Before I started this review project I realized that not everything is going to be high art, nor should it be. Sometimes we go into movies to get enraptured in themes and connect to characters on deep, emotional levels. Otherwise we’re just there to have fun.
I saw Drive Angry [3D] during its original theatrical run, bought the Blu-ray sometime after that, watched it once or twice and then put it away. I already knew from my past few viewings that this was never intended to be highbrow entertainment. What surprised me on rewatch was not so much the movie itself but this quote on the back cover, attributed to the late, irreplaceable Roger Ebert:
So jaw-droppingly excessive that even Quentin Tarantino might send flowers.
I checked Ebert’s actual review out of curiosity. What’s interesting is this line is presented out of context. He didn’t write it out of praise, and he also gave the movie a two star rating.
But that’s clever marketing, and negative or not, Ebert’s quote is the perfect one-line summation of Drive Angry. It is jaw-droppingly excessive. I’m not sure if flowers are in Tarantino’s nature, but the movie feels like a contest between him and Robert Rodriguez to outdo each other.
Consider the scene where Piper (Amber Heard) comes home and catches her boyfriend Frank (Todd Farmer, also the director) banging Christa Campbell. Piper drags the mistress, still stark naked, outside by the ear, and we’re treated to prolonged full-frontal nudity with no attempt to cover herself, as if she forgot she is in public. Later, in an unforgettable scene, John Milton (Nicholas Cage) is screwing a waitress in a motel room when several gunmen burst in. I don’t want to spoil it by describing the sequence that ensues. You know what you are paying for from minute one.
Milton is an escaped convict from a notorious and prominent prison—Hell—and has returned to the mortal realm in pursuit of Jonah King (Billy Burke) the leader of a Satanic cult who has murdered Milton’s daughter (Arianne Martin) and kidnapped his infant granddaughter for old fashioned ritualistic infanticide. Milton brings Piper along after sabotaging her car to get a ride and saving her from the abusive animal Frank.
I love it when directors play the worst characters in their movies. Something about that kind of humility staves off any potential pretentiousness and self-importance.
While I’m not familiar with a lot of Todd Farmer’s other work, I will say this one is shot and edited well. For a movie so reliant on action sequences, the very welcome absence of any shaky cam allowed my eyes to stay on the screen. I wish I could say the same for most of the other seizure-inducing action movies I’ve suffered through.
Milton is immortal and the kidnappers’ bullets only slow him down, but he faces a very real threat from The Accountant (William Fichtner) whose job is to drag Milton back to Hell. The Accountant is a great character. He’s the type who keeps his business suit clean and never smiles, even when casually singing along to “That’s the Way I Like It” behind the wheel. Despite his conservative demeanor, The Accountant has a passive-aggressive and uncouth air about him. One can sense wrath simmering beneath the surface.
Nicholas Cage is the heart of Drive Angry. Cage is an established actor who is nevertheless at the top of his game when playing these over-the-top characters. Drive Angry gives him plenty of satisfying crazy to work with.
By contrast is Amber Heard, whose character is developed early on as a no-bullshit, tough-as-nails woman with iron in her blood. It’s not Heard’s acting that is the problem but the lack of room Piper is given once the road shenanigans start. She puts up a good fight and helps out in tight situations, but otherwise is along for the ride to look pretty and not much else.
The journey to save the baby is wrought with bullet storms, endless perils, explosions, casual nudity, brutal violence and collateral damage of all types. The clashes between Milton and the Accountant remind me in many ways of a Terminator movie, with time-traveling robots replaced by supernatural entities. There’s even a scene where The Accountant shows up in a hydrogen tanker, and another where Milton repairs an eye he lost to a bullet. While these allusions subtract points from originality, I find it all entertaining.
What’s not so entertaining is this sense of meanness hanging over everything. Drive Angry is an exploitative road revenge movie, so one should expect what comes with the territory. However, there is darkness that increases the discomfort beyond the threat of infanticide, a theme already dark to begin with. The mean-spiritedness is perpetuated by Jonah, who unlike The Accountant is a disgusting and unappealing antagonist. He is the roadblock where the movie becomes gritty instead of fun. The scenes where he uses the murdered daughter’s femur as a walking stick make me cringe, but that’s nothing compared to the one where he uses it to beat Milton. Seeing a character clubbed with a loved one’s body part is new for me, and I don’t like it.
My biggest problem with Drive Angry is that whenever it slows down it gets mired in that uncomfortable tonal shift, whether it’s from the nasty cult leader or scenes where people are made to suffer too long for my tastes. It would have been one thing if Drive Angry had been nonstop driving and stylized violence from start to finish, bookended by a satisfying fight. But when the car pulls over the movie can’t seem to decide what it wants to be, a tongue-in-cheek revenge flick or a grave battle to prevent a heinous crime.
Drive Angry is a fun movie, except when it’s not. As I mentioned, you know what you’re paying for here, or should, anyway. I want to hold onto my copy for promising what it delivers.
Still, all that extra ugliness gives me pause. My decision to keep it is pending.
FINAL GRADE: B-