Out of the fiery bowels of hell rides John Milton (Nicolas Cage), an unstoppable badass intent on avenging the death of his daughter and kidnap of her baby by a Satanic cult. After rescuing gutsy waitress Piper (Amber Heard) from her brutal, two-timing fiancé (Todd Farmer, also co-screenwriter), Milton hitches a ride in her super-cool, Seventies roadster, blasting bullets and burning rubber in pursuit of crazed cult leader Jonah King (Billy Burke), with Satan’s sharp-suited, sharp-witted emissary the Accountant (William Fichtner) hot on their trail. What unfolds is a cross-country race against time with Milton and Piper the only ones who can stop Jonah and his minions from sacrificing the baby as part of a Satanic ritual to unleash hell on earth.
Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez have a lot to answer for. After they teamed up on Grindhouse (2007), suddenly major studios started cranking out glossy, self-conscious tributes to the glory days of trash filmmaking. Drive Angry is a scattershot pastiche encompassing as many disparate exploitation elements as the slim narrative will allow: 3-D gimmickry, devil movie, redneck action picture, car chases, sexploitation, explosions and gore. What’s more, a charismatic Amber Heard essays the sort of leggy, tough talking action gal Claudia Jennings or Candice Rialson played in their New World heyday. Against the odds and despite the plot being merely a pretext for zany action and splattery deaths, Drive Angry largely succeeds in its aim at being a rip-roaring thrill ride.
From the opening scenes where Milton shotguns a truckload of rednecks and Piper’s trailer park punch-up with a naked woman she finds humping her boyfriend, the film’s relentless, yet good-humoured attempts at being as outrageous as possible prove oddly endearing. Patrick Lussier, who previously collaborated with co-writer Todd Farmer on the dismal 3-D slasher remake My Bloody Valentine (2009), has knack for persuading starlets to perform astounding full-frontally nude action set-pieces. Here, a hilarious sex scene/shootout finds Milton trading bullets and dodging axes flung at his head whilst screwing waitress Candy (Charlotte Ross) to screaming orgasm. The 3-D effects do not get any more ambitious than hurling objects in viewers’ faces, but the car stunts are exhilarating and the characters are quirkily likeable, including veteran Tom Atkins as an eloquent U.S. Marshal and a surprise cameo from David Morse as an old ally of Milton’s who is more or less, Mister Exposition.
It has become fashionable to knock Nicolas Cage, who between more ambitious projects has been cranking out oddball fantasy action pictures to ease his current financial troubles. But there is a chance future generations of cult film fans may embrace these movies the way many now adore similar crank-’em-out efforts from Charles Bronson and Michael Caine. As the self-styled “badass motherfucker on the run”, Cage seems initially on autopilot but later sparks winningly off co-stars Fichtner, Burke and especially Heard, as the filmmakers wisely avoid the usual mismatched romance in favour of a warmly paternal relationship. Amber Heard, whose eclectic career choices reveal an admirable desire to reinvent the drive-in queen for the twenty-first century, delivers poetic profanities with gusto. Piper proves the kind of girl who can sock a man in the jaw, take a punch and spit in his face, plus make a hunky naked bartender wait on her hand and foot. All that while sporting the kind of sexy Southern drawl that makes some men melt.
Despite being unimaginatively styled after Agent Smith in The Matrix (1999), William Fichtner proves devilishly dry as an oddly honourable emissary from hell. His encounter with a drug-addled teenager (“I’ll see you in three months”) and an ardent devil worshipper (“Funny, he’s never mentioned you”) prove especially amusing, as does the revelation Satan is not only a stand-up guy, but actively dislikes poseurs who offer little kids as sacrifices in his name.