Drive Angry (United States, 2011)

February 27, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Drive Angry Poster

Seen in standard (non-IMAX) 3-D.

The appeal of Drive Angry is much the same as that of Piranha: a willingness to revel in absurdity to the degree where the exhilaration is infectious. This is a comic book come to life. A combined homage to/parody of '70s exploitation films, Drive Angry shifts into gear and never slows down. Unapologetic about its intentions, the movie uses the framework of a revenge story as a means to dabble in the supernatural and play with themes of Good versus Evil. Thinking about Drive Angry is the wrong way to approach the production. It's one of those movies that has to be experienced for what it is.

In the lead role of "John Milton" (or at least that's what he has chosen to call himself), Nicolas Cage hasn't cleaned up appreciably since the last time he struggled against Satan, last month's Season of the Witch (which would have worked better with a similar over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek approach to the one employed here). Initially, Milton appears to be some kind of Terminator clone, chasing down bad guys and blowing them away without compunction. But there's more going on here than meets the eye, as becomes apparent when he saves a waitress, Piper (Amber Heard), from a beating by her boyfriend and joins her on a road trip to Louisiana. His goal: locate cult leader Jonah King (Billy Burke) and reclaim his infant granddaughter, whom King plans to sacrifice during the next full moon. While Milton tracks King, he is in turn being chased by the mysterious entity known only as The Accountant (a scene-stealing William Fitchner), whose inscrutability in the face of cold-blooded murder is matched only by his dry wit.

Drive Angry's most memorable scene features Charlotte Ross (whose peek-a-boo nudity in NYPD Blue resulted in one of the most infamous challenges to the FCC's censorship powers). Ross is unclothed (and showing everything, unlike in the aforementioned NYPD Blue episode) and riding Milton like a pro when about a dozen heavily armed men enter the room with the goal of eliminating Milton. The gunfight that ensues is worth the price of admission, as Milton doesn't pause in the task at hand while removing what he apparently considers to be a minor distraction. When it's all over, his only concession to the effort is to take a swig from a bottle. (The same cannot be said of his partner.)

If there's a criticism to be made of Drive Angry, it's that the energy level flags during the final third. The storyline enters some pretty dark territory as we learn the reason for Milton's vendetta and the sense of fun wanes under the recognition of the underlying brutality. Plus, the infant-in-danger scenes stray a little too close to the line even for something as outrageous as this. The climactic battle has its moments but nothing comes close to the sex shootout which surely deserves recognition on some Top 10 list. (Top 10 Most Acrobatic Sex Scenes? Top 10 Most Unconventional Massacres?)

For much of the film, Nic Cage seems to be channeling Arnold Schwarzenegger (without the physique). "Hasta la vista, baby" would have fit perfectly into his vocabulary. Cage is good in the part but it's a sad commentary on where his career has tracked to note that this is a recent highlight. Amber Heard, who is no stranger to exploitation flicks and gratuitous nudity (although she keeps her clothing on here), makes a capable action heroine and isn't trapped by the descriptor of "love interest." She's allowed to kick as much ass as Cage. Billy Burke imitates Jim Jones in a way that's effectively creepy. And William Fitchner is so fascinatingly unflappable as The Accountant that we sometimes wish the movie was about him.

Director Patrick Lussier, who began his career as an editor, is making his second 3-D film (following My Bloody Valentine). In keeping with the less-than-serious nature of the endeavor, he's not afraid to employ cheesy 3-D tricks like throwing things at the audience. Still, as obviously superior as this brand of 3-D is to its post-conversion cousin, there are issues with blurriness during action scenes and a sense of wearing sunglasses in a movie theater. My definition of "good 3-D" is when I forget I have donned the eyewear. Drive Angry didn't get me there.

Drive Angry does everything a good '70s-flavored exploitation film should do - sex, gratuitous nudity, over-the-top action, extreme gore and violence - but with better acting and superior technology. The opening weekend box office performance was weak, so this is one to put in the Netflix queue and enjoy at home when you're in the mood for some mindless, campy fun.

Drive Angry (United States, 2011)

Director: Patrick Lussier
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Amber Heard, William Fichtner, Billy Burke, David Morse, Charlotte Ross
Screenplay: Todd Farmer & Patrick Lussier
Cinematography: Brian Pearson
Music: Michael Wandmacher
U.S. Distributor: Summit Entertainment
Run Time: 1:44
U.S. Release Date: 2011-02-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Content, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1