Movie Review: Drive Angry (2011)

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by Tony Dayoub

It's extremely rare for me to go into a movie and have next to no idea what it's about. It's kind of fun, actually. It makes me realize how many plot points are given away by today's trailers; often to the film's detriment I should add.

So the only thing I knew about Drive Angry going into it was what I had seen on the poster at a quick glance: Nicolas Cage, hot "girl du jour," fast cars. It looks like a fun, shallow riff on Gone in Sixty Seconds, I thought. Whoa, was I wrong! Watching the trailer post-movie confirmed what I suspected; anyone going into Drive Angry after seeing its preview can't possibly be surprised by any of its plot machinations, which is sad, really.

See, more than most movies, Drive Angry succeeds mostly on the small surprises that spring up in its otherwise conventional revenge narrative. Its prologue, in which a car escapes a molten island surrounded by a moat of lava, is indicative of much of what's to come later, but I took it to be metaphorical rather than literal.

Not hard to confuse it for that when the protagonist played by Cage is cleverly named John Milton (after the author of Paradise Lost) and he goes around blowing people's body parts clean off (and into your lap if you see it in 3D) with a sawed-off scatter gun. I mean, we all know Cage generally plays things over the top, but Drive Angry may be his first film since Wild at Heart (and that's including 2009's Bad Lieutenant) where every element of the movie is more outlandish than he is. And I, for one, enjoyed much of the film's fringe elements, particularly before director Patrick Lussier and his co-writer Todd Farmer (My Bloody Valentine) tip their hand as to the source of all this unearthly weirdness.

The fact that Drive Angry's momentum is derived from Milton's desire to avenge the death of his daughter at the hands of cult leader Jonah King (Billy Burke) is appropriate of the movie's grimy grindhouse aesthetic. That Piper (Amber Heard)—Milton's newfound partner in crime and a gorgeous blonde who can hold her own against her abusive meathead boyfriend—is slyly positioned as a surrogate for Milton's daughter is characteristic of the mythic tone of the film.

Any other movie would have had the two characters inevitably sleeping with each other. Milton instead fucks a honkytonk waitress (Charlotte Ross) in a scene where he must defend himself from an attack by half a dozen of King's cult followers while still inside the woman. Uh-huh, it's that kind of over-the-top.

When, midway through the movie, Cage's character survives a shot through the eye, Drive Angry's supernatural elements really click together like tumblers in a safe. For just a minute, I recalled "The Hard Goodbye," the blissful chapter of Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez's Sin City (2005) that starred a broken-faced Mickey Rourke as an even more grotesque Marv, an indestructible juggernaut who only needs band-aids over the multiple bullet holes peppering his body while in pursuit of his favorite girl's killer. For one brief moment, I was ready to grant the film license to do anything because, I thought, Drive Angry just doesn't give a fuck!

But then, Drive Angry's flirtation with the otherworldly becomes more concrete, particularly with the increasing involvement of a business-suited character named The Accountant (William Fichtner) who embodies much of what's wrong with the film. Instead of hinting at the story's hellish origins, the movie feels the need to over-explain them, and the explanations usually come courtesy of the expository Accountant.

In fact, the only thing that spoils Drive Angry's plot points more than the Accountant is the film's trailer, which I recommend you avoid if you're even remotely interested in watching this movie... because what's left over is frustratingly mediocre.