I sat in bewilderment at the painful displays of inattention that were caressing Nicolas Cages' face during much of Drive Angry. This used to be the man whose presence in any film signaled some kind of unpredictability. Now he sits, utilizing the very energy that used to be unhinged as another prop to litter the landscape of whatever film he happens to be starring in. Sadly, he's become self-aware.
It's not a particular surprise. He was showing signs of reigning in his energy as early as Ghost Rider in 2007, but there were some flashes of the old Cage brilliance in Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant remake. If there's any film that could have used his unhinged persona it's todays Drive Angry. But instead we have the nearly beaten shell of a man who, it seems, is doomed to repeat the same role again and again until he climbs out of debt from the many castles he owns.
This is the kind of character that screams for insanity. Nicolas Cage is John Milton, recently escaped captive of Hell (how he does this is unknown) driving hard and fast toward a demonic ritual where he hopes to avenge his daughter and save his granddaughter. His granddaughter who, if the theology is to be believed, will serve as the ritualistic sacrifice allowing Satan to wander the Earth and kick-start Armageddon. All the while Milton hunts down good ol' boys (the less kind word is "hicks") who are part of the cult and picks up a Daisy-Duke wearin' sexy sidekick named Piper (Amber Heard).
Oh yeah, then there's the amazing William Fichtner as The Accountant, always dressed in black and pursuing Milton to balance the books. Then there's the new demonic messiah Jonah King (Billy Burke), a man taken to modeling himself after Elvis and the killer of Milton's daughter. Considering how many people think that Elvis has died and come back multiple times, this isn't exactly the most far off person to model a potential Antichrist after.
I don't really object to the basic structure or material present in Drive Angry. I love good sleaze when it's pulled off with enough intelligence and wit to play around with it's murky surroundings. But there's a problem with commitment early on when the soundtrack kicks in with one of my favorite songs about copulation and the camera follows the newly liberated Piper to her car where she proceeds to...sing the song while her car breaks down.
It's like the film wants to be sleazy but picks the wrong times to go through with it. Later on in the film Piper catches her fiancée banging another woman and we see the full naked humiliation of the offending woman while the attempted comeuppance on the fiancée is just met with Piper getting her butt kicked (crotch carefully covered of course). Seems no matter how tough women try to be in these sorts of films they're just pushed back down or ogled, as are the many fully naked women on display the satanic orgy that helps set the final act in motion.
Cage usually flounders here where he usually could have brought some kind of entertainment ten years ago. He's disengaged, trying to bring some of his insanity to an admittedly crazy character (who carries a gun that can kill Death and God, apparently) but he just seems resigned. Perhaps he realizes that a lot of this film is ripped off directly from Shoot 'Em Up. That film, if you'll recall, features Clive Owen's character having sex with Monica Belluci while fending off attackers. Well, it's been resuscitated for Drive Angry, only Cage is fully clothed, smoking a cigar and swigging Jack Daniels.
All funny touches, punctuated by a very prudent question of why he's still clothed ("I never disrobe before a gun fight") but sorely lacking in the execution. The whole film has a very cheap aesthetic to it, and the fact that it was designed to be seen in 3D leaves a number of awkward splatter shots and limbs descending toward the camera. It's too polished for the Grindhouse crowd and way too cheaply done for anyone else.
If there is one thing that stands as a towering success it's William Fichtner's performance as The Accountant. The oddball quirks I expected from Cage show up in his role. I loved the way that Fichtner awkwardly pronounced every cuss as if he didn't quite get the vernacular, and he knows how to hold himself just right so that he accidentally looks like the most intimidating person in the frame. It certainly doesn't hurt that he drives a truck carrying Hydrogen while humming "That' the way (uh-huh uh-huh) I like it", a moment perfect in so many ways it's still bringing a sly grin to my face.
I'm sad that Drive Angry failed. Reviewing new DVD releases each week hasn't exactly left me with the greatest intellectual release so great, sleazy trash has been my only real promise for enjoyment. It's an attempt, a noble one if you are want to describe movies like Drive Angry in such terms, but it left me sad.
I would have preferred angry, but that might have been too ironic.