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Entries in Drive Angry 3D [2011] (1)

Wednesday
Jan122011

Drive Angry 3D (2011)

Lemon Lame

Last night, I attended an advanced screening of the new Nicolas Cage roadsploitation movie, Drive Angry 3D.  I’d like to thank Capone from Ain’t it Cool News for lowering me into the proverbial mine shaft so that I can save all of you from this dreadful clunker when it comes out in six weeks.

Once again, I’m compelled to use the word “throwback”.  It’s clear that director Patrick Lussier and co-screenwriter Todd Farmer love 70s car-fetish movies and the trashy fun of gratuitous nudity, limb-chopping violence, and hard-boiled revenge fantasies.  The problem is they’re also more in love with 3D technology than James Cameron, and the restraints of the computer-generated effects and awkward staging hamper the thrilling practical effects that a gritty smash-‘em-up requires.

There are plenty of scenes in Drive Angry in which cars, trucks and RVs chase each other down busy streets, weaving in and out of traffic; they make dramatic sharp turns, flip, and fly off bridges, and nine times out of ten, the people driving the cars are also shooting at each other, single-handedly, with shotguns or automatic weapons.  In the old days (about forty years ago), if a director wanted to film a spectacular stunt, he had to put peoples’ lives at risk to do it—and it showed on the gobsmacked faces of the audience.  Lussier has the benefit of taking his scenes up to the precipice in the real-world and then having his digital effects artists add the physics-and-logic-defying cartoon elements later—leaving the audience to wonder not whether or not someone died while filming a particular scene, but how large a green screen one needs to film a hero shot of a guy standing up and walking out of the front of a semi’s windshield onto the hood of the truck driving next to him.

Granted, that particular character is a demon, so he’s allowed to have supernatural powers.  I guess it’s time to talk story.  Cage stars as John Milton, a man who escapes from hell in a fast car and returns from the dead to save his granddaughter from a cult leader named Jonah King (Billy Burke).  King killed Milton’s daughter, a former acolyte, and he believes that sacrificing the baby at the next full moon will bring about hell on earth—for which Satan will no doubt be grateful.

Milton is joined by Piper (Amber Heard), a waitress who leaves her job and no-good, cheatin’ man to drive cross-country with a gun-toting stranger; despite this, the movie would have you believe she’s a really smart girl.  The third element to this nutty road trip is The Accountant (William Fichtner), a proper, fitted-suit-wearing demon who’s been sent to retrieve Milton’s soul.

That wicked sense of déjà vu you’re feeling right now is the first sign you should avoid this movie.  Some of the story elements are new(ish), but the way they play out is Action Movie 101, complete with a motel shoot-out, Hiroshima-high fireballs, and enough tough-guy clichés to fill eight more Transporter movies.

The only thing that sets Drive Angry apart is the fact that Piper has bigger balls than most of the men around her.  She swears, drinks, and chases sex; she also owns the vintage ride that gets her and Milton from A to B.  It struck me as odd that Farmer went so far out of his way to show Amber as a Tough Chick (really, he should have just written her as a boy or a post-op transsexual), until the scene where she finds her boyfriend (played by Farmer) in bed with another girl from their trailer park.  If Piper weren’t such a masculine presence then average audience members might have been taken out of the movie when her boyfriend punches and kicks the shit out of her.  She gets roughed up throughout the movie, particularly by Jonah King in a later scene, and it really turned my stomach.  I’m not suggesting that women don’t get in fights or that they can’t handle themselves; but graphic domestic violence doesn’t spring to mind when I think “fun 3D escapism.”

Maybe I’m just not bad-ass enough for this movie.  For an hour-and-a-half, Drive Angry made a case for its being exciting, macho, and hilarious, while my lame ass could only yawn and check my watch.  I get that Farmer and Lussier have huge affection for a by-gone era of un-PC thrill rides, but just having Tom Atkins show up in a movie doesn’t lend it legendary status; indeed, seeing the cult actor play a feeble, septuagenarian police chief only reminds us of his better, iconic roles (the last of which was probably in My Bloody Valentine 3D).  I also missed the high comedy of Milton shooting henchmen and dodging bullets while drinking Jack Daniels and banging a truck-stop waitress.  It’s (I suppose) an amusing idea, but it’s just another over-the-top gag in a movie packed with over-the-top gags.

What’s wrong with over-the-top gags?  I mean, isn’t this supposed to be a cheesy exploitation movie?  Lighten up!

No.  I won’t lighten up; because like countless creative teams before them, Lussier and Farmer fail to understand what made the movies of their youth so damned fun.  Exploitation films were often cheap, quickly shot low-brow entertainment.  The acting was terrible because the point of the production wasn’t character development so much as showing those characters getting naked or creatively killed.  The performances and low-budget effects were utilitarian and sincere.  They’re only cheesy in retrospect because of the enlightened minds modern audiences think they’ve cultivated by years of watching movies with better effects and better actors.

Most of the acting and action in Drive Angry has an affected “Hey, isn’t this kitschy” feel to it; this sensibility rams straight into the filmmakers’ desire to make us care about Milton and his granddaughter, and Farmer and Lussier just don’t have the deft touch it takes to pull off Tex Avery’s Masterpiece Theatre.

The only character that’s worth watching is The Accountant.  Fichtner shines as a creature who takes his work very seriously, and who’s obviously not used to walking around in human skin.  I’ll credit Lussier with not insisting that we get some corny effects shot of demon muscle writhing around under The Accountant’s forehead or something.  The actor does all this work for us, creating more thrilling, brain-tickling moments than all of the explosions and flying jaws combined.  Especially compared to Nicolas Cage, whose delivery can best be described as Constant, Wistful Remembrance of a Once-Vibrant Career, Fichtner woke me up every time he stepped into frame.

It gives me no joy to write these things about a movie that most everyone around me clearly enjoyed.  Half the audience guffawed in recognition at the scene where two stoner kids passed each other a bowl; there were a couple of “ooohs” when people got knives to the face or flattened under a hurtling, burning car; and I heard more than a few orgasms when Milton’s best friend Webster (David Morse) whipped the tarps off a couple of glistening, cherry hot-rods (I don’t know if they were technically hot rods, ‘cause I don’t give a fuck about cars; and Drive Angry did nothing to pique my interest).

At the end of my Season of the Witch review, I suggested that some audiences will lap up anything, and that those people likely work service jobs.  That was, perhaps, unfair.  But there’s no doubt that a large number of moviegoers simply don’t care if they’re fooled into accepting a film as being fun simply because Nicolas Cage is in it and a lot of pretty things get set on fire.  Some of us want brains behind our mindless fun, or at least some originality.  For us, Drive Angry does nothing but describe the long car-ride home.

Note: If you’re looking for a real throwback to carsploitation, check out Quentin Tarantino’s underappreciated Death Proof, which is half of 2007’s Grindhouse.  All of the stunts in that movie are real and will have you gripping the arms of your couch in dread.  The gore is also top notch and mostly practical.  Sorry, there’s no nudity; that’s what YouPorn’s for, right?