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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Drive Angry

Every Halloween, I cajole Sylvia into watching a horror movie with me. She's scared of horror movies, so I try to pick something mild; for example, Shaun of the Dead rather than The Descent. This year we chose Drive Angry because of its intriguing premise: a man escapes from hell in order to rescue his granddaughter from a cult. The trailer promised lighthearted action and over-the-top violence, so I figured it might provide some harmless fun.

Unfortunately, while there are ample car chases and gunfights, the direction, editing and choreography and dialogue are so crass and artless that what fun there might have been is drained away by the film's utterly pedestrian nature. Protagonist Milton (Nicolas Cage) gets into a gun battle while having sex with a waitress in a seedy hotel room, a scene that's played for laughs but falls completely flat; the only emotion I felt was sorrow for the actors. Cage dispatches the cult-member hillbillies one by one as the woman he's having intercourse with screams in horror. I'm not above a little tasteless humour - in fact, I revel in it - but this was just sad. If you're going to shoot a scene like this, you need to do it with some self-awareness of its tastelessness. Instead, it just comes off as cheap and exploitative.

The film's only bright spot is the always reliable character actor William Fichtner, who plays the Accountant, a sort of super-powered bounty hunter from hell whose job is to bring Cage's character back to Satan's realm. Even though he's playing a demon, Fichtner manages to imbue his character with competence and empathy; in a strange way, he becomes the only hero of the film. Even Amber Heard as Piper, Cage's sidekick, loses any connection she has with the audience by failing to display any remorse for killing (admittedly, in self-defence) two innocent police officers.

The film climaxes with a by-the-numbers gun battle between Cage, Piper and a couple of dozen anonymous cult members and their charisma-challenged leader. One-liners and bullets are exchanged, Milton rescues his granddaughter, and the Accountant takes Milton back to hell, his mission accomplished.

It's really a shame that the film falls so flat, because there are a couple of intriguing ideas buried in the mayhem. One is that Milton deserves to be in hell, and he recognizes that fact, yet remains committed to escape. The other, mentioned in dialogue by the Accountant, is that Satan is really nothing more than a glorified prison warden, a well-read and sophisticated fellow who takes great offense when infants are sacrificed on his behalf. In the film, hell is a very necessary evil, one constructed to keep Earth safe.

A braver film would have taken this concept further. Imagine a film that made Satan and his Accountant its leads, rather than supporting players, tracking down escapees from hell wreaking havoc on Earth. They could work with or against the earthly police, depending on the cops' level of corruption. Perhaps an angel or two could descend from heaven to chastise Satan and his Accountant for wreaking too much havoc, to which the minions of hell could rebuke the angels for never taking an interest at all in earthly affairs.

Drive Angry never rises to this level of ambition - nor does it show any ambition at all, really. It's a by-the-numbers horror-action film, boring one moment, repellent the next.

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