BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Milton breaks out of Hell to find a murderous cult responsible for murdering his daughter to stop them from sacrificing his infant granddaughter.
PROS: Over-the-top performance by Nicolas Cage; tongue in cheek direction by Patrick Lussier (who co-wrote the screenplay); fast paced, often silly action sequences that never stop being enjoyable; and (surprise) the 3D effects are actually pretty good; and how long has it been since we’ve seen gratuitous nudity on a movie screen?
CONS: For all of its fun, it’s just not very good, and never transcends being an ersatz grindhouse B-movie.
How much you enjoy Drive Angry will depend a great deal on how much you enjoy Roger Corman. Or maybe not. Granted, this high octane mélange of The Dunwich Horror, The Fast and the Furious and The Wild Angels never achieves the sublime B-movie pleasures of its obvious inspirations nor salvages the reputation of Nicolas Cage. Even when you realize how cheesy it is, you cannot help but realize that it’s the kind cheese that comes out of a can: highly processed, bright yellow, tasting of something grown in a vat rather than having ever seen the innards of a cow, and with absolutely no nutritional value. If the movie posed an original thought, I missed it. Say what you will of Corman’s ouvre, but they had a degree of vigor and sleazy charm that, even at its best Drive Angry only wishes it could manage.
None of which stopped me from enjoying it enormously. Yes, it’s derivative of most of Corman’s canon (to say nothing of Richard Kadrey’s excellent Sandman Slim), but it valiantly attempts to be a part of it rather than try to become a reinvention or, worse, an ironic reinterpretation, perhaps because writers Todd Farmer and Patrick Lussier (the latter of whom directed) love those trash classics, or perhaps because they wouldn’t know how to reinterpret them. I’m guessing the latter, as Farmer and Lussier appear oblivious to subtlety or self-knowledge. They don’t quite know what made the originals work, either, but it doesn’t stop them from trying and almost succeeding.
The premise is textbook API. Nicolas Cage is John Milton (yes, you read that right), who, years ago, got involved with a bad crowd that ended in a very bad way, resulting in the estrangement of his daughter. His daughter became involved with a Satanic cult (it’s always Satanic cults, or Republican politicians, isn’t it?) led by Jonah King (Billy Burke, who does the best second-rate Tommy Lee Jones imitation you’re likely to find). And when she bears a daughter, King decides an infant sacrifice (it’s always an infant sacrifice, isn’t it?) is exactly what he needs to open the gates of Hell. So King kills Milton’s daughter and takes the baby in preparation for a sacrifice during the full moon. Needless to say, Milton’s not too pleased. He breaks out of Hell, steals a hot rod and drives through the redneck byways of the Southern United States to stop him. Add to this a white trash waitress named Piper (Amber Heard), who gives him a lift when his car breaks down and becomes an accomplice during a shootout at a motel (where Milton, fully clothed, is nailing another blonde waitress, firing weapons into the chests of his assailants with each orgasmic thrust). Add to this a black-suited man known simply as The Accountant (William Fichtner, who seems to be having the most fun of all), tasked with bringing Milton back to hell. Add to this Tom Atkins, a lawman intent on bringing Milton to earthly justice. Add to this…well, you get the idea.
So no, it’s not art. It’s barely a real movie. Why Cage, who, twenty years ago, was considered one of the finest actors of his generation, decided to blaze through any creditability he had in favor of making ersatz trash, remains one of Hollywood’s greatest mysteries. His delivery in Drive Angry is more ham-fisted than that of William Shatner’s in The Intruder (another Corman great), and yet for some reason it works, as does Amber Heard’s sublimely sleazy Piper, who spends most of the movie in very short cutoffs and boots. And director Lussier loves her behind, because he features it prominently, and in 3D in several scenes. Not that I’m complaining. In fact, I’m not complaining about most of it, from wasting David Morse in a walk-on role to the thorough destruction of two classic cars (the 1964 Buick Riviera he used during his escape from prison and Piper’s 1969 Dodge Charger), because Lussier keeps things moving with a surprising degree of skill and several dollops of humor. And gratuitous nudity. Naked breasts parade across the screen in several scenes, adding to the feel of a grindhouse feature.
The feel, but, alas, not the real thing. Fun though Drive Angry is, it lacks the earnestness of an API feature, and also some of what Corman’s movies were really about. Back in the day, Corman often used actors (Shatner, Jack Nicholson, among others) and talent (Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Towne, James Cameron) just starting out in their careers to produce cheap entertainment that was used to make a quick buck, yes, but also as a springboard for other, better work. Cage is several decades into his career. So are several others involved here. And while the effects are better this time out than for, say, Attack of the Crab Monsters or Battle Beyond the Stars, in Drive Angry they don’t quite jibe with the affectionate corniness that made those B-movies of days gone by so memorable.
And yet, for all of that, Drive Angry still manages enough diversion to be, if not great or even good entertainment, at least it’s worthwhile. Core grindhouse cinema fans may not get much out of it, but they just might be pleasantly surprised that trash cinema, even fake trash cinema, has made its way into suburban metroplexes. The rest will just enjoy the preposterous premise. And gratuitous nudity.