Drive Angry resides in the No Man's Land between ignorant bliss and smug self-awareness, noxious tar pit that slowly sucks down fun premises into a black morass of lazy winking and absolving self-deprecation. However, it is also the first film in a while to successfully navigate its way back and forth through this trap-filled territory. Drive Angry certainly does not work as a subversive take on grindhouse in the vein of Tarantino's Death Proof; it is not even great trash. But it's damn fun, and as soon as I finished watching it the first time I admit I immediately planned a second trip to the theater.
Having managed to avoid nearly everything regarding the film save for its absurd title, I got to experience Drive Angry's slow mounting of story elements with a degree of unknown I never enjoy anymore, not in the age of total media saturation. The opening scene of the film depicts a CGI prison in a red-coated frame. For a second, I did not even recognize it as hell, though the presence of a muscle car tearing out of the place on a bridge also threw me off the trail. I don't recall Virgil mentioning that when he showed Dante the place.
The first 30 minutes of the film veer wildly out of control, jumping any fluid kind of editing with haphazard introductions for the movie's cast list weaving an unnecessarily ornate web for only a handful of characters. I saw the film two times and was still bewildered at the lack of context for the opening barrage of images, from Nicolas Cage chasing down some rednecks with pentagrams marked on their chests to a supremely tarted-up Amber Heard crushing the testicles of her lascivious, greasy diner boss. And just when you've settled down and accepted the absurdity of the situation, along comes William Fichtner in a suit calling himself the "Accountant," always asking if Cage has just come through the area knowing full-well the answer. Those left alive by the stranger's tears through town ask the Accountant who he is and what the man has done, but he deftly avoids any exposition.
By the time pieces start to fall in place and the character name John Milton drops a huge clue for those of us who remember senior-year English, Drive Angry has amassed such an impressive horde of contrivances, loose ends and overall questions about the physical properties of certain items and people that the whole shebang nearly collapses. Then, it acts as if nothing ever happened and finally gets down to the good stuff: blatant, unabashed fetishism of every body part and overcompensating gadget.
Drive Angry knows how dumb it is and occasionally shows its hand to the audience to let us in on its cheek, but the sincere, shameless ogling pervading the film makes for a far funnier and more entertaining ride than the occasional plodding moments of overt self-awareness. Cage, toned down from his most manic work, looks increasingly withdrawn in his roles, as if the weight of his recent manic episodes on-screen, be they good (Bad Lieutenant) or bad (almost all the rest). His rage here is amusingly insular given the wild insanity of his actions, a slow burn of resentment and self-loathing that grounds the film's nonsense in the sort of dramatic seriousness that only makes a film like this funnier. Then again, these days it is not always clear whether or not the self-loathing in a Cage character reflects its actor's own feelings.
However, he looks as if he had fun here, delivering his lines with a halting relish as if he wanted to savor every last morsel of such delicious lines as, "I never disrobe before a gunfight." Milton's story unfolds so ponderously that Cage's seriousness pales in comparison to the pseudo-pathos of his character, but Cage comes out of his gloom with enough dry humor to make the convoluted issue of his daughter being murdered by Satanists (led by a Chris Gaines/Garth Brooks-lookin' Cajun Jim Jones played by Billy Burke) and his granddaughter abducted for sacrifice not as cumbersome as the pile-on of narrative could be. Heard has scant to do save shout terrified or angry responses to Milton's dour carnage, and she does not appear to have put up a fight against the too-loving gaze of the camera, which always finds the time to scan over her rear and zoom in on her eye-shadowed face. It's harder to read what she thinks of her role, as she commits to the half-tough, half-damsel Piper but occasionally gives a glance that suggests she went back to her trailer to chew out her agent.
Even if she had a blast, though, she and Cage combined could not equal the unrelenting glee with which Fichtner, a super-solid character actor, plays his role. Delighting in the mysterious yet inevitable nature of his character's origins and purpose, Fichtner ignores everyone sharing the screen with him, walking around side characters asking the Accountant's repeated questions as he consumes every piece of scenery not nailed down, casually munching cud as the characters' bewilderment perhaps reflects the actors' own. Fichtner is one of my favorite "that guys," and to see him get to let loose in a role that does not so much take advantage of his skills as let the more subtle actor get his chance to mug shamelessly. If Cage hilariously meditates on his lines, Fichtner does not need to think before spewing out some ingenious, unmistakably sinister yet delightfully bizarre threat or insult. As a villain, he is not particularly frightening, but he does not want to be. The Accountant chases down his escaped quarry not out of a need for vengeance nor even a sense of duty (though he does need to "balance the numbers"): he's just having fun playing with Milton.
I would file Drive Angry under "guilty pleasure" but it does something I've been begging dumb movies to do for some time now: it never undercuts its thick-headedness with too many winks, never tries to forgive its exposition (and my GOD is the exposition in this movie ridiculous). Because it does not attempt to pass off its bad moments as knowing jokes, they actually work as comedy, and when the actual madness kicks in, Drive Angry has inventiveness to spare. A shootout featuring Milton still inside a bar waitress is one of the most outlandish sequences in years, and the use of slow-motion for the entire sequence is cleverer than anything in a Zack Snyder movie. I continue to prefer 3D in films that use it for the kitsch gimmick it is, and the flying limbs and slow-motion bullets flying at the audience make for as good a time as the schlock of Piranha 3D. I expected to go into this film to feed my ironic love affair with the bad Nic Cage (I have a completely sincere adoration for the man when he's on his game), and instead I got a perfectly delightful bit of screwball amorality. But I have a soft-spoken for chicken-fried crap; I am, after all, from the South. Also, can we get a buddy cop film starring Nic Cage and Bill Fichtner, please?