I generally like to wait until history has rendered a verdict on a film before writing it up for My Year Of Flops. Every once in a while, however, I encounter a flop so irresistible, so intrinsically fascinating, and so utterly unreal that I swoop in like a vulture eying ripe carrion and write it up while it’s still in theaters. Sometimes I don’t want to wait for a cultural consensus to form; I want in and I want in now. Fuck delaying gratification. Southland Tales was such a film. Speed Racer was another. So was Delgo. And in 2011, no film had my great-bad movie sensors flashing as wildly as Drive Angry, or Drive Angry: Shot In 3D as I prefer to call it. I couldn’t imagine a more promising combination of title and actor than Nicolas Cage and Drive Angry.
Some actors make questionable choices in film. Cage makes choices symptomatic of profound mental illness. Starring in Season Of The Witch, The Wicker Man, and Bangkok Dangerous are less iffy choices than grounds for institutionalization. That’s the grand gestalt of Cage: The craziness of his real life and the lunacy of his cinematic existence bleed into each other until they’re impossible to separate. Is it Cage that has a lucky crack pipe and hates to see dead souls dance, or his character in Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans? Did the Elvis-worshipping ex-con Cage played in Wild At Heart marry the King’s daughter, or does that distinction belong to Elvis acolyte Cage himself? Cage commits to his roles so completely that I’m surprised he didn’t commit suicide before filming Drive Angry just to see if he could escape hell and return to earth to drink beer from a skull, avenge some shit, and kill a whole bunch of motherfuckers like his character does. We need Cage to be crazy in real life, or else the lunacy of his performances would feel inauthentic. We need to believe that Cage is the same larger-than-life lunatic onscreen and off so that we can live vicariously through his travails, through doomed marriages to the scions of famous families, castle-buying sprees, and other celebrity craziness.
My quest to find a professional excuse to see Drive Angry attained a new urgency when Paul Scheer and his co-hosts June Diane Raphael and Jason Mantzoukas spent an extraordinarily enjoyable episode of their How Did This Get Made? podcast snorting ecstatically over the 6 or 7 million things in Drive Angry that make no sense—basically everything between the opening and closing credits. If you like My Year Of Flops, I suspect you’ll love How Did This Get Made. At the risk of flattering myself and insulting the podcast, I feel they share an eagerness to see the good, or at least the awesome, in even the most ridiculous shit.
How Did This Get Made’s lively banter made Drive Angry sound like the kind of film that shouldn’t exist yet inexplicably does. Those are exactly the kind of films I like to honor here at My Year Of Flops. So I marched to the theater, paid my $15 dollars ($15!), and sat down with a box of popcorn and a giant cup of Cherry Coke alongside, at most, four other moviegoers to experience the Satanic majesty of what I was convinced would be the most awesome movie ever. Others disagreed.
Even in the dead of winter, with little in the way of competition, Drive Angry still finished ninth in its opening weekend (despite the inflated ticket prices of 3D), and received mixed to “This film heralds the downfall of civilization”-level reviews. According to Nikki Finke of Deadline—who is only wrong 30 to 40 percent of the time—that’s enough to make it the lowest-grossing 3D opening of all time (not including The Nutcracker In 3D, which opened in limited release). So while How Did This Get Made? and My Year Of Flops looked at Drive Angry and squealed “Fuck yeah,” the rest of the world meekly suggested, “Eh, is there at least another National Treasure sequel in the works?”
When it comes to doling out information to audiences, Drive Angry operates on a strictly need-to-know basis. So if you’d like to know exactly how one goes about escaping the bowels of hell, you won’t find answers here. We’re simply informed that some badass motherfuckers think they can outrun fate forever only to discover, in the film’s immortal words, “badass motherfuckers are never fast enough.” We then cut to Nicolas Cage killing a whole bunch of motherfuckers for reasons that are not immediately apparent. Cage is in an awful hurry for a good reason: He has only two days to keep his granddaughter from being sacrificed by a group of Satanists led by a fellow who looks like the frontman for a Doors tribute band. Cage brings the pain to a plethora of interchangeable bad guys before indulging in one of the signature clichés of ’80s action movies: walking away from a giant explosion in slow motion. Cue opening credits/awesomeness. That opening bit of badass motherfuckery might just represent the only time the movie slows down.
As the hosts of How Did This Get Made marveled, Cage is able to bust out of hell and kill a whole bunch of motherfuckers, but he nevertheless has to borrow the sweet-ass ride of Amber Heard to get to the abandoned prison where his granddaughter is being held. Otherwise he’d be forced to take a Greyhound, and nobody looks cool on a Greyhound. Heard plays a waitress in a sleazy diner, so she understandably has the survival instincts of a Navy Seal. It’s just one of the film’s many inspired sick jokes that Cage emerges from the bowels of hell only to end up somewhere much, much worse: the dregs of the American South.
Cage sustains a note of sullen rage throughout the film. He has the impatient body language of someone in a mad rush to flee wherever he is at the moment to get somewhere more important. Yet that somehow does not prevent women from experiencing multiple orgasms merely from being in the same zip code as him, his devilish good looks, and army of pheromones. At a diner, Eastbound & Down’s Katy Mixon more or less attempts to fellate Cage as a greeting, but Cage has more important things on his mind: After he saves waitress Heard from some bad guys, he commandeers her car and sets out to hunt down cult leader Billy Burke before he can sacrifice Cage’s granddaughter to the Dark Lord.
Cage rejects Mixon’s sexual advances, but he is only human, so when another hot, older waitress throws herself at him, he acquiesces—but only on his own ridiculous terms. Cage’s hellbound hellraiser is all about multi-tasking. So in one gloriously excessive scene, Cage smokes a giant cigar, steals swigs from a bottle of whiskey, and murders a good half-dozen henchmen simultaneously without ever taking his cock out of the waitress, a feat that requires Olympic-level flexibility and/or comically oversized genitalia on the part of both participants. And he’s completely clothed the entire time because, as he memorably insists, “I don’t disrobe before a gunfight.”
This scene isn’t just the movie in microcosm; it is the movie, a balls-to-the-wall, operatically trashy wallow in B-movie nuttiness that never stops topping itself. And I haven’t even gotten to the best part yet. In the kind of performance that would make him a prohibitive favorite for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar if they gave Academy Awards to movies called Drive Angry, the great William Fichtner completes his ascent to Christopher Walken-level awesomeness and steals the film as Cage’s antagonist. His character is known only as “The Accountant.” (Trust me, you don’t ever want to have to meet The Comptroller or The Provost.) He juggles the books for Hell, brings in the dead, pursues escapees, and presumably helps Satan manage his payroll.
Like Eddie Marsan in Heartless, Fichtner plays an emissary from the other world as a dry-witted functionary who just happens to traffic in souls. He’s just a man doing his job, even if his boss is the Prince Of Darkness, and Fichtner plays him as the kind of guy who doesn’t need to raise his voice to be intimidating. He does more with an oddball, unexpected inflection than lesser actors can do with pages of dialogue. Fichtner seems bemused by the follies of mankind, playing the role as someone forever enjoying a private chuckle at what fools these mortals be.
Cage and Fichtner make for a classic team: Think Tom And Jerry by way of Dirty Mary Crazy Larry with a little Les Miserables thrown in. Like Walken, Fichtner appears to be an emissary from another, infinitely more interesting world where people don’t talk or think or act like they do in this terrestrial realm. The filmmakers have written Fichtner a ridiculously juicy role that he elevates to another level. I’ve read that when Walken gets a script he immediately removes all the punctuation. Fichtner seems to be doing something similar here.
Late in the film, for example, Fichtner asks an adversary to holster a giant cosmic weapon called a God Killer that has the ability to completely obliterate souls instead of merely sending them to Heaven or Hell. (Like everything else, that part doesn’t make a lot of sense.) That in itself would be nuts, but what really sells the sequence is the incongruous politeness of Fichtner’s request paired with his bizarre emphases. So after suggesting, “I want you to holster that God Killer. Thank you,” Fichtner reiterates thusly: “I said holster. And. Thank you.” I was similarly taken with the ginger way Fichtner delivers the line, “Whoa! Those are fucked!” while staring at some particularly gnarly shit.
Drive Angry ends as it must: with Cage drinking beer out of a skull, then joining Fichtner on a joyride to hell as a bad Meat Loaf song roars in the background and Cage’s human glower of a character musters up the faintest hint of a smile. The ending leaves the door open to a sequel. The film’s pathetic tracking numbers and box-office take immediately slammed that door shut.
Writer-director Patrick Lussier’s raucous action-comedy should have been a midnight movie at Sundance before slipping into drive-ins as the third act on a triple bill. 3D or not, Drive Angry is a drive-in movie in a post-drive-in world. Cage is a man out of time. He belongs in the Wild West Hollywood of the late ’60s and ’70s, making movies with Roger Corman and his uncle Francis Ford Coppola, not in this safe, familiar, homogeneous cinematic world. Cage seems intent on spiraling downward into Direct-To-DVD Purgatory at a time when we need his craziness more than ever. My colleague Scott found Drive Angry agonizingly cool and oppressively awesome. I just found it awesome.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success