October 31, 2012

Drive Angry

Warning: This entry contains much stronger language than is usually found on this blog. It can't be helped, though; the movie is full of it.

Drive Angry is half of the best B-movie in recent years. I sat aghast, unable to believe grindhouse fair like this got a theatrical release without the names Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez attached. And I know who we can thank for that: His Cageness.

Yes, Nicolas Cage, a man who is no stranger to this blog and will no doubt continue to make appearances in the future. Cage, like fellow scenery-chewers Al Pacino and Richard Burton, are capable of strong performances when reined in. But when left to their own devices, they tend to go so far over the top they end up dodging low-flying aircraft. By all accounts, the 2008 financial crisis is the worst fiscal disaster to strike the world since the Great Depression, but it did have one positive outcome, one small flicker of joy in an otherwise catastrophic event: It left Nicolas Cage so broke that he's willing to appear in crap like this.

And since Cage's name retains a vestige of prestige, his involvement meant Drive Angry was given an Empire-wide release. Yes, this played in cinemas. This is a movie in which a man kills a half-dozen assassins who burst into his room, dodging their bullets while returning uncannily accurate fire with his own pistol, all while still penetrating the woman he's having sex with. This is a movie that has a woman catching her fiance in the midst of an act of infidelity, pulling the naked interloper off of her man, pushing the harlot (still naked) out the front door and into the garden, and then beating her into unconsciousness. This is a movie with lines like:

"Oh, baby. Why don't you fuck naked?" "I never disrobe before gunplay."
"But no one reaches the end and says, 'I wish I hadn't fucked so much.'"
"Between now and then, I'm gonna fuck you up."
"If you try and kill me and dump me in the woods, I'm gonna cut your nuts off."

Most of these howlers are spoken by Piper (Amber Heard), a truly revolting piece of southern white trash that is never once believable even in the context of a violent grindhouse flick. She blackmails her loser boyfriend into proposing marriage by refusing to sleep with him, becomes enraged when she catches him getting some on the side (leading to the beating mentioned above), punches loser boyfriend in the face until he finally loses it and clocks her a good one, and then leaves with Cage, never giving so much as a thought to him ever again. That very night she picks up a guy at a club to sleep with. Sure, it could be some kind of twisted revenge sex or an expression of freedom from a man who was, well, a loser, but the way Heard plays the scene (which is presumably how director Patrick Lussier wanted it), it comes across as just another night out for her, something she does all the time.

As for Cage, he stars as John Milton(!), a man who escapes Hell in a 1963 Buick Riviera in the film's opening scene. How does he do this? Apparently by just driving out the front gate. Yes, it seems Hell has a bridge connecting it to the physical world that any old damned soul can drive across if it gets its hands on a sweet American classic muscle car.

Milton is a bad man who has done very bad things--and I don't just mean writing Paradise Lost--but after his damned soul witnessees his daughter's murder and his granddaughter's kidnapping, Milton busts out of Hell and...um, ends up somewhere in the American South, presumably wondering if he wasn't better off in Hell. He's chasing some men in a truck, and when he captures them, he brutally executes all but one, whom he tortures to discover where his granddaughter is. He learns that a cult is taking her to "Stillwater Marsh, Texas" in order to sacrifice her to Satan, but leaves before finding out where in Texas Stillwater Marsh is, or even what it is! Is it a town, a road, an actual marsh, a neighbourhood? (It turns out to be an abandoned prison.) He does this so that he will need to go into Piper's diner to discover this information and decide to commandeer her 1969 Dodge Charger. I was ecstatic at this new development, because it meant I could spend the rest of the film humming "Dixie" and talking in a redneck accent about how them Duke boys done blowed away some cops and ran over a cultist or two. I was considerably less ecstatic when Piper, who you'll recall was whomped a good one by her fiance (a man she blackmailed into proposing to her, yet!), decides to leave with Milton and so will be in almost every scene hereafter.

Loser boyfriend/fiance is thus left to the tender mercies of The Accountant (William Fichtner), a representative from Hell sent to bring Milton back to its fiery pits. The Accountant is our first indication that the makers of this film really, really love The Prophecy, as Fichtner's performance is clearly a riff on Christopher Walken's Gabriel in that film. Now if you're going to rip off a movie, you could do a lot worse than The Prophecy, and normally bad movies are improved when they copy a good film exactly and usually fail spectacularly whenever they stray outside the bounds established by their inspirations. But in this film, it's the opposite problem. If you're going to make a grindhouse version of The Prophecy, which is apparently what they set out to do, then do it. Have a powerful supernatural being come to Earth and be badass. That's all you need, and the first time The Accountant appears, they almost get it right, making the first words out of his mouth a calm and composed, "Hey, fat fuck." He kills anybody who mildly irritates him, in quite gory ways, where Christopher Walken's archangel Gabriel seemed pained whenever he was forced to use violence. But it turns out the filmmakers copy The Prophecy too much, trying to get serious when a movie like this should never been anything but over-the-top.

If only they had stayed grindhouse and hired the actual Christopher Walken. Then this would've been the most awesome movie evar.

The very Jim Jones-esque leader of the cult is Jonah King, played by Billy Burke. Yes, Mustache Dad from Twilight. *sigh* I can't get away from these people. First Harpo in The Last Airbender, then Kristen Stewart in Snow White and the Huntsman, and now Mustache Dad in this. Now I just need to see Cosmopolis for the Twilight has-beens grand superfecta! Still, Mustache Dad is the only actor, apart from Heard, who truly embraces the movie's nature. He's suitably vile and disgusting while still being at least a little charismatic, reminding us once again of why his is consistently the best performance in all the Twilight films. Heard isn't great, but all she's supposed to do is look hot, freak out whenever Milton is in danger even though she has no reason to give a rat's ass about him, and say the word "fuck" at lot, all of which she handles just fine. Cage is way too laid back, never once letting loose with his patented crazy, which would've been perfect for a film like this.

A film that, for example, has Heard repeatedly taking punches and kicks to the face throughout the movie without so much as smudging her make-up. Whatever, it's a B-movie, I accept that. But the movie tries to have it both ways, and that's why I said Drive Angry is half of a great B-movie. When it has its characters driving fast cars, punching the bejeezus out of each other, and blowing things up, it's B-movie bliss. But then it wants to be serious, as when it has Heard get believably hurt (by movie logic, anyway) when loser boyfriend smacks her in the mouth early on. It tries to get real pathos out of Cage's suffering in Hell. It has a truly pointless interlude with David Morse as an old pal of Cage's. Now I'm always happy to see Morse, but Drive Angry isn't the sort of movie that should have Morse's gentle, sweetheart charisma and quiet human decency. And movies like this aren't about pathos. They're about catharsis, about bad men getting what's coming to them, dealt to them by other men who are almost as bad but have some twisted sense of morality that allows them bring the pain to people that deserve it in a way that we, the Decent People, cannot.

It's true that Cage gets a nice monologue in which he says the worst thing about Hell isn't your own suffering but that you are forced to witness to the suffering of people you care about while being powerless to do anything about it. So when Cage's daughter was murdered, he, in Hell, had to watch it happen. But this moment, while effective on its own, can't make up for the fact that a scene like this shouldn't be in a movie like this.

Once Cage gets shot in the eye (reportedly the scene that made him want to do the movie), it's all downhill from there. The movie becomes more and more a Prophecy wannabe, right down to the forces of Hell helping the hero against the bad guy because Satan doesn't like what the bad guy is up to. That this particular force of Hell is the Accountant, who earlier in the film told two cops to kill Milton on sight, just makes it even stupider. If he was helping him, why does the movie have him act like he's trying to capture/kill him and return him to Hell? The answer, of course, is the filmmakers thought this would be a neat twist. Instead, it lays bare how confused the movie is about what it wants to be. Piper has known Milton for a few hours, yet she is so dedicated to his cause she murders a cop to protect him and becomes hysterical when he is seemingly killed. The Accountant tells the two cops to shoot to kill when they confront Milton, and later The Accountant kills a bunch of cops to help Milton escape. Milton gets involved in a gun battle while never interrupting intercourse in a hilariously cheesy scene that is completely ruined by a later scene showing Milton's paramour as utterly traumatised by the experience as you undoubtedly would be. There's a reason B-movies don't show this sort of realistic fall-out from their outlandish situations.

You know, people make fun of 1980s action films like Commando for being stupid and illogical, and they're right. Commando is stupid, and it is illogical. Yet it's smarter film than Drive Angry and most 21-century action movies even try to be. In Drive Angry, Jonah King, who has known of Piper's existence for at best a few hours, decides that, rather than keeping her alive so he can "break" her, he'll just kill her. He says this as he points a revolver at her, so he puts the gun down and goes after her with his fists. Dude, you just said you're going to kill her. Why do you need to punch her in the face first? What if you, like, lose the fistfight? Boy, will you have egg on your face when she kicks you in the balls, grabs the gun you so graciously left for her, and empties the cylinder into your face!

Now, a similar thing happens in Commando. The chief villain, Bennett, has Arnold Schwarzenegger's Matrix (yes, the hero's name is Matrix) dead to rights, since he has a gun and Matrix doesn't. But Bennett puts down the gun and instead engages Matrix in a knife fight. Same thing, right? Just as dumb?

No. Because throughout the film, Bennett has been boasting that Matrix is such an elite soldier that only Bennett himself can match him. He sarcastically tells his boss that despite the army of soldiers around him, only Bennett can protect him from Matrix. "Matrix and I could kill every one of [your soldiers] in the blink of an eye," he says. Bennett believes only he is Matrix's equal, in fact his superior, and he never tires of reminding everyone around him of that fact. Bennett is also rather crazy, having no compunction about stabbing a young girl to death or betraying and murdering all of his trusted comrades; it's heavily implied he enjoys killing people. So when Matrix says that Bennett doesn't want to just shoot Matrix dead but to defeat him, to prove he's better--and to kill Matrix in a much more up close and personal way, with a knife rather than a gun--the movie has actually bothered to set this up. You can believe Bennett would want to kill Matrix with a knife, that he would want to kill him in a fair fight, just to finally prove that he's better, as he always thought he was.

There, I said it. Commando, the stupidest movie I've ever seen that I still love, is a smarter movie than Drive Angry. If it had stuck to its grindhouse homage roots, Drive Angry could've been the best bad movie I've seen since The Happening. But then it got a case of Something Important to Say, and now all I have are the broken dreams of what could've been.

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