Subtle. Nuanced. Complex. Deep. These are not words that Drive Angry knows. Gratuitous, simple, exploitative, moronic, loud: now you’re talking its language. Though it was released a couple of days before the Oscars, it is not a film that is likely to be troubling the awards ceremonies, but the combination of muscle cars, guns, and hell-escaping Nic Cage badassery appealed enough to the lizard part of my brain to make me want to go see this.
Hollywood’s hardest working actor (at least in terms of volume), Cage has somehow become invincible: even starring in an unhealthy amount of mindless, lowest-common-denominator trash (like this) doesn’t seem to taint the good movies he does (such as last year’s awesome turn in Kick Ass) or stop the offers coming in: this is his second of 2011, he’s got at least two more movies coming out this year, and three lined up for 2012 already. As if it wasn’t obvious from a setup that sounds like it came straight out of this video (man escapes Hell to save his granddaughter from being sacrificed by a satanic cult), this is not going to be one of his critically-lauded performances.
It’s strange that the film has gained an 18 certificate in this country, not only because I can’t immediately think of anything that would really preclude it from receiving a 15, but because everything about it seems to have been designed by a 15-year-old boy. The plot itself is paper thin and treated as pretty much incidental by the cast, who occasionally break off from shooting people and/or looking cool to give a couple of minutes of deadpan exposition. Characters are introduced in the most perfunctory manner (they turn up, someone explains who they are and what their motivations are, everyone else acts like that’s normal regardless of how unlikely, ridiculous or unfounded that appears), and yet even with such a straightforward story (man save baby, man kill man), it manages to fall apart a bit at the end, where it struggles to reintegrate the only decent or original character in the whole thing back into the overall retarded story. Sex, violence and language are treated in the most disposable and least realistic way possible. One small commendation is that at least Heard’s character Piper avoids the blonde bimbo stereotype by being a powerful, strong-willed independent woman, even if it is painted in the broadest of strokes and the simplest of primary colours.
The Characters are as unambiguous and uncomplicated as the plot, with Nicolas Cage near-sleepwalking through his lines as John Milton (seriously? John Milton?) throughout the entire film. You know how sometimes people say of their favourite actor that they would pay to listen to them read out the phone book? Well, Cage acts here as if the director has asked him to do just that, robotically delivering his lines with barely a moment’s deviation from the clench-jawed deathmask of impenetrable not-giving-a-shit expression he wears throughout the entire film, whether he’s talking about the rape, torture and murder of his daughter or having sex with a pneumatic-breasted waitress whilst smoking a cigar, swigging from a bottle of Jack Daniels and simultaneously participating in a massive gun fight. No, I’m not exaggerating for comedy effect: that scene actually takes place in this film.
Amber Heard, on the other hand, seems to think this is going to be her big break, as she goes for broke trying to bring her character into 3D rather than the half a dimension it was actually written as: either that or she’s trying to make up for Cage’s absolute disinterest in anything that’s going on. She earnestly puts her heart into her performance, though the material doesn’t warrant anything near the level of sincerity she pours into it, and though she comes out of the whole thing quite well, the only thing anyone is even remotely likely to remember about her in this film is her denim hotpants, to which more than a little screen time is dedicated.
Billy Burke as Jonah King, the satanic cult leader and main antagonist, seems to feel being associated with the Twilight franchise automatically lends him an air of presence and importance that means he doesn’t have to bother actually acting his part, as he spends most of the time flouncing around in frilly-sleeved red shirts and delivering lines in a way that should be ‘I’m too cool to show emotion’ but ends up being ‘I am quite bored now and could do with a sleep’.
There’s only one person who can walk away from Drive Angry with their head held high in terms of their performance, and that’s perpetual second-stringer and infamous ‘that guy’ William Fichtner as The Accountant, sent by Satan to track down and recapture Cage. This sharply-dressed bounty hunter is ice cool and plays his role pitch-perfectly, a brilliant mix of the world-weary bureaucrat, sinister villain and matter-of-fact killer rolled into one, playing it straight but with just the tiniest hint of a knowing smirk at the corner of his mouth. He’s the only one that makes the execrable dialogue and shoddy one-liners seem halfway decent (and occasionally even good). Two things really boggle the mind here: one, what’s he doing in this garbage, and two, how is such a talented actor (check out his consistently excellent work in small parts in things like Black Hawk Down, 1999’s Go, The Dark Knight, hell, even Blades of Glory) not a leading man yet? Sure, he’s not got conventional leading-man looks, but then neither does Nic Cage, with his balding hangdog expression and drawling monotone. Every scene that he is in is instantly more entertaining and interesting, and if (if) there is a reason to go see this film, it’s to see Fichtner, not Cage.
One more thing before we put Drive Angry to bed: since the posters were so insistent on specifying that it was filmed in 3D (as opposed to retrofitted), I guess we also have to need to talk about that. No, it doesn’t transform this turd into gold somehow. But it does add to the atmosphere, and the same gratuitous licence to be ridiculous that Piranha 3D ran with or Saw 3D squandered is present here. Equal and opposite to the lack of attention that was given to the plot, characters, and backstory, there are some genuinely entertaining and well-conceived 3D shots in Drive Angry, to the point where I would say it’s probably the best use of 3D in a movie I have seen yet. It’s used for ridiculous, cheesy, unnecessary, unapologetic over-the-top effects shots: in other words, exactly what it should be used for. For once, I can genuinely say that this film would not be as good in 2D.
Look: Drive Angry is bollocks. You know that already. You knew it the moment you heard the words ‘Nicolas Cage’, ‘escaped from hell’, and ‘out for revenge’. To be honest, you could probably guess it after the words ‘Nicolas Cage’ and be right about fifty per cent of the time. But in the pantheon of shit films, there is ‘bad shit’ and ‘good shit’, and though this definitely doesn’t fall as low as ‘so bad it’s bad’ (e.g. last month’s Season of the Witch), it never quite reaches the heights of ‘so bad it’s good’ (e.g. Con Air) either. It’s loud, brash, stupid, unoriginal, riddled with terrible dialogue and unbelievable plot developments, and nothing I say is going to affect whether you see this film one bit. Maybe that’s why Cage’s brand is so untouchable: mocking this film for being stupid, or not making sense, is like shouting insults at a deaf person: they’re going to carry on regardless and I just end up looking stupid. So please, go see Drive Angry. Or don’t. Whatever.