Like a movie about a firefighter killing terrorists right after 9/11, or a movie called “Looters” right after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, “Drive Angry” was a victim of bad timing. Sold primarily as a 3D movie right as audiences began to tire of 3D (“SHOT IN 3D!” the trailers probably shouldn’t have boasted), on the backend of a wave of cruddy Nicolas Cage movies, it basically had no chance at the box office. And with just over $10 million in domestic receipts in the box office, less than half of Cage’s January release “Season of the Witch,” that’s exactly what it got.
I understand why people stayed away, but I’m here to tell you, “Drive Angry” is well worth a Friday night rental. It’s a saucy little exploitation picture, with a feisty, well-cast Cage as a man possessed. Remember when Nicolas Cage was the guy who played the awkward everyman nerd in action movies? And he sometimes needed Sean Connery to show him how to kick ass? Yeah, those days are long gone. Now a murdering, muscle car driving avenger from hell is about as close to an everyman as he gets. And we love him for it! Who cares if he’s 47 and slightly jowly? Who cares if his hair looks like it’s made from the stuff they sweep off the floor of the American Girl Doll Hair Salon? The man is having so much fun in this movie it’s infectious.
Cage plays John Milton, a dead man who escapes from Hell on a mission of revenge; that Cage’s character shares a name with the author of “Paradise Lost” and likes to shoot people while he’s having (fully clothed) intercourse with a barmaid, gives you a good indication of the movie’s intelligence level and temperament. Milton’s pursued by the always dependable “that guy” William Fichtner, in the leading role of a lifetime of supporting turns as The Accountant, a relentless agent of the underworld sent to return Milton to his rightful place in eternal damnation. I won’t spoil just what Milton is doing back on planet Earth, but it involves Billy Burke’s Jonah King, a religious leader who must be a bad guy because a)he walks around with a cane made out of a dead girl’s femur and b)he has a soul patch. I don’t know which one’s worse.
“Drive Angry”‘s plot has more holes than the grill of Milton’s Chevrolet Chevelle. Honestly? Who cares. The film is ludicrous and proud. Milton’s sidekick is the fetching Amber Heard, whose impossibly luxurious mane of flaxen hair maintains its shine and bounce in even the fiercest of gunfights. His nemesis casually tosses off lines like “It’d be bloody easy for me to shoot you in the throat and watch you gurgle while I eat my morning grapefruit.” And since it was shot in 3D there’s all sorts of shrapnel and bullets and spittle flying at the camera lens, even though most people will watch this movie at home in 2D (there is a 3D Blu-ray, if your home theater is equipped to handle such a thing).
I actually like the movie with 2D 3D effects. They remind me of all the schlocky formerly 3D exploitation pictures I used to watch on VHS as a kid. Releasing a 3D film in 2D strips it bare of any artistic pretense — these are carnival rides, plain and simple, and some of the attractions aren’t even working right now, so just stay in your seats until your car comes to a full and a complete stop. It also lends them a literal in-your-face attitude. A little aggressiveness is never a bad thing in an action movie.
With its gritty driving sequences, vindictive demons, and hellfire-spewing guns, “Drive Angry” is a way more satisfying adaptation of the “Ghost Rider” comic book than the “Ghost Rider” movie that Nicolas Cage was also the star of. In that case, he was required to tamp down a little bit of that Cage craziness we know and love to try to fit our notions of a super-hero. As Milton, he has noble intentions, but he’s also a bloodthirsty killer out for revenge. And without spoiling too much, that gives him license to do stuff like drink beer out of a dead guy’s skull. If that’s not your idea of a good night at home with a rented movie and some popcorn, then we have nothing left to discuss. Good night and drive safely (and angry).