(by Dustin Putman
A grindhouse throwback that doesn't quite master the style and feel of that low-rent, ultra-violent, sex-laced genre of the '70s, "Drive Angry" nevertheless come pretty close. If nothing, it's just as jovial in spirit as 2010's "Machete." Writer-director Patrick Lussier and co-writer Todd Farmer, the same team behind 2009's sensible "My Bloody Valentine" remake, don't pretend to be creating high cinematic art. What they do know is exactly how to play to their Friday night audience of gore hounds, explosion seekers, and vintage car aficionados. Lussier's use of 3-D for the theatrical release (real 3-D, not the crappy post-conversion kind) even shows a certain understanding of the overexposed format that most filmmakers lack. It's still unnecessary, overly dim and more hindrance than asset, a fad that ought to have died out yesterday, but its application could have been much worse. Article continues below
The aptly-named John Milton (Nicolas Cage) has a grave score to settle. With his daughter murdered and her baby kidnapped, he races across the American South in pursuit of the man responsible, a Jim Jones-ish Satanic cult leader named Jonah King (Billy Burke). Severely in need of transportation, he helps out headstrong waitress Piper (Amber Heard) when she catches her abusive boyfriend (Todd Farmer) cheating on her, then takes to the wheel of her 1969 Dodge Charger. Tired of the dead-end life she's been leading and In search of a purpose, Piper joins him on his mission. Together, they have until the next full moon to save John's granddaughter from a sacrifice set to open up the gates of Hell. They'd better work fast.
"Drive Angry" isn't scary, its villains don't pose a consequential threat, and the two leads rarely, if ever, appear to be in real danger. That John is withholding who he is and where he's come from—a secret that is revealed midway through—only lessens the peril he finds himself in. In a formulaic movie like this one, one can be sure there won't be many surprises in who's going to ultimately receive their due comeuppance and who's destined to come out on top. What "Drive Angry" gets right, then, is its playful, go-for-broke showmanship. Director Patrick Lussier keeps the attitude high, the bone-crunching sound effects palpable, and the tongue-in-cheek humor plentiful without going overboard and turning things into an out-and-out farce. It doesn't hurt that there's also a seriously hot, tough-as-gristle, unsuspectingly sweet young lady never far from the forefront of all the gun battles, fist fights and rubber burning.
Nicolas Cage threatened to lose a lot of his remaining credibility with his last film, 2011's "Season of the Witch," but as the resourceful actor always seems to do following a bomb, he has once again redeemed himself here. Make no mistake, Cage's turn won't be earning him an Oscar, but he treats his role of John Milton with all the stoic, bad-ass swagger it can handle. When John battles and kills a roomful of bad guys while continuing all along to have sex with a big-breasted cocktail waitress and smoke a cigar, it's a highlight that only reaffirms the film's auspicious sense of humor. As sidekick Piper, the stunning Amber Heard (2009's "The Stepfather") is the picture's most killer weapon. No shrinking violet, Heard pulls out all the stops as she leaps full-bodied into her character, a friendly beauty who you wouldn't want to cross lest you have an imminent death wish. She, more than even John's goal of saving the life of his granddaughter, is the prevailing heart—and a welcome symbol of modern feminism, to boot—in the sort of film that usually has nary a sign of either.
As The Accountant, a mysterious supernatural figure who follows John around, William Fichtner (2010's "Date Night") is a study in cool, calm, collected intensity. By comparison, Billy Burke (2010's "Eclipse") nibbles the scenery as the evil Jonah King, carrying around the bone of John's daughter's femur as a sort of twisted keepsake. David Morse (2008's "Passengers"), turning up as John's old pal from the past Webster, is curiously underused. Finally, regular scene-stealer Katy Mixon (2009's "All About Steve") does just that in the small role of Piper's flirtatious co-worker Norma Jean, while genre veteran great Tom Atkins (1982's "Halloween III: Season of the Witch") gets the best line as crooked police chief Cap: "When I tell you to aim for their tires, I mean aim for their heads."
Frivolous, hard-core fun permeates from "Drive Angry" long enough to notice when the momentum flags in the third act. After so much fighting to save his grandbaby, the payoff to this comes and goes with little fanfare or dramatic interest. Also disappointing: the cornball, out-of-place reliance on obvious CGI when practical effects work would have better shown off the true glory and nostalgia of low-budget exploitation flicks of the 1970s. If "Drive Angry" is too slick to achieve this, it endures all the same as a balls-to-the-wall action-thriller-horror-comedy hybrid. You want nudity? You want limbs flying? You want to see a hydrogen fuel truck barrel into a police blockade? Have at it! It's pure ridiculousness, to be sure, and irreverently knows it.