Before I explain why Nicolas Cage is not quite as good at having sex while shooting people in Drive Angry 3-D as Clive Owen was in Shoot ‘Em Up, allow me to introduce myself — or reintroduce myself: As a contributing editor at New York, I’ve edited arts coverage, covered film festivals, written scores of profiles, and obsessively analyzed Mad Men. And now, I’ll also be contributing several film reviews a week to Vulture, alongside my brilliant colleague David Edelstein. And what more auspicious way to start than with Drive Angry 3-D!
You might expect this supernatural car-chase movie — released in the dregs of February, in the Paying Off Back Taxes Era of Nicolas Cage’s career — to be absolutely awful. And you would be correct. But unfortunately it’s not spectacularly, hilariously awful. (Aside from Cage’s latest hairdo, that is, which makes his head look like it’s giving birth to a dirty alpaca.) Otherwise it’s the worst kind of bad: Boring bad.
The plot is essentially a Ghost Rider/Taken/True Blood mash-up: Cage plays John Milton (sigh) a monotone sociopath who escapes Hell to save his infant granddaughter from being sacrificed by a Satanic cult down on the bayou. The same cult that killed his daughter, mind you! He enlists the help of a long-legged Daisy Duke’d waitress (Amber Heard), who is also, naturally, a proficient killer. She’s plucky…at least compared to Milton, who looks like Nick Nolte’s mugshot and seems as dead in this world as he might have been below ground.
Milton’s enemies are led by Jonah King, the Southern Satanist who intends to murder Cage’s granddaughter. As King, Twilight’s Billy Burke is forced to drawl lines like, “It would be easy to shoot you through the throat and watch you gurgle while I eat my morning grapefruit.” He’s followed by a flock of interchangeable weirdo followers who get slaughtered in orderly fashion and who, in one sequence, seem to chant what sounds suspiciously like the Animal House liturgy, “Toga! Toga! Toga!” The one bright spot is William Fichtner, who plays Satan’s man-in-black grim reaper, The Accountant, with deadpan panache, like a latter-day Peter Weller.
Lots of people die, but the slaughter — bullet-time shots, vehicular homicide, sloppy splatter — is rinky-dink; the lo-res CGI wouldn’t make the cut for some video games (though one rubbery truck crash looks like something out of Mario Kart). And the 3-D seems to be a terrible fit for this kind of movie. Motion blur and quick camera movements can be problematic with unwieldy 3-D cameras, so the format is particularly ill-suited for fast-moving, swerving car chases. To work well, the camera needs a close-up object to extend the depth of field: Director Patrick Lussier often tries to solve the problem by mounting the camera on the front of Cage’s car. The result is that, yes, the car’s hood seems to be protruding into the theater, but that also means half the screen is dominated by….a car’s static hood. The car chases are loud but they don’t seem to go anywhere: It’s like Lussier burned out the clutch.
Sadder still is Lussier’s attempt to rip off Clive Owen’s centerpiece shoot-out-sex-scene from 2007’s Shoot ‘Em Up, in which Owen kills multiple people while penetrating Monica Belluci (with a baby sleeping in the same room!). In that film, Owen delivers the tasty quip, “Talk about shooting your load.” In Lussier’s homage, Cage/Milton adds a comically large cigar and a bottle of Jack Daniels, which he holds throughout the copulating and decapitating. And yet he never sheds his head-to-toe denim-wear. (“I never disrobe before a gunfight,” is Milton’s bizarre explanation for this). Apparently, this is how you cope with an actor who, unlike Owen, is clearly not in fighting-while-fucking shape. Compare the scenes here and here: This is as good as it gets, and I’m sure you’ve seen baddies offed with much more ingenious execution and humor elsewhere. It just seems like such a waste of effort to go all the way to Hell and back for such unholy junk.