I tend to start off these reviews with a disclaimer: I am a Nicolas Cage fan. Therefore, I guess, I am not to be trusted? I’m not really sure why I feel the need to divulge that before every single Cage film; I suppose deep down I know that I am a bit biased, although I like to believe that I am as objective as a man can be. I have been looking forward to Drive Angry for some time, because I thought that it would make the perfect follow-up to Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. You see, what the Nic Cage haters don’t understand is that the man is a master of going over-the-top. When your script calls for an actor who can go in and out of fits of rage, all while talking in an accent and twitching manically, Nic is the one to call. So, a movie about a guy who escapes from Hell in order to go on a cross-country car chase in order to save his grandchild who has been abducted by a child-sacrificing cult? Sounds just absurd enough to be the perfect Cage, ahem, vehicle. My interest began waning as the realization began to strike that…
This isn’t Cage at his wildest, but instead at his most sedate. Well, that’s unfair. He’s definitely putting more into the performance than he did in January’s miserable Season of the Witch. But he’s trying to play the rock at the center of the film, the brow-furrowed bad-ass who walks calmly through bullets and explosions with one thing on his mind – saving his grandchild. I understand the temptation to play the character in this way, and I guess maybe it’s not a bad choice really, but I tend to agree with the A.V. Club’s assessment that this choice doesn’t really play toward Cage’s strengths. There was a fabulous piece celebrating the actor on the same website not long ago, wherein the author writes about the good old days when “a sense of genuine danger accompanied him from role to role, as if at any moment, we might witness some sort of unscripted, inexplicable act of self-combustion.” That spark that made me such a fan only appears very occasionally these days, but that doesn’t stop me from expecting greatness from each successive picture he does. Unfortunately, there’s nothing so engaging in Drive Angry.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine film. Much like director Patrick Lussier’s My Bloody Valentine in 2009, the movie was filmed in 3-D and revels in it. That, and the thrill of debauchery: neither film would pass up the opportunity for a gratuitous shot of gore or nudity. This film opens mid-chase sequence, capping it off with a gunfight and simultaneously gruesome and cartoonish violence. In that respect, the filmmakers certainly knew what they wanted to do and went for it. It’s true to say that William Fichtner steals the show as the shadowy “Accountant”, one of the devil’s right-hand men, who calmly follows Milton (Cage) along his journey. I guess you could see Fichtner’s character as analogous to other somber characters who are comin’-to-get-YOU, but despite his role he is not menacing. He is curious, studious, and just the right amount of unhinged. Painful as it is to say, his character is much more exciting to see on-screen than Cage’s is, in most instances.
So the movie, then. Again, it starts in a chase sequence. It will have many more before the night is over. There are gunfights galore, with people shot down like dominoes one right after another. There is a moment where Milton mows down about two dozen baddies with two revolvers, all while wearing sunglasses and making furious whoopee with a nice young local gal from the town that he is staying in. It’s deliciously outlandish and fun, but ultimately hard to take seriously. Is that what the problem is? Sometimes I don’t know what I mean to say until I write it down. The film is ostensibly about Milton going to save his blood from a cult leader, but as Roger Ebert points out, “the baby is more of a prop than a human child.” Because, yes, that’s what the movie’s about, but what the movie is about is scene after scene being as cool as possible – did you see that scene where The Accountant easily steps out of a rolling vehicle and stands with his arms crossed on the hood of another car while it skids to a halt? Isn’t that awesome?
Yes, it is, but it doesn’t add up. Scene-by-scene, there are some magnificent moments that would be classic on their own. As a whole, though, the movie feels disjointed and lacking motivation. There’s a half-hearted explanation for why Milton’s grandchild is important to the cult’s plans, but it’s given as an afterthought. Prior to that, the chase ensues over the United States without much to propel the action. Cut to The Accountant sniffing out the trail, cut to Milton catching up to the cult, cut to the cult staying one step ahead of a supernatural being. Rinse. Repeat. When the movie stops for subplots (e.g. Milton’s sidekick Piper and her bad relationship with her boss, a police investigation of what we have seen previously on-screen) is when it is at its weakest, just slowing the thing down.
Speaking of Milton’s sidekick Piper (Amber Heard), she is like most of the women in the movie… which is to say, utterly useless. There are basically two times when her existence becomes important, and one of those times is simply to have a catfight in an RV. Call me shallow, but I was particularly struck by a moment in a bar where a waitress comes up to greet Milton and Piper. The waitress is supposed to seem like a floozy, I guess, caked in make-up and flirting with Milton. What stuck out to me, though, was the fact that the waitress and Piper were nearly identical – positioned as eye candy and little else. Sure, Heard gets a few one-liners here and there, but too often she sinks into the background or only becomes central to the scene when her safety can be placed in jeopardy.
When I saw the movie on opening night, there were maybe ten people in the entire theater. I found it kind of sad, as a Nicolas Cage fan, that the place wasn’t packed with gleeful spectators. But I dunno, I guess I can’t really blame the ones who stayed home. The movie doesn’t sell itself. It works in bits and pieces, and more often in theory than in actuality; perhaps it will gain some life on DVD – a stronger marketing push would certainly help, I’m sure. Even so, the film isn’t quite bizarre enough to be a novelty, committed enough to its premise to be a compelling drama, or managed well enough to make a thrilling actioner. From afar, it looks like it could be any of these things, but alas, no. I’m still trying to put my finger on the thing that kept Drive Angry from finding a place in the hearts of those who sought out The Expendables and Machete, and all I can come up with is maybe it just doesn’t drive angry enough. Instead of being off-the-wall with crazy energy, the movie is playful but ultimately routine.
Maybe they’ll get it right in the sequel, Drive Angrier. I’m thinking Nic Cage with Jason Statham. Do it, Hollywood. Now. Do it. Do it. Now.