By Leah Zak | The Playlist February 26, 2011 at 6:20AM
"Drive Angry 3D" is everything it wants to be. And slightly more. If one wonders to what extent filmmakers have NOT been using 3D, director Patrick Lussier answers with this picture, a crazy, bad dudes-and-fast-cars camp classic in the making. Shocking, grotesque, and completely ridiculous, audiences will get what they paid for. Or at least what they sneak in for using their leftover 3D glasses from "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never." Between this and his surprisingly satisfying remake of "My Bloody Valentine," Lussier might be shaping up to be the first genuine post-millennial 3D exploitation auteur... or something.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with the ludicrous/amazing (amazingly ludicrous?) premise: A fleshy, human-ish zombie named John Milton (get it?) comes back from hell (this would be Nicolas Cage, whose wigs seem to have devolved into sticking straw from a scarecrow on top of his skull) to avenge the death of his only daughter and save her baby from a satanic cult that plans to use it as a sacrifice. How does he get out of hell, you ask? Well, he drives a souped-up muscle car, of course. (Plot specifics are almost nonexistent, probably for the better.) Along the way a surrogate daughter (Amber Heard) enters the picture in the form of a sassy young waitress who is very good at punching and wearing Daisy Duke-esque jean shorts. By the end of the movie, they have an army of Satan-worshiping crazies (led by Billy Burke, rocking a soulless-patch), law enforcement (under the leadership of cult icon Tom Atkins as a grizzled sheriff) and someone referring to themselves as The Accountant (William Fichtner) on their tail. This shit is crazy.
While things start off with a bang (the introductory action sequence seems to have begun long before the movie starts - Cage's car is riddled with bullet holes we never see him incur), the first act takes awhile to get going. Which fair enough, the writing here is fast, loose and sassy (Lussier co-wrote it with his "Bloody Valentine" scribe Todd Farmer), but not exactly nuanced, and in trying to establish the heart within the bad ass for both Cage and Heard becomes a bit redundant, especially since they're both barely sketched characters to begin with. 'Drive Angry' isn't so much an academic nod to the films it’s trying to emulate (its closest cousin is probably the bizarro 1975 Warren Oates/Peter Fonda obscurity "Race with the Devil," not that the filmmakers had any idea), it’s just kind of that movie. But once things get started, it’s absolute crazy town and it doesn’t stop. At one point you'll get the impression that a day player’s horrendous wig was meant to be part of the immersion of the 3D experience.
Performance-wise, there's not a whole lot to talk about. Instead of nuance or detail, they've chosen to go for full-tilt Southern Gothic cartoons, with people constantly affecting drawls to varying degrees of success. You honestly can't tell if Nicolas Cage is deeply enmeshed in his character though some Method-y process that the audience can't quite grasp, or if he doesn't give a shit and just took the job so another one of his Bavarian castles doesn't get repossessed. Heard is a spitfire, but her seemingly kick-ass, post-feminist mentality is constantly undermined by the leery shots that glide up and down her body. Still, with smoky eyes and Farrah Fawcett-levels of flowy, feathered hair, she makes the most of it, even when forced to say lines like "It turned my shit white." Billy Burke, who can occasionally be an effective character actor, is saddled with a velour coat that seems to have been cast off from Prince's last world tour and a subplot involving his penis being severed (again: not big on clarification). Supporting actor stalwarts David Morse and Pruitt Taylor Vince show up for a few minutes, then recede into the dimensional background.
It should be noted, though, that William Fichtner steals the fucking show. In a movie crammed with cutting edge technology (which succeeds, mostly, even sometimes in spite of itself), he's the movie's most special special effect. As a lugubrious agent of Satan whose allegiances seem to shift with the Louisiana wind, he brings sexuality, menace, and a knowing sense of gonzo humor (that never veers too far over the top) to a role that could have easily been sleepwalked through. His mannerisms are absolutely priceless - watch as he cranes his neck to listen into a phone conversation, or the way he glides out of an out-of-control semi with a balletic ease. He narrates the opening sequence of the movie, for some reason, effortlessly using the word "motherfucker" multiple times while videogame-level renderings of hell flash on the screen. It's kind of mind boggling. Performances this good rarely come out of movies this intentionally schlocky.
And, truth be told, this is the ultimate 3D shock experience this side of "Piranha 3D." From weapons to vehicles (again: why every character seems to have extreme motor-lust is never really explained) to human remains, anything that can be thrown at the audience will be thrown at the audience, but when it comes to “Drive Angry” that’s the point, right? Lussier never misses an opportunity to make those 3D dollars count. In probably the most memorable sequence, he stages a shoot-out while Nicolas Cage is having sex with a truck-stop floozy. Bone is shattered, skulls splinter and explode, and all the while Cage (fully dressed) is humping away, while The Ravonettes rattle away on soundtrack. He also uses the format quite effectively for a flashback sequence, adding a -- depth for lack of a better term -- as you watch Milton’s face and see the memories he recalls play out before both of you; an experience that you can't get from 2D, with Milton's face and the demonic preacher layered on top of each other (somewhere, Robert Rodriguez is twitching in jealousy). But never does the 3D become a hindrance, and the film should translate easily enough to flat home video formats in the months to come (unlike, say, the fourth "Shrek" movie which is even more incomprehensible when you try to watch it on television since large chunks of the movie are devoted to gags where stuff is shoved in the audience's face). Much of the verve may be sucked away from the movie when it plays flat, but its out-and-out lunacy will still come across.
Which led this reviewer to a rather humbling conclusion about the artistic merits of a film that is made to shock and entertain us:
If you like seeing shit get blown up, guys getting shot, objects in your face, jokes about maniacal preachers having their penises cut off, and attractive ladies (or gentlemen, Nic Cage is not looking too bad in those skinny jeans if you know what I’m saying) then you will appreciate the artful hand of which Lussier pulls off all of this (and more!) in "Drive Angry 3D" (which, incidentally, was produced by Mike De Luca, the former New Line executive who nursed the early career of Paul Thomas Anderson -- my how things have changed!) There isn't really a whole lot more to say on this proudly-B B-movie (it's a devil of a good time), so we'll just let the gentleman with the tattoos who was sitting behind us do it: “thisisa GOOD movie.” [B-] - Drew Taylor