The premise is pure grindhouse nirvana. Cage plays John Milton, a very bad man who escapes from hell (that’s right) after his daughter and sonin-law are killed and his infant granddaughter is kidnapped by a cult of devil worshipers. The cult leader, Jonah King (Billy Burke), plans to sacrifice the baby underneath the next full moon and bring about hell on earth. Milton won’t allow this, of course, and he is so determined that he’s busted out of the hot place to do it.
Milton falls in with Piper (Amber Heard), a small-town diner waitress who is tough as nails but has a heart of gold. Even better, she also has a ’69 Dodge Charger and a beguiling pair of cutoff shorts.
While Milton is chasing, he is also chased. Pursuing him is an emissary of hell called, appropriately enough, The Accountant (William Fichtner), a spiffily dressed bureaucrat who has come to retrieve Milton by any means necessary. The Accountant moves with the same speed and determination as Jason Voorhees or the Mummy, but he has quite a bit more personality.
Fichtner has been a compellingly weird and menacing presence in TV and films for years now. He makes you nervous even when he’s ostensibly playing a good guy. But this film may just be his best performance. He comes across less as evil than as supremely dedicated to doing his job and balancing the books in hell. He’s polite if possible, but utterly relentless and unflappable in achieving his goals. And he obviously loves his job. Fichtner is having an obscene amount of fun here, and it definitely comes across onscreen.
Cage, meanwhile, is surprisingly subdued, going for more of a cool “Man with No Name” vibe than his usual histrionics. He manages to seem a little bit unhinged, but without all the squealing and spitting he usually favors. Evidently, spending a little time downstairs makes you taciturn. Of course, Cage still retains at least a bit of his sense of humor, selling lines like, “I never disrobe before a gunfight.”
Heard has been in a lot of movies playing merely the hot chick or the girlfriend, but here she is as tough as any of the other characters. She also has the unenviable job of being the film’s emotional center, and late in the game, when the film makes its token attempt to have some heart, she and David Morse do a surprisingly good job of making it believable.
Of course, the film mainly just wants to be a romp through a bunch of exploitation subgenres. It’s not only horror movies thrown into the mix, but virtually every car chase picture from the 1970s. There’s a chase late in the film that combines many of the best things from The Road Warrior and Race with the Devil (including the RV).
The film was directed by Patrick Lussier and co-written by Lussier and Todd Farmer. The pair previously collaborated on 2009’s My Bloody Valentine, a self-aware slasher film remake that was much more entertaining than it had any right to be. Drive Angry has a similar sense of fun. The script and filmmaking feels a little more disciplined than in their previous film, but if anything, the filmmakers’ outrageous sense of humor seems ramped up even more.
There is a scene in which Cage is smoking a cigar, chugging whiskey and having sex with a foxy blonde, when several cult members bust in and try to kill Cage. This fazes his lady friend, of course, but Cage doesn’t let this ruin the party, and continues having sex while shooting down the bad guys.
You have to wonder whether the movie can keep up such a full-throttle, fever pitch pace of constant money shots. It can’t, of course, and there are stretches where the jokes are falling flat and the strain to be cool is a little painful. When a movie is trying very hard to be awesome, it can fail very hard as well. But the filmmakers land a surprisingly large number of their punches.
The film’s biggest flaw is probably the cult leader character. He’s evil enough (he has both leather pants and a soul patch, after all), but as written and performed, it’s hard to believe that the character is charismatic enough to talk anyone into anything, let alone carving up a wee baby.
Outside of a nice scene in which Milton’s haunting memories appear to be projected on a screen in front of him, the 3-D isn’t used in very innovative ways, but with a film like this it just feels like there should be bullets and body parts flying at your face.
Drive Angry is silly, loud and offensive, but it’s also effective and very well made. The filmmakers try very hard to entertain the audience here, and it pays off. Some nice performances allow the movie to coast past its occasional dead patches and remain an aggressively awesome exploitation film that is quite a bit of fun.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.