by Adam Nayman and Jeff Reichert
Every Monday, two Reverse Shotters wipe the weekend from their bleary eyes and engage in a postmortem on the multiplex trash (good or bad) they took in.
Anton Chekhov once wrote, “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” To this, the makers of Drive Angry would hasten to add that one must not have a character vow to drink a beer out of the skull of his vanquished enemy if he’s not actually going to do it.
The lusty manner in which Nicolas Cage gulps down his celebratory beverage is one of a half-dozen good laughs in Patrick Lussier’s neo-grindhouse grab-bag, which is perhaps the most aggressively un-PC big-studio release since 2007’s Shoot ’Em Up (from which it borrows a scene in which its main character mows down some bad guys in mid-coitus). Tastelessness can be a good thing in genre filmmaking—and it’s a full-fledged aesthetic for those post-Verhoevian scoundrels Neveldine/Taylor, who will surely have Cage driving angry in their upcoming Ghost Rider sequel), but it’s less fun when the strain is so palpable. Slashed throats, orgiastic cult meetings, a villain who uses his former lover's femur as a walking stick (and later, a weapon): it all reeks of effort.
Gifted with his silliest haircut since Con Air, Cage glowers manfully through his role as a bat out of Hell: he's been sprung from the underground big house to rescue his granddaughter from being a blood sacrifice. (His character's name is John Milton, which suggests that Lussier and cowriter Todd Farmer have at least seen The Devil's Advocate if they haven't read Paradise Lost). The real star turn, though, belongs to William Fichtner, whose bemused line readings as a Satanic version of Tommy Lee Jones' Fugitive manhunter suggest a cut-rate Christopher Walken riff. The movie is bad, but Cage and Fichtner energize each other in their scenes together; when they finally drive into the sunset (or, rather, a CGI-assisted rendering of a Meatloaf LP cover), it’s enough to make you want to raise a jawbone to their good health. —AN
Your count of good laughs is pretty dead-on, but I hope that the fact that, two days later, I can only really remember said skull koozie says more about the overall disposability of Drive Angry than my spotty memory. I do recall that the laughs were generally well earned (learning that the mid-coital gunfight wasn’t wholly sui generis is a bit of a blow, but am I misremembering some kind of threat of disemboweling made more menacing by the villain saying he would do so while eating grapefruit?). And if Lussier had managed another half-dozen or so, the final analysis might have been weighted more heavily in his favor. He’s definitely much more a writer then a director or editor (all roles that he serves here)—his scenario has the chutzpah to attempt hard-R offense, but his filmmaking chops are strictly G territory. For a movie with the words “Drive” and “Angry” in the title, his automotive sequences feel remarkably like leisurely Sunday drives.
I guess what continually bugs me about neo-grindhouse is the amount of money spent to reproduce the effects of a strain of filmmaking that reveled in ultra-low budget solutions. Not unlike trust fund kids who shop only vintage, these offerings (is the Rodriguez half of Grindhouse the progenitor of this stuff?) are too shiny, too scrubbed clean, and thus undermine the mythology they attempt to continue. Further, do we only value the moments in these films that step beyond good taste in relief to their general inseparability from the main duties of action filmmaking? The CG-Meatloaf rendering at the finale may be case in point: we’re given the de rigueur high-gloss flames, exploding bridges, swooping movements of the “camera” (and, yes, Meatloaf), when all we’d truly need to be satisfied are some red-splattered cardboard sets, a few squibs, and a dashboard-mounted 16mm. I’d keep the Meatloaf, though. —JR