Thursday, March 3, 2011

Drive Angry 3D

Spoiler alert-o-meter: Mild to medium spoilers ahead.

When I was a kid, I went to my local small-town movie theater every weekend. Back when a little-known movie could blow into town without having already been reviewed by Siskel and Ebert on Sneak Previews. Before the Internet made marketing and promotion more egalitarian. Before you could watch trailers for upcoming movies online months in advance. Before every movie had its own official website and buzz from Harry Knowles at Ain’t it Cool News. I saw some clunkers this way, sci-fi knockoffs of Star Wars and Buck Rogers. Crappy retreads of Halloween and Friday the 13th.

So it was in this spirit of unknown promise that I recently drove to the Lowell Showcase on a rainy afternoon—the day of the 2011 Oscar telecast—to watch Drive Angry 3D. I admit I had seen a trailer on YouTube a couple months ago, and was intrigued by the cheese factor of Nicholas Cage dragging the ‘70s grindhouse/exploitation genre into the neo 3D era.

The elements are in place for some primo exploitation flick action. Nicholas Cage plays Milton, an intense bad ass who has escaped from hell (as if it were so easy, like escaping from a minimum security prison) to hunt down a Satan-worshipping cult (hey, shouldn’t these guys already be friends?) who killed his daughter and kidnapped his granddaughter, threatening to sacrifice her on the next full moon. Okay, well…wait, what?

You heard right, that’s the plot. All achieved with hard-R rated aplomb. Add the 3D element and you’ve got severed limbs, knives, boobies, cars, bullets, RVs, and hot rods all threatening to pop off the screen and doink you in the eyeball. Mix in the classic exploitation elements of sex, violence, religion (cults), cannibalism (human sacrifice, blood drinking). Add a pinch of other ‘70’s movie boilerplate like car chases (Gumball Rally, Vanishing Point, Death Race 2000) and the use of RVs as a means of transportation (Race with the Devil, The Hills Have Eyes, Damnation Alley). Then drizzle across the whole mess that most classic cinematic money-making, attention grabbing trope in the book, 3D (the fact that you still have to don glasses to experience 3D still makes me smile). Voilà! You’ve got all the makings of a classic grindhouse movie. Or a dozen.

Milton gets a ride from a hot blooded waitress, Piper (Amber Heard), who just quit her job. She’s cute, she dresses in cut offs, and she can kick ass. She also just happens to drive a restored Dodge Charger and ends up as Milton’s sidekick. (Thankfully sidekick is all she remains.)

Meanwhile the devil’s accountant (Death, by any other name) is on Milton’s trail to bring him back to hell. William Fichtner plays Death like a patient, natty warden super-powered by Beelzebub. It’s fun watching Death run up against, for example, stoner kids and telling them the next time they can expect to see him. “See you in three months,” he tells one kid. “You won’t see me ‘till you’re 73,” he tells the other. 

It doesn’t take long for Milton and Piper to catch up with Jonah King, the RV-drivin', baby-sacrificin' leader of the cult. Billy Burke plays Jonah, and looks like a younger Tommy Lee Jones beamed into the movie from the mid-‘70s. All of Drive Angry 3D is one long reference to the ‘70s, but it isn’t a period movie. There are cell phones and 24-hour cable news. Might have made more sense just to put all the set design in the way-back machine and spin the dial to 1973.

Milton confronts Jonah and his clan in their church, where Jonah shoots Milton in the face and leaves him for dead. Milton wakes up, hops back in his vintage Charger, and gives chase to the cult member’s RV in which they’ve kidnapped Piper and Milton’s infant granddaughter. The chase continues down highways and ends up in an abandoned factory.

These are fun, giddy, insane sequences moving quickly to wrap up the movie. While it looked as though the movie’s runtime was going to clock in a little short, I was reminded that the best exploitation flicks of the ‘70s, like all those Roger Corman movies with mobsters and guns and dames, were often sleek cinematic machines with running times under 90 minutes and often under 80.

Unfortunately after that chase scene ended, the movie kept going for another 30 minutes of Death duking it out with Milton. This leads up to the true finale in the courtyard of an old, shuttered prison where it’s good against evil. Or really bad against kind of bad with scruples.

In the end, the 3D effects don't lend much to the proceedings. I did recapture that youthful feeling of the initial unknown and the giddiness that comes with watching an entertainingly bad movie. For a few minutes, anyway. I give Drive Angry 3D an A for being its enjoyable first hour, then a D for ending on the sourest of notes. The filmmakers turned it into another stupid Nicholas Cage movie with an absurd plot and added special effects that sucked all the fun and life out of what could have been a lean, mean exploitation flick.


Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Sunday, February 27th, 11:45 matinee. Price $12.75. Viewed solo. Snacks--Licorice Log, Diet Pepsi.

Coming Attractions:

A Better Life. An man living illegally in the states tries to build a better life for his son and keep him out of a street gang.

Limitless. A decent idea that goes way too far. A schlubby, slacker of a writer (Bradley Cooper) is prescribed a variation of a smart drug, and he begins using 100% of his brain power, able to complete difficult math expressions, writing a great novel in a few days (ha, this really is a Hollywood movie). Of course, he's being used as a pawn for some corporation, and falls under the thumb of at first daddy-seeming, then evil-seeming Robert DeNiro. Looks like it could be entertaining.

Red Riding Hood. Okay, I gotta say, this movie is definitely sexy. I know what you're saying, Huh? Red riding hood. You mean, the little girl with the red cape and the wolf. Well, she ain't no girl anymore. And the wolf, well he could be any of the hot young studs in this woodsy hamlet. It's Twilight all over again, with the same director, Catherine Hardwicke, starring Amanda Seyfried as Miss Hood, all grow'd up.

Thor. Now in 3-D! Marvel Comics' Thor gets the big-budget treatment. With Chris Hemsworth as the titular hero, along with Natalie Portman, Kat Dennings, Idris Elba, and Anthony Hopkins.

Source Code. Jake Gyllenhaal has to relive the same eight minutes on a train to figure out who blew it up (hey, I didn't write it). Each time he goes back in, he falls a little more for a young woman, played by Michelle Monaghan, until he's determined to save her from dying in the inevitable train explosion.


Liz;s Mom said...

You got me, I laughed out loud reading this delightful review.

I love how you mix intelligent criticism in while describing a pretty awful movie and make it all enjoyable.

Dell Smith said...

Thanks Liz's mom. In film school I realized that watching bad movies can teach you about how to make good movies. So, hopefully I can write a true critique of a movie that shoots for the stars but never makes it out of the backyard.