by Dan Fields
First published February 26, 2011 by the California Literary Review
Holy Gracious Hell
Taking into account all the casual profanity, copious T&A, comic book violence, awesome cars and impossibly badass gunfights, Drive Angry must surely have been written by the smartest group of fourteen-year-old boys living in America today. This is not meant to sound as snide as it probably does. Assuming that any two of those things just mentioned ever held a prominent place in your adolescent fantasy, you may find yourself thoroughly entertained against your better judgment. Conversely, anyone who has outgrown or never entertained the dream of meeting a gorgeous blonde who drives fast, punches hard and loves to cuss, might find this movie just a touch juvenile. Think of it as a big bucket of Halloween candy for the eye and the lower parts of the brain, and you will be ready to approach it in the proper spirit.
The story begins with a man breaking out of Hell in a sweet Buick Riviera. This is really all you need to know about the movie, and though a rather intricate and outrageous plot unfolds, does it make any difference what exactly is at stake? Did we ever really care what Meat Loaf was trying to say in all those songs? Consider it no coincidence that a cut from Bat Out Of Hell III found its way onto the soundtrack of this movie.
So… plot. Nicolas Cage stars as a man called John Milton (I know, I know!) who comes speeding back from damnation to avenge his daughter’s death at the hands of a swaggering Satanic cult leader (Billy Burke). He hitches a ride with a blonde firecracker named Piper (Amber Heard), whose golden heart and black Dodge Charger seem just the combination he seeks in an ally. Meanwhile, the local law and the forces of perdition are in hot pursuit.
Cage is not getting any younger or more dynamic, but he has finally found another entertaining vehicle for himself. He could easily have tapped his latent wackiness for this role, but instead seems hung up on portraying his character’s sensitive side, which is rather at odds with his tendency to snap into cold-blooded killing mode when the slightest danger threatens. Cage’s maudlin moments and stupid dye job weigh the movie down in places, but overall it is not a badly written script. There is enough grim humor and twisted Biblical wit to reveal the fundamental cleverness of the writers.
The real star of Drive Angry (for those of you unwilling to howl for two hours at Amber Heard’s bodacious bod) is William Fichtner, that awesome guy in all those movies whose name you never remember. He plays The Accountant, a dapper emissary from Hell whose job is to make sure everyone goes there and stays. He gets almost all the good dialogue and plays his part in a wonderfully strange and understated way. He is rather like Christopher Walken, only blessed with the gift of subtlety.
The second best role goes to Tom Atkins, star of Halloween III and my own midnight favorite, Maniac Cop, as a grizzled PO-lice captain whose main ambition in life is shootin’ to kill.
The advantage of making a movie with no rules is that you run no risk of breaking any. This is not a very well-structured story because it does not have to be. If Milton wants to reveal halfway through the film that he’s packing an unholy six-shooter stolen from the devil’s private arsenal, so be it. As long as he fires it at a few people.
Bearing in mind its completely over-the-top style, Drive Angry makes surprisingly clever and economical use of 3D. Sure, it’s a gimmick. This whole movie is a series of gimmicks! But at least the director bothered to use the technology for eye-catching purposes – unlike the makers of Saw 3D, who merely saw the third dimension as the only way to inflict more suffering and indignity on its audience. Sure, assorted human and automobile parts rain down at regular intervals, but most of the three-dimensional tricks are used to highlight depth of focus and unusual camera perspectives that really make this a pretty keen-looking picture. Most of the visual effects are mid-grade CGI, but for this movie you don’t exactly need James Cameron’s inexhaustible supply of ($)talent($) to make it look cool.
What other kinds of wretched excess grace the scorching frames of Drive Angry? There is a charismatic devil prophet complete with eleven axe-throwing, sickle-swinging disciples (Milton, of course, is to be hunted down as the “Judas” figure). There is plenty of naked trailer trash for all. There is the aforementioned six-shooter, whose impact makes Dirty Harry’s Magnum look like a Nerf dart gun. There is a multi-stage car chase, complete with exploding police barricade. Crowning it all is a soon-to-be-infamous sex scene with a massive shootout in the middle of it, like a bacon cheeseburger sporting a fried egg on top — just for fun.
If you have spent the last few weeks furiously trying to see all the Oscar nominated films of 2010, you might consider Drive Angry for therapeutic purposes. Switch off your anxiety about being a cultured person and enjoy it like a chocolate-wrapped bacon snack. If 3D sex and violence simply have no place in your entertainment of choice, pass on by. However, if you can get your mind around some good, irreverent, immature and slick-looking mayhem, go ahead and spring for the glasses. The deepest, guiltiest sin in the whole movie is the possibility that you might really enjoy it. But don’t worry: I won’t tell if you won’t.