It’s funny that I still sort of think of Patrick Lussier as a “new” filmmaker.
He’s not, of course, by any means. He got his start working as an assistant editor in the ’80s working on TV, and then moved up to cutting shows like “MacGyver” before hooking up with Wes Craven on “Nightmare Cafe,” which led to him cutting “New Nightmare,” Craven’s attempt at redefining his own Freddy Kruger. Lussier worked on some troubled films over the years, and must have amazing battle stories from “Mimic” and “Vampires In Brooklyn” and “Halloween H20” and especially “Cursed.” His time working at Dimension and Miramax in particular put him in the right place at the right time when certain opportunities came up, and he ended up directing films like “The Prophecy 3” and “Dracula 2000” plus two direct-to-video sequels to it, as well as the sequel to “White Noise.” Those are all movies that were part of a pipeline, and hardly reflections of who Lussier is as a filmmaker.
Todd Farmer wrote the more-intentionally-outrageous-than-I-expected “Jason X,” and then worked for a while as a studio assignment writer, a gig that can be very frustrating. You can spend years working on things that never end up onscreen or that don’t really resemble anything you wrote by the time they make it to the screen. Somehow, the two of them crossed paths, and the first result was “My Bloody Valentine,” their very loose remake of an ’80s slasher film. That film is very self-aware genre fun with a cast that knows exactly what movie they’re in and that seemed to enjoy tweaking the slasher conventions with glee. It’s not some genre-defining triumph, but it was fun, and that’s something people frequently forget when working in a certain kind of popcorn horror.
With “Drive Angry,” Lussier and Farmer are working together again, and this feels like an evolutionary step from “My Bloody Valentine,” a wild and funny exploitation movie that gives great roles to a cast that is obviously ready to play. And because Lussier is one of the first filmmakers of the modern era to make two movies that are actually shot 3D and not converted, his use of the format here is playful, smart, and a big jump forward from what he did with it the first time. That’s what I mean when I say it feels to me like Lussier is a “new” director. It feels like his work with Farmer, these last two movies, is the work of a focused voice, a sensibility that is very distinct from the films that precede these. Probably the most exciting thing about seeing how much fun Lussier and Farmer are having here is knowing that these guys have more films planned together. If they can keep this up, that’s very good news indeed.
“Drive Angry” opens with images of a suspension bridge out of Hell, and a classic muscle car tearing ass across it. Inside, Milton (Nicolas Cage) sits at the wheel, a man with a mission, a man so determined to right a wrong that he’s found a way to slip free from eternal damnation. He’s not the only one to get out, though. The Accountant (William Fichtner, having so much fun that I assume he paid Lussier to get the gig) is sent to fetch him back, and The Accountant is the type of supernatural bounty hunter who does not take no for an answer. Milton has a personal stake in his escape, though, and he stopped before he left to pick up a weapon that gives him a litle bit of an edge.
Amber Heard plays Piper, a waitress who finds herself eager to leave town when she catches her boyfriend Frank (Todd Farmer) with another woman. Piper takes his car, which is exactly the sort of ride Milton’s looking for. Piper quickly finds herself on the run for her life after falling in with Milton, and it’s apparent they’re in pursuit of Jonah King (Billie Burke), a bad guy Satanic cult leader who is sure he’s figured out a way to raise Satan to Earth. He’s got to kill Cage’s infant granddaughter as a sacrifice to do so, and that’s what Milton has to stop, and on that simple hook, the whole movie hangs. It’s a chase, a race to stop something from happening with an unstoppable foe in pursuit, a sort of a pseudo-“Terminator” structure.
And it’s so… much… fun.
I think Nic Cage is in the midst of a really fun new moment in his career, where he’s aware of how people view him, and he’s having fun with that, reacting to it, working his ass off for financial reasons but having a great time in the process on each of these films. His work feels particularly free and funny here, and the film is so unapologetically R-rated that Cage seems unfettered. There’s a sequence in the middle of the film involving a gunfight that is pure wicked genius, a nasty bit of business that must have made Cage howl as they shot it. And Fichtner’s the same way. He is unflappable here. Nothing bothers him. He just keeps coming, just stays on Milton’s trail. What surprised me is the way Billie Burke gives every bit as much as Cage or Fichtner. I’m only familiar with him from the “Twilight” films, but this performance would persuade me to pay attention to him in the future.
And Amber Heard is so good here that I am actually reassessing her. I feel like she’s made a bunch of forgettable junk where she’s the unreasonably hot girl and little else. For a film like this to be more than just fun mayhem, something’s got to offer up an emotional charge, and in this film, that’s Heard’s job. She and David Morse give the film just enough weight that when the movie reaches for some sentiment near the end, it earns that material. She’s a tough little fighter throughout, and she is, as always, stunning.
A girl like Heard is argument enough for 3D, but as used by Lussier here, the process offers up new types of gags, jokes that play on our sense of immersion in the film, and Lussier takes a special delight in making things just that wee little bit sleazy, making the 3D feel a little dangerous. The film is relentlessly paced, and I thought it was really interesting the way he stages flashbacks for Cage as memories that play out as if projected on a screen in front of him. It’s a genuine use of the language of 3D to do more than just sell a gag, which is what makes me think Lussier’s got the edge on other filmmakers toying with the process. Like anything, the only way you’re going to get really good at working in 3D is by doing it repeatedly, trying different things, seeing the difference between an original idea you have and the way it finally plays onscreen. I’d heard all sorts of arguments about why you couldn’t cut films at a certain pace or why you couldn’t stage certain kinds of action in 3D, but Lussier disproves a lot of that with his work on this one. The car chase scenes in particular are cut in a very aggressive manner, and the solutions Lussier came up with draw you into the action in a visceral way.
“Drive Angry” is, in the end, a genre romp. It’s not aiming any higher than that. But it is made with real skill and style, and there’s such knowledge of genre in the way they have built the script and both embraced and avoided certain conventions that it makes me feel like we’re just seeing Farmer and Lussier warm up. Hopefully they’ll keep working with collaborators as game as their partners in this particular crime, because “Drive Angry” is a white-knuckle ride worth taking.
“Drive Angry” opens in theaters February 25, 2011, and was reviewed as part of Butt-Numb-A-Thon 12 in Austin, TX.