Splashy and Stupid
When Nicolas Cage was at the height of his career he could make money at the Box Office hand over fist. He's put on a strange accent, commit to the bit for a role, and then reap a few hundred million for whatever studio bank rolled the piece. Over time, though, that shifted. He didn't always make weird films, but he invariably was the weird guy in them (because, lets face it, Nick Cage is a weird dude), and over time the grosses for his films started trending downwards. An actor that could dependably rake in three times the production budget for a film was suddenly turning in movies that only broke even at the Box Office (which, due to Hollywood math) isn't really breaking even at all. If it wasn't a National Treasure or a Ghost Rider then it wasn't guaranteed to make money at all.
Drive Angry is a strange movie, but only because it feels like a franchise film without the franchise. Nick Cage made to Ghost Rider movies -- 2007's Ghost Rider and 2011's Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance -- and while Drive Angry feels like it should be part of that same series, it isn't. It has weird fantasy, a deep, hell-tied mythology, and an undead hero come back on a quest for revenge. And yet, despite this coming out around the same time as the Ghost Rider sequel it's not a Ghost Rider film... and yet, it does feel like it should be. It's the most official, unofficial sequel I've ever seen. It's just bizarre.
Frankly, I think the fact that this film appeared to be an off-brand Ghost Rider movie didn't help it's chances at all. The 2007 Ghost Rider is a bad movie, and there's no other way of putting it. It made its money, yes, but there was little desire for a sequel. When one did finally come out, it, too, only managed to truly break even. A film that looked like Ghost Rider, but rated a hard R (which this is) so that even the little kiddies can't see it? That was a hard proposition for anyone to take. Drive Angry came and went with $41 Mil made against an upwards of $50 Mil budget, a failure at the Box Office. That's a pity because, until the two terrible Marvel films, Drive Angry is actually pretty watchable.
Nick Cage plays John Milton, a hard ass with a soft spot for women. He doesn't like men that beat on women and will go out of his way to defend the ladies. Milton is making is way across the country when he encounters Piper Lee (Amber Heard), a tough-as-nails waitress who, deep down, has a heart of gold. They have an instant connection, and their bond only grows after Milton beats up her fiance. The jerk was cheating on Piper with another woman, Piper packed up her shit and tried to leave, and then they got into a fight (and she gave as good as she got, up to a point). Milton stepped in when needed, beat the snot out of the jerk, and then took to the road with her car (and Piper along with) to continue his journey.
Milton, you see, is on a quest of a sort. He has to get to Louisiana to stop Jonah King (Billy Burke), a cult leader who killed Milton's daughter and kidnapped Milton's grand-daughter (who was just a baby). Jonah plans to sacrifice the baby to Satan to bring Hell to Earth and secure immortality for himself and his followers, while Milton just wants to keep his grand-baby safe. He and Piper head out to find Jonah and save the baby, and a lot of bodies drop in their wake. Between Milton, Piper, and the man sent from hell to bring Milton back, The Accountant (William Fichtner), there is gonna be a lot of angry driving, and a lot of death, before this road trip is over.
The first thing that impressed me about Drive Angry is that it's smart about its mythology. Yes, it's based on Judeo-Christian religious ideas -- God and Satan, Heaven and Hell -- but it doesn't spend a long time trying to build its whole world around those ideas. You take movies like The Exorcist or Constantine, they have to spend a lot of time building up their big story with big ideas to lead to their big conclusion. Drive Angry doesn't bother with most of that, instead just telling us "Milton has escaped to save his granddaughter and Hell will send someone to get him back." That's it. Any other needed information is dropped quickly and in the moment all so we can get back to the angry driving with minimal exposition. That's ideal.
Frankly, Drive Angry works at its best when it's moving at a fast clip. When the characters are driving (angry), or fighting, or fucking (and yes, to various degrees, all of that does happen) the film finds its footing and scoots on along. There are slower parts, and they don't always work as well. The film doesn't really have enough depth or detail to handle slower talking sections. But thankfully these often end quickly and then we move on to the next big of action (whatever it may be) letting the film breeze along once more. This is the breeziest story about undead escapees from Hell I've ever seen and its great.
Bear in mind this isn't a smart movie, but it doesn't dress itself up to be either. It's cheesy and silly as hell (pun intended) and it has designs to be just one thing: a fast, pumping action flick. It succeeds on that front, delivering all the action (of all kinds) the audience wants. It's a conveyor of action, foul language, and death, and it provides endlessly. You can tell the movie has a mission statement and, from scene one, it aims towards that mission with deadly accuracy. It's not smart, and it revels in being dumb and bombastic, but in that revelry the film finds all the fun it needs (and then some).
Helping the anchor the movie are Cage and Heard. Cage signed onto the film primarily because there's a scene where he gets an eye shot out and he really wanted that in a previous film (but the studio said no). Seeing this script, and the fact he could lose an eye, he signed on immediately. You have to appreciate what drives the man. Thankfully he came in and delivered a properly Nick Cage performance, in all the ways you would hope. And then Heard came in and delivered a loud and profane performance to match his own. She stepped up to the challenge and earned her co-star role here, with both of them clearly have a grand old time for the whole shoot.
Credit is also due to William Fichtner as The Accountant. This is a performance that really doesn't have much to it on the page but Fichtner delivers his performance with aplomb. He finds a way to make an underwritten antagonist into a charismatic force, and the interplay between him and Cage is great. Better than with poor Billy Burke who seems kind of lost in his role as the cult leader Jonah. I really wish Jonah had an actor to match Cage, Heard, and Fichtner as this is the weak link in the cast. He's carried by the other three, and doesn't totally sink the film on his own, but this character could have been so much better.
Despite one weak link, and a whole lot of stupidity (the good kind of stupidity, mind you), Drive Angry works. It wasn't a smash at the Box Office, and it won't get any planned sequel the producers might have had in their back pocket, but that doesn't matter. All you need to know is it's fun, it's dumb, and it delivers on its promises. That's all you really need from a Nick Cage film.