Drive Angry (2011) – Directed by Patrick Lussier – Starring Nicolas Cage, Amber Heard, William Fichtner, Billy Burke, Katy Mixon, Charlotte Ross, and David Morse.
Now this is how you properly make a terrible movie.
I reviewed Hobo with a Shotgun the other day – at least, I reviewed the 22 minutes I could stomach before turning it off – and bemoaned the fact that while the movie was purposely bad, it was too exaggerated to keep me interested. The silliness of the villains ruined the film, who all performed like they were channeling Cesar Romero as the Joker while Rutger Hauer was doing Christian Bale’s Batman. It was a collision of worlds that did not go together.
Which brings me to DRIVE ANGRY, a perfect example of how to effectively assemble a bad movie, which isn’t always easy with Nic Cage, who sometimes (I’m looking at you, Ghost Rider), can’t decide whether to play his role straight or camp, and often (I’m still looking at you, Ghost Rider) seems to be out of step with the rest of the movie. I bring Ghost Rider up twice because DRIVE ANGRY is basically Ghost Rider without the flaming skull and bike. The premise is that John Milton (Nic Cage, not the poet) breaks out of Hell to save his granddaughter from being sacrificed by Jonah King (Billy Burke), the leader of a Satanic cult that wants to bring Hell to Earth. King killed Milton’s daughter after she bit his dick off during a forced blow job. Milton sees all this happen from his cell in Hell, where you spend eternity suffering by watching the ones you love suffering on Earth.
Milton’s journey causes him to cross paths with Piper (Amber Heard), a waitress at a diner in a deadbeat town who dresses like Ke$ha (minus the glitter) and hits like Michelle Rodriguez (minus the accent). We’re introduced to Piper as she’s telling her co-worker about how she forced her boyfriend Frank (co-writer Todd Farmer) to propose to her by withholding sex from him. It’s a wonderfully lewd scene. It worked and he proposed (even if he can’t afford a ring), but when Piper quits because her boss gropes her one time too many, she goes home to find Frank cheating on her. The fiance is the one real misstep in the whole movie. Deadbeat town or not, Piper is so hot (Amber Heard’s Piper sets a new bar for white trash hotness; Heard is absolutely stunning here) and Frank is such a loser that there’s no way she couldn’t do better. It’s easy enough to forgive the movie for this misstep because of what they do with it – first, Piper pulls the cheating woman off her man by the hair, drags her naked self outside, and repeatedly punches her in the face, knocking her cold. Then a fat guy with a cell phone walks into frame to take pictures.
The back-and-forth between Piper and Frank is also really good. She yells at him that she’s going to Florida and that she can do better than him. “In Texas, maybe,” he replies, “but not in Florida.” Then he punches her in the face. Kneeling over her, Frank threatens to ruin her so that no one will want her, and that’s when Milton decides to insert himself into the domestic dispute, kicking Frank in the face and then taking off in Frank’s muscle car with Piper laid out in the back seat to rest.
Milton and Piper are thus off on the trail of Milton’s granddaughter, encountering Jonah King’s cultists at various stages, and a few run-ins with cops that were probably conceived on the nights their daddies came home after being embarrassed by the Bandit.
The real star of DRIVE ANGRY, and the reason that the film elevates into something special, is William Fichtner’s The Accountant, who’s charged with bringing Milton back to Hell Prison. Fichtner is one of my favorite actors, a guy who definitely has a role in the Hypothetical Movie I’d make if I was given a boatload of money to make a movie tomorrow. Unlike the decision in Hobo to have the villains satisfy the ridiculousness, Fichtner’s performance plays it low-key, giving a real weight to the conflict. The Accountant walks into town, following on Milton’s heels at his own pace. He comes to the diner as Piper’s boss and co-worker (Katy Mixon) are taking out the trash. He pours his charm onto the waitress, and charismatically dismisses the boss by calling him a “fat f*ck” with such understated, rich relish that the film was climbing higher in my estimation every time Fichtner appeared back on the screen.
There’s little in the way of surprise in DRIVE ANGRY – Milton and Piper drive fast, fight cultists, get beat up, escape. The story artfully blends in the supernatural aspect of the film, never overselling it until the end. Halfway through the film, Milton takes a bullet from King through his eye-ball in a small, rural church where the Satanists are holding mass/waiting in ambush. Even though you know Milton’s not going to die halfway through the film, Piper doesn’t, and Heard does a bang-up job selling Piper’s fear and anger, and even when she ends up a prisoner in King’s RV (these satanists travel is style), she never becomes a victim.
Heard really deserves a ton of credit for making DRIVE ANGRY a watchable film, and not just because of her legs. She makes Piper tough but not stoic; to get back at men after the disaster with Frank, she emasculates the waiter at the dive bar and motel they stop at for the night by seducing him back to her room. She stays clothed while he gets naked and paints her toes. He’s like, “We’re still going to do it, right?” and she tells him it depends on how good a job he does, then immediately scolds him for doing a bad job. She sees a shadow pass across her room window and follows it back to the now-empty bar, where she overhears King’s plan to kill Milton in his hotel room. Her response? She grabs and weapon out of what looks like a tool shed and goes to help Milton.
Milton at this time is engaging in the truly dumbest scene of the movie, in which the film takes its grindhouse ode a bit too far. Milton is having sex in his room with Candy (Charlotte Ross) a waitress from the bar. The way Milton has sex is a fitting example of how Cage acts in this film because all Milton is doing is sitting there, fully clothed and desperately trying to look cool, as the large-breasted woman does all the work by bouncing on his manhood. The bad guys burst in and Milton starts shooting as he continues to f*ck the waitress. It’s a step too far but I’d rather a movie like this take a few steps too far than play it safe. I’m not excusing the scene, just saying it doesn’t ruin the movie.
Nic Cage gets ripped pretty frequently for his acting choices but the guy is a fantastic actor. It’s too easy to say he looks bored with the material here because Nic Cage doesn’t have to take roles he doesn’t want to play; instead, I really do think he made a conscious decision to play it stoic here, allowing the action to chew the scenery instead of him. If this was Leaving Las Vegas or something of similar artistic quality, people would say that his acting here was measured and generous. As regular readers of the Anxiety know, I’m currently waist-deep in reviewing Star Trek: The Original Series. One of the mildly annoying parts of TOS is that seemingly every time one character/actor gets a moment to shine, the show has to give Kirk/Shatner a moment where he looks cool, too. Cage doesn’t play the star card here, allowing Heard to have plenty of great moments and Fichtner to have all of the best lines.
That said, Cage has reached that awkward age for men where he just can’t look cool, no matter how hard he tries. (And you shouldn’t have to try to look cool.) He’s too old to pull off the black jacket and shades look and too young to give off the distinguished older gentleman vibe. Thankfully, the film stays well away from developing any kind of romantic relationship between Milton and Piper, because there’s no way that wouldn’t come off as completely creepy.
DRIVE ANGRY did nothing at the box office and I can’t say that it’s either a big surprise or a big injustice, but I will say that if you’re looking for a good throwback action flick and aren’t put off by a touch of the supernatural, DRIVE ANGRY will satisfy. It might be fast food, but damn if it doesn’t hit the spot.