Drive Angry directed by Patrick Lussier (My Bloody Valentine 3D) is an action thriller with a resolutely trashy grindhouse ethos. This weekend should you require an antidote to the Academy Awards’ hauteur pretentiousness and altogether unreasonable commitment to quality this lowbrow orgy of carnage nudity and roaring muscle cars will surely do the trick. Then again so will a few episodes of Jersey Shore. But that show unlike Drive Angry isn’t available in eye-bludgeoning 3D. Yet.
The film stars Nicolas Cage as John Milton a cigar-chomping Jack Daniels-swilling ex-con who has escaped from hell (literally) to save his granddaughter from being sacrificed by an apocalyptic cult. Fear not B-movie aficionados: The character’s name a winking nod to the author of Paradise Lost is about the only discernibly literary or philosophical element to be found in Drive Angry which otherwise keeps its aim squarely below the waist. Knowledge of Milton’s 17th-century epic poem or of literature in general is not required for the enjoyment of this film. In fact it might hinder it.
Some films inadvertently earn the “so-bad-it’s-good” label; Drive Angry aspires to it. The plot is spotty and nonsensical crafted mainly to connect the dots between bloody spurts of stylized mayhem. Milton drifts through various small southern towns populated entirely with louts and sluts leaving behind a trail of bodyparts as he rushes to confront the cult leader (Billy Burke) who abducted his granddaughter and who intends to offer her up to the Dark Lord at the next full moon.
Along the way he picks up a sidekick Piper (Amber Heard) a pugilistic potty-mouth in daisy dukes included in the film for the very express purpose of giving us something pretty to look at betwixt the gory shootouts and car chases – a considerate gesture on the part of the filmmakers truth be told. She is however only tangentially related to the plot. Which would be a problem if plot were a priority.
Drive Angry’s holy triumvirate of sex violence and muscle cars merges into one unified splatter-drenched whole during the film’s climax in which Milton launches his ’69 Dodge Charger into the center of an orgiastic cult gathering picking off with a shotgun the few revelers he can’t run over before finally following through on his pledge to drink a bottle of beer from the skull of his dead nemesis. This is actually one of the film's more endearing moments.
Cage for his part has a few moments of inspired batshitry my favorite being a scene in which he enjoys a bizarre sexually charged exchange with a randy waitress before pulling her in for a sloppy French kiss but for the most part his eccentricity is disappointingly muted. He’s more of a grim gunslinger out of the Sergio Leone mold in Drive Angry shooting much and saying little which doesn’t leave much room for those manic outbursts I’ve come to regard with such genuine affection.
Slyly stealing the show from Cage in Drive Angry is the man who pursues him The Accountant played by esteemed character actor William Fichtner. A sort of bounty hunter sent by the devil to bring Milton back to hell The Accountant moves with a kind of creepy grace his utter disregard for conventions of personal space throwing every character he encounters off-balance. Fichtner’s wry observations are the comedic highlight of a movie that tries hard to ape the dark offbeat humor of Tarantino's Death Proof but falls woefully short in the end.
Someone’s been killing off the criminals of New York City--the ones that the law can’t seem to put away via proper channels--and it’s up to veteran detectives Turk (De Niro) and Rooster (Pacino) to crack the case and bring the killer to justice by means fair or foul. As whodunits go this isn’t a terribly compelling or suspenseful one. There are red herrings and dropped clues galore but the script (by Russell Gewirtz of Inside Man fame) is both choppy and loopy--and not in good ways. The story is needlessly convoluted and despite a few tough-guy quotes from De Niro and Pacino this is a forgettable police potboiler. De Niro. Pacino. What more could anyone ask for? A decent script perhaps? There’s a palpable pleasure in seeing these two titans share the same frame but that sensation is quickly dissipated as the clunky storyline lurches toward its inevitable finale. Pacino appears to be having more fun than De Niro who’s almost sheepish in his role as a troubled New York detective. The supporting cast--and it’s a good one--fares little better although there’s more chemistry between John Leguizamo and Donnie Wahlberg as sort of a younger version of the De Niro/Pacino duo. Carla Gugino smokin’ hot as always bats her eyelashes and struts her stuff as a police pathologist with a kinky streak. Brian Dennehy clocks in as the obligatory hard-boiled police lieutenant while Curtis Jackson (better known as 50 Cent) sleepwalks through the stock role of a club owner of dubious disposition. It just goes to show that a great cast can’t do it alone. Jon Avnet who guided Pacino through his paces in the equally clumsy 88 Minutes (for the same producers no less) is simply not up to the task of overcoming the script’s vast and many shortcomings. Even for the most devout devotees of the two superstars Righteous Kill is merely a matter of killing time … and not in a particularly righteous way.