After working his way through various franchise sequels and the recent flat-headed remake of My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009), director Patrick Lussier finally hit creative paydirt with this perfectly crafted exploitation hybrid that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez tried to evoke in their Grindhouse diptych but missed by several miles.
Drive Angry isn’t pure grindhouse – it has a coherent plot with a coherent resolution – but it delivers everything the teasing poster advertizes: cars, sex, and the promise of violence and socially inappropriate behavior.
Nicolas Cage plays Milton, a baddie who busted out of Hell, and determined to hunt down the human monster - Jonah King (Billy Burke), leader of a niche cult - responsible for killing his daughter, and plotting to sacrifice Milton’s infant granddaughter to Satan so Hell can reign on Earth.
The beauty of the evil cult is that even Satan thinks they’re morons, which makes the learning curve of his minion, The Accountant (William Fichtner), all the more entertaining. He’s a bean counter sent to bring back the escapee, but once he comprehends the reasons for Milton’s breakout, he’s amused by the presumptions humans have made about getting on the Devil’s good side.
Milton’s revenge take some time because he has to gradually cull Jonah’s entourage into something more manageable, so he sets a few traps, and finds a great ally in sexy Piper (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane’s Amber Heard), a leggy and long-haired sexploitation babe capable of shooting moving targets, driving hot cars, and beating the crap out of manhandlers because of her able experiences with sleazy fiancée Frank (played by co-writer Todd Farmer) and her groping boss at a local diner.
Milton knows the Accountant is able to regenerate wounds, so he’s packing a God-killer – an antique multi-barreled shotgun with bullets that permanently kill targets, leaving no chance of an afterlife in Heaven or Hell. He also likes vintage muscle cars, so audiences are treated to the sweet chrome and rumbling engines of a Buick Riviera, Dodge Charger, and Chevy Chevelle.
A brilliant shot with dead accuracy, Milton can also massacre scummy henchmen in a hotel room while remaining interconnected with a naked waitress named Candy (Charlotte Ross) and taking puffs from a cigar, and swigs from liquor. He’s just that good.
Cage manages to keep Milton sympathetic real in spite of the character being an amalgam of comic book and B-movie archetypes, and Heard is physically striking and deadly - never letting anyone victimize her without a hard punch to the jaw. The two actors also manage to transcend some of the film’s deliberately (and maybe unintentionally) cheesy dialogue, with Cage pulling off a backstory scene with believable gravitas – a feat few actors could’ve managed while still giving audiences a subtle wink from the one eye Jonah didn’t blow into Jell-O.
Lussier and his casting director seem to have raided a lengthy hit list of veteran B-actors and stuntmen / bit actors whose faces are recognizable from playing drug dealers, corrupt cops, henchmen, and sickos. Headlining the troupe is small-town sheriff Cap, played by Tom Akins (The Fog), with Jack McGee playing Piper’s hands-on boss, the always underused Pruitt Taylor Vince (Identity) as a peeler bar owner, and David Morse as Milton’s old friend from the pre-Hell years.
With rare exceptions, the cars are real, the stunts involve humans, and the locations convey an appropriately sun-bleached southern U.S., and Michael Wandmacher’s bluegrass score adds extra colour and feral nastiness with acoustic and electronic instruments.
Unlike Bloody Valentine, which had uniformly weak visuals (and looked like a cheap HD production), Drive Angry is beautifully filmed with an ideal blend of cleanly rendered 3D effects and simple compositional elements, much in the way Alfred Hitchcock saved the money shots for in-your-face assaults in Dial M for Murder (1954), but generally kept scenes simple so audiences felt they were sitting at the edge of the room.
The gore effects are a good mix of practical and digital, and highlights include the aforementioned eye-trauma enjoyed by Milton, blown away appendages, and a brief tribute to Tom Savini’s famous machete-in-the face moment in Dawn of the Dead (1978).
It’s a uniformly solid package for exploitation fans wanting retro thrills and titillation, and the only issue is the lack of longer shots of cars, and engine sounds with subwoofer throttling bass. Little details, but precious ones.
This is by far Lussier’s best film, but there is one oddity that perhaps only co-writer Todd Farmer can explain: alongside Bloody Valentine, this is the second film in which he’s cast himself as a redneck scumbag who appears naked, treats women like crap, and dies painfully. If this is a motif or personal fetish, one wonders whether he’ll work in similar cameos in Halloween III and Hellraiser, the next set of films in the works with Lussier.
Also available: an interview with composer Michael Wandmacher.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan