding-and-dour mode.
David Morse shows up late as an old pal of Milton’s but serves mainly to supply a couple more muscle cars for the chase, and to be part of Piper’s questionable compensation package from this punishing adventure.
What the audience gets out of it will depend on their willingness to check brains and taste at the multiplex door. Nobody looking for non-stop action and carnage is likely to feel shortchanged. But there’s not much style, narrative coherence or genuinely subversive humor to offset the pounding noise and pummeling sameness of the violence. Lussier and his co-editor son Devin C. Lussier do score points by mostly keeping the pace as fast as the cars.
Cinematographer Brian Pearson puts an appropriately hellish gloss on the backwater locations. But aside from a lot of slo-mo bullet detail, the movie makes only routine gains from the 3D technology, unless you’re dying to see someone’s dental work come hurtling at you.
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