If Drive Angry were a person it would smell real bad and have several restraining orders against its name. It is like a man who live off beef and Kiss albums alone. As equally anti-social as my imaginary anthropomorphisation of the film, Drive Angry‘s stoically grizzled protagonist, John Milton, is a bad man who only receives our sympathy by virtue of not killing babies or eating folks, bringing him exactly one rung up on the morality ladder above the bad men he is driving angrily towards to bloodily dispatch. Milton’s daughter, like all these impressionable youths you get nowadays, joined a devil worshiping cult of eschatological nudites, led by lil’ baby-faced Charles Manson a-like Jonah King (Billy Burke). Realising too late that this high-faultin’ holy man of dubious repute is all red velvet jacket and no inner-core of holiness, she goes the way of many a lapsed scientologist – dead. Now the cultists have kidnapped Cage’s one and only baby granddaughter and this shit will not stand. The Southern tradition of demanding one’s satisfaction in the face of rhyme and reason, common sense and basic human decency, must be upheld!
Cage’s John Milton (gettit?!) is not good people nor a man of inquiring mind. Also, he is not so much a visitor to Hell as a permanent resident. Another Jonnie M., John Marlowe, had the demon Mephistopheles say in his play Doctor Faustus:
- “Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.
- Think’st thou that I, who saw the face of God,
- And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,
- Am not tormented with ten thousand hells
- In being deprived of everlasting bliss?”
Milton says but the same but with techno-savy 21st century nomeclature:
“The fire isn’t the worst part – it’s the video feed.”
But if Cage is playing a man forever tortured, his stoicism keeps it hidden deep within. His face is as cold as a smokestack, as impenetrable as the vapours that wreathe it. Nic’s face is always basically unknowable. His features can only be taken holistically – they can’t be disentangled. Those eyes can never be lifted from his brow. That smile is always secretive and can’t be pried from his chin.
Milton is not a character, but Drive Angry is not a film that requires characters. He is a blueprint of masculinity comprised of a series of taut and manly gestures. He exists to do, provoke and facilitate action. When he isn’t drinking, shooting or screwing, he’s staring into the mid-distance, furrowing his brow with thoughts of the past – a past that we’re not privy to. However, we can guess with certainty that his criminal history is composed of awesome crimes like killing a man in Reno just to see him die, rather than weird crimes like filling a kitten full of bluetac or marrying an abacus, like Jonah King is probably guilty of! He’s just at the rough-and-tumble end of the normal guy spectrum! As such, Nic tunes down the eccentricity, preferring a measured, laconic approach to dispatching beefy rednecks and hoodlums. He cocks his gun in much the same way as one might tie one’s laces or sweep some errant leaves off a drive-way. To quote short story raconteur and literary genius Flannery O’Connor and thus associate her irrevocably with a film she would hate, killing “ain’t no real joy in life”.
As Flannery O’Connor also once said, “Everything’s bigger down South!” Drive Angry takes us through a few of those flat, vast states and also little Oklahoma, which was much cleaner when I visited it a few years ago and has clearly gone downhill since then. The South as it enters the second decade of the new millennia is a land occupied solely by hot-rods, beer bellies and full torsoed blondes. Everything’s thick, clunky and made of meat and metal. Even the buildings sweat. There are few children and the only animals are road-kill. As an indie-rock-listening, film-studies-taking, liberal vegetarian, I’m bewildered that I enjoyed Drive Angry at all. My enjoyment might be due to my childhood penchant for 3D, motion simulators and viewmaster reels. This is a penchant that Drive Angry shares. Director Patrick Lussier relishes blasting viscera into the audience. Cars – various vintages, mostly written off by the end of the film – careen madly towards the camera; gun chambers poke out your eyes like thick accusatory fingers; a jaw bone, metres across, hovers giant in the sky, sailing serenely towards the audience. The 3D is exuberantly foregrounded, emblazoned on the film’s sleeve like a badge of pride. Far from drawing you deeper into the frame, it blasts you back into your seat, like the voice of the man who stands by carnival rides shouting, “Scream if you want to go faster!!!” with the same gleeful disregard for subtlety.
The film’s dialogue cusses its way through super-natural hokum with even less exposition than the kind of 70s grindhouse flick to which the film owes its lineage. Yet the film is daffier than genuine exploitation, shot through with a strain of bolshy humour which prevents what is loud and mucky from becoming wholly pornographic. ‘That’s the Way I Like It’ appears on the soundtrack and there is a gun called the God Killer that literally does what it says on the tin. Pornography tends to take itself seriously. In fact, I would posit that there is a curious innocence about this imaginary world where life is a merry succession of violence and sex. It is the uncomplicated world of the WWF match. Roland Barthes writes of wrestling in his collection Mythologies, that is it:
“…a sum of spectacles… each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result.”
Each perfectly predetermined pile-drive and fake fore-arm smash stand alone. Likewise, in Drive Angry each time a limb flies flailing towards us or a long thin object is pointed towards the camera, the 3D asks to be taken as a gimmick, not integrated into some larger narrative, but enjoyed for what it is. However, since the film is absolute in its gimmickry and perfectly sealed in its fakeness, it succeeds in forging a tone of consistent badassery. We’re all sassy and ironised enough to know where this badassery will take us; who will win, the kind of violence we’re going to see, the amount of nudity. The film takes us through the motions with such festive bone-headedness that you’ll likely give up trying to argue with the misogyny, stupidity and car fetishism. Sit back and enjoy the whole damnable ride because Nic’s doing the same.
P.S. Unlike critics who were wowed by Nic’s nonchalant ability to have intercourse while shooting people – since a real Southern gentleman would know this to be poor etiquette – I was impressed by the evil cult’s atonal rendition of ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’. Paraphrasing my friend Tim, the cult are so evil they are physically unable to sing a hymn properly. Also, the recitation made a nice break from the soundtrack’s succession of hard rock and heavy metal, ‘That’s the Way I Like It’ not-with-standing.