The intent behind “Drive Angry” appears the same as the one that fed Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s “Grindhouse”—to mimic the sort of hilariously over-the-top schlock cranked out by Roger Corman and others of his ilk in the sixties and seventies, but with higher production values (in this case, including 3D). But as was the case with that epic-sized flick, it’s not as easy to ape their so-bad-they’re-(well, if not good, at least amusing) level. “Drive” aspires to be absolute trash, but of the exhilarating sort. Unfortunately, it misses by a mile, winding up oddly dull and ponderous.
The screenplay by Todd Farmer and Patrick Lussier is based on the premise that John Milton (Nicolas Cage)—the character’s name is about as witty as things get here—is a dead hombre who’s escaped from hell in order to track down an evil cult leader named Jonah King (Billy Burke), who’s killed his estranged daughter and kidnapped her infant child, which he intends to sacrifice on the next full moon in order to achieve immortality. (Or something like that: if the truth be told, the plot isn’t very high on logic.)
Anyway, Milton has broken out of hell, where he was tormented by a video feed, as he says at one point, of his daughter’s brutal murder, and is out to save his granddaughter and slay King. In the process he enlists the help of saucy waitress Piper (Amber Heard), whom he rescues from a beating by her thuggish boyfriend and who becomes his sidekick. Meanwhile he’s pursued by The Accountant (William Fichtner), some sort of demonic bookkeeper, who’s hot on the escapee’s heels.
That’ really all there is to “Drive Angry.” The movie’s nothing more than an extended double chase, with Milton pursuing King and his redneck minions while The Accountant traipses after him and Piper. This becomes a chain of shootouts, fistfights and car chases, all staged with the kind of visual and verbal insouciance that’s designed to make fanboys drool. The problem that it all comes across as terribly mechanical, like something cobbled together from memories of sequences the makers have recalled from previous pictures and decided to copy. And when they pause for a moment—most notably in a scene in which David Morse as Webster, Milton’s onetime partner, gives a precis of John’s past to Piper—it’s done so sketchily that one assumes it’s intended as a parody of the “humanizing” moments in such pulp, which always were risible. Unfortunately, in this case it’s a failed parody.
Still, the picture might have been fun had Cage brought more to the party. But he walks through it on autopilot, with none of the lip-smacking pizzazz he brought to his turns in “Kick-Ass” and “Bad Lieutenant.” One can understand what he’s up to—playing a stiff, laconic modern version of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name—and appreciate that he doesn’t want to put much energy into a part he obviously just took for the paycheck, and must be practically soul-destroying for an actor of any ambition. But he doesn’t even put in the effort he did in mind-numbing junk like “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and “Season of the Witch.”
Most of the supporting cast are equally nondescript. Heard is pretty but bland, though she or her stunt stand-in do just fine in the many action scenes (of course, her face remains pristine despite all the beatings supposedly inflicted on it), and Burke makes a cookie-cutter villain, preening like a cut-rate Billy Zane. The only person who brings any zest to the proceedings is Fichtner, who takes a tack from Jeff Bridges’ “Starman” bag of tricks to make the nattily attired Accountant a quirky oddball, not quite comfortable in his human body. But even his act begins to pale as the movie drags on; it clocks in at more than a hundred minutes, while its models rarely made it to ninety.
Technically, of course, “Drive Angry” is much slicker than Corman’s old sub-B pictures, but perversely that acts against it; even Rodriguez’s “Machete,” bad as it was, understood that part of the charm of such ventures is their extravagantly subpar production values. In this case, however, even 3D is employed—mostly to toss weapons, severed body parts and spurts of blood into viewers’ eyeballs. It’s the same tactic Lussier employed in his remake of “My Bloody Valentine,” and it makes even less impression on repetition.
It’s tempting to want to take a leaf from the title and talk about being furious over such a mindless cinematic bloodbath as this. But despite all the automotive mayhem, “Drive Angry” is simply too pedestrian to warrant such an extreme reaction. Even as it tries to pump up the adrenaline with gore and violence, it earns no more than mild annoyance.