Since Tarantino’s Kill Bill in 2003, the film industry has been kicking up a post-modern revival of the exploitation genre. The problem is that, Tarantino aside, they haven’t been doing it very well and not even achieved a great deal of financial success. The summer blockbuster’s high-concept mantra isn’t that far from the ‘sell it on the title, the conceit and the tits’ exploitation ethos, but it is far enough that writers think they can move effortlessly from one to the other by doing little more reducing the plot to a sentence and increasing the gore and nudity by several factors. What seems to have been forgotten is that, for one thing, the vast majority of exploitation movies aren’t all that good, and secondly that the ones which work are successful because they have the one-line plot and all the violence and boobs, but build on them and create something distinctive, sometimes pushing the medium beyond its boundaries in fields other than tastelessness. Think Blair Witch invented the handheld horror film, for example? Try Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980).
Fortunately, Nicolas Cage is an actor who can bring an eccentric flair to just about anything, given the right motivation. On game form, he’s a perfect fit for the genre and Drive Angry in 3D gives him as ideal a setup as could be hoped for: he plays Milton – geddit – a man who breaks out of jail and goes on a roadtrip with a buxom waitress to save his granddaughter from being sacrificed by devil worshippers. But given the failures of Hollywood’s previous dalliances with the exploitation genre, can Drive Angry leave the lesser models eating dust?
The good news is that Drive Angry is at least fun. How much fun, unfortunately, remains open to debate. There’s no doubt that writers Todd Farmer and Patrick Lussier (who also directs) put in the effort and succeed in keeping the audience fed with a steady stream of pornography of the carnal, violent and vehicular varieties. It’s just that while there is plenty of those things, they are mostly presented in very similar ways throughout. Mid-coital shootouts are a laugh, but have been done before. The car chases rarely escalate to anything that seems truly dangerous, although a few of the stunts – which seem sadly isolated from the action, in that a car will jump or smash through something before or after but never during such sequences – are impressive.
Beyond that fantastically simple and delicious plot, there’s a deficit of ideas and ambition. According to Wikipedia, the film cost about $50m to make. Fair enough that it’s more than likely the project was greenlit thanks to its relatively low cost, but adding on a few million to at least increase the volume of traffic (the action sequences are usually one-on-one chases, only increasing in number if the additional cars don’t get involved) probably would have ended up producing a more memorable and exciting film. There’s nothing here that comes within a thousand miles of the mayhem produced in The Blues Brothers‘ climactic chase, which should have been the minimum aim for a film largely dedicated to road-based carnage. No number of slow-mo ‘cool shots’ (of Milton reloading his handgun as a car crashes inches away from him, or walking away from an exploding van with shotgun in hand) can make up the loss when the risk feels so minimal.
It’s not that what is on offer is dull, but after half an hour you’ll be desperate for it to up the ante, which never really happens. This kind of film is immune from criticism for bad plotting or shonky dialogue because those things go with the territory and are part of the fun. In exchange, you expect the action to be escalated as compensation, which Drive Angry only occasionally manages. For much of the film, Milton has a satanic cult, the police and an all-powerful envoy from Satan out to collect his head. Such distinctive enemies should be crashing together and over each other, but instead they line up politely to be dispatched one by one. You’d expect the police to be played straight, but surely the satanists would have some pretty funky weapons at their disposal, let alone an agent from Hell itself? There was much hate for Keanu Reeves’ 2004 adaptation of Constantine, mostly for its divergence from the source material, but that film at least made an effort to conceal its writing flaws by throwing an enormous number of mad ideas and designs at its viewers and taking full advantage of its Biblical inspiration. Drive Angry, by contrast, has a ‘god-killer’ gun (basically a six-barreled shotgun with spectacular muzzle-flash) and two shots depicting an uninspired vision of Hell. It does the bare minimum, which is enough to not be considered a failure, but not much more.
The only occasions when the film really takes off are when William Fichtner is on screen, playing the agent sent to drag Milton back to the underworld. Again, it’s not as though the cinema hasn’t previously had its fair share of twitchily detached demons in human form, but Fichtner kicks up the camp and gets many of the film’s biggest laughs, be it cheerily giving everyone he bumps into estimates for their (usually imminent) demise or finding himself unexpectedly enjoying his duel against Milton. He’s the one who really brings the crazy, as Cage mostly sticks to misdirected intensity – amusing, but a little lazy. A big disappointment is Amber Heard’s Piper, who starts off looking like she’ll give the boys a run for their money in the sleaze and violence department but quickly becomes another hopeless damsel continually told to wait by the car. The role doesn’t call upon Heard to do much as an actress, but she at least has the right lusty redneck appeal to make the most of a collection of miniscule shorts and tight vests. In a certain light, her ultimate fate could be seen as an hilariously anti-feminist statement and far from the freewheeling thrill-seeker she should have been. She’s not shy with swinging punches, but they rarely achieve anything that Milton doesn’t have to get her out of later on.
Talking of swinging punches, that’s one of the many, many things that you’ll see rendered and flying at the screen in spectacular depth-o-vision. There’s not 3D in the title for nothing, you know. It’s the antithesis of James Cameron’s numerous rants during Avatar‘s release that subtlety was the key to using the technology properly. Drive Angry‘s rule is that anything that can be 3D-ified must be 3D-ified, even if at least half the time it looks spectacularly awful – special mention to the through-the-windscreen shots and the fully-rounded moon that looks like a cosmic lightshade. But much as I loath 3D, I can’t deny that it sort of worked here, even when it didn’t. Its inherent vulgarity plays well in this kind of schlock, giving it the air of a rollercoaster ride (apologies for the reviewers’ cliché, but it’s actually appropriate this time) where the train seems to be heading for a crash only to dive away at the last minute. It’s stupid and overdone but also defiantly unsubtle and matches the whizz-bang-whallop flash of the rest of the film. I suspect it is about as much as I’ll ever be able to like, nay, endure the use of the technology. Let’s hope that Baz Luhrmann’s 3D Great Gatsby has a car chase or two in it.
Ultimately, Drive Angry basically delivers what it says on the poster and you won’t feel like you’ve wasted your money when you go and see it with a gang of crunked friends. It’s just unfortunate that it only offers the absolute minimum rather than taking a few risks and pushing the material to its fullest, maddest potential. It has all the sexy bodywork and an exploitation engine raring to go wild, but ends up as a joyride that really never breaks out of second gear.
Matt Razak: It’s a very thin line between camp and crap and Nicholas Cage finds himself on the wrong side of that line more often than not, but with Drive Angry (in 3D no less!) he’s finally managed to teeter his way over into enjoyable bad movies. That’s not to say Drive Angry is enjoyable because of Cage. He’s actually pretty terrible throughout the entire thing, but the ridiculous action, well done car chases and uber-violence make his horrendous performance seem to fit right in place. Even better than all of the stupid stuff you’re expecting from the film is William Fichtner’s super-powered villain. Think Agent Francis York from the cult game Deadly Premonition, but more badass. Overall Score: 7.80 – Good.