Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Caged Beast

Nicolas Cage keeps making movies. People keep watching them. This has been going on for years, with seemingly no rhyme or reason to the ebb and flow of the Scion of Coppolla's career. His resume is littered with films that by anyone's standards trend on the positive side: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, World Trade Center,  and Kick-Ass, not to mention his critically-acclaimed roles in the films Moonstruck, Leaving Las Vegas, and Adaptation. But those have been rare serious roles amid a sea of action titles like Next, Knowing, Bangkok Dangerous, Con Air, The Rock, etc. He and John Travolta started their action film careers at about the same time, but while Travolta has of late re-focused to more family friendly roles (and when your films do as badly as bomb From Paris with Love, who can blame you?), Cage has made more and more cheaply-made action films, including this year's violent thrillers Season of the Witch, Trespass, The Hungry Rabbit Jumps, and Drive Angry, the 3D film I saw in this past weekend. I realize I'm being critical of his career while at the same time having financed one of his films, but there is a method to my madness. Or more appropriately, CAGE's madness. If there's one thing Nicolas Cage does really well, it's play to his eccentric side. What he might lack in the variety of his performances is often made up for by his ability to play an entertaining madman. With Drive Angry's exaggeratedly left-field story and dialogue, it seemed the perfect fit for Cage's persona and temperament. I also figured that the 3D aspect of the film would be best enjoyed on the big screen, since there's no way in hell I'm dropping however much money it takes to get a 3D television until the technology grows a bit more.

There's a lot of driving here. And much of it is angry.
Taking it's plot from I'm sure dozens of sixties' and seventies' exploitation films, Drive Angry is about a very bad man named Milton (Cage), who escapes from the clutches of hell to hunt down the Satanic cult who murdered his daughter and kidnapped his granddaughter. This group, led by the notorious Jonah King (Billy Burke), is going to sacrifice the child on the next full moon in an attempt to raise hell on Earth. Milton must face countless cultists with only his sidekick Piper (Amber Heard), many exotic firearms and a weapon referred to as "The God-Killer". Meanwhile, the agents of hell have sent The Accountant (William Fichtner) to force Milton back into the underworld, whether he wants to go or not.

Road rage takes on whole new meanings with Cage behind the wheel
For the record, this movie can be skipped on the big screen for more than one reason. The special effects are either grossly underfunded or ineptly implemented (or both), being simultaneously unimpressive and groan-inducing during what are supposed to be the film's most exciting moments. The gun play is well crafted, though at times the action is one-sided, with most of Milton's enemies unable to hit the broad side of a barn, of which the film has plenty. Best are the driving sequences, and especially the chases. It helps that the film seems to have a great respect for classic roadsters (if nothing else), and they're such a huge part of the film that it makes the experience somewhat more palatable than it would be otherwise.

A rare non-vehicular scene
This isn't to say the film is GOOD. One of the things that had to come off without a hitch to make the film fun was Cage's demeanor, but for the majority of Drive Angry that classic Cage craze is surprisingly light. Though he has some great dialogue (when told Lucifer will be mad with his escape, Milton replies "What's he going to do: not let me back in?"), and has some insane gunfight scenes (one in a love hotel alongside actress Charlotte Ross is particularly insane), it's entirely lacking in the charismatic Nic Cage I'd been hoping would show up. Most of his dialogue is delivered in the same monotonous tone, and sometimes it takes a moment to realize he's unleashed a one-liner. Better is Heard as former waitress Piper, who is always willing to give someone an old-fashioned redneck ass-kicking. Sometimes Piper bites off a bit more than she can chew, but Heard is mostly effective in a surprisingly strong role, proving she might have the talent to make for a long career. Burke, a long-time character actor who is probably best known for his appearances in the Twilight series of films, is both charismatic and creepy as the film's cult leader. Completely crazy and unlikable, Burke does an amazing job with the role, even if it feels at times a bit one note-ish. Best of the bunch is Fichtner, however, who completely makes the film with his dry, vulgar dialogue. Playing Satan's right-hand man, Fichtner is such a bad-ass that everything that comes out of his mouth is comedy gold. When he tells someone in a clipped, dismissive tone "I'll see you soon," it's hilarious just to see the looks on their faces as they try to ascertain what he could mean. The Accountant also doesn't let anything get between him and his prey without breaking out the violence (in excess) when necessary, either. If there's one thing I didn't like about Fichtner's performance, it's that there wasn't ENOUGH of him, something I wish I could say about the more-heralded Cage.

"Breaker, breaker! We got us a convoy!"
Unfortunately, the film's stupidity and poor effects drive most of the enjoyment out of what could have been a fun, simple, old-school action film. A hackneyed final act puts the cap on it, and for the time being Drive Angry is slated at #7 (dead last) on my list of 2010's best films. What's possibly most disturbing about this film is that, unlike the previous Cage films that had fans lining up around the block to see, Drive Angry finished a disappointing ninth at the box office, well behind the offensive Farrelly Bros. film Hall Pass. It had to be a shock to producers, who had expected Cage to rake in guaranteed dough, not put out the worst-debuting 3D film of the modern era. My opinion is this: 3D films are more expensive to make, more expensive to show, and therefore more expensive to see. At the theater I frequent, seeing a normal film will set you back $11.50. Seeing a 3D film will instead cost you $15.50, a four-dollar difference that might seem innocuous at first until you start plopping on added concessions like popcorn and soda, and suddenly that extra $4 is money you could spend elsewhere. I know one bomb doesn't make a trend, but I wonder if this is what some producers are thinking: what if viewers have set a price limit for seeing a Nicolas Cage film?


jimmygerms said...


Anonymous said...

Wow, if there's one thing that drives me crazy it's the constant stream of Nic Cage hate oozing out of the interwebs. What the Hell is wrong with you...indeed!? This movie was great. It's the perfect homage to the 70s Satanic cult movies I love dearly (in particular, Race With the Devil). This movie held nothing back and is to be embraced for it. I'd wager if I'd seen the same crap you rate ahead of it on your list, I'd have this at #1.

Back to Cage. Of course he toned it down. Would this movie have been bearable if Cage had Sheened it up amidst all the craziness around him? No, he had to play it subtle. Also, I seem to remember Cage taking a bullet or two into his body so I'm not sure your description of the baddies aim is entirely accurate.

Is the movie going to win an award? No, but it should. Still, it's a beautiful throwback to an era where a baby could be put in harms away and people wouldn't get their panties all up in a bunch about it.

Oh, and please don't lump Knowing in with those other movie. Wild guess: You haven't seen it, have you?


Gianni said...

Wait... hate? Where do you get hate from? While I may roll my eyes dismissively at most of Cage's films, I don't hate them and I didn't hate this movie either. The film failed to live up tom my low expectations and I expected more crazy from Cage, as I though his more subtle performance didn't match the film's style. I may think it's the worst film I've seen this year, but I certainly didn't hate it.

Anonymous said...

I read between the lines. Nicholas Cage is a national treasure. He's insane. His choice of projects is odd, but that's why I love him. He keeps you on your toes. He's like our very own Klaus Kinski. I was also, in part, responding to "jimmygerms" and his all caps diatribe. Seriously though, being dismissive, in some ways, is worse than hate.


Opinioness of the World said...

Listen, I'm dismissive of Nic Cage. There I said it. He hasn't done a great job acting in 10 years since 'Family Man' and possibly 'Adaptation' which I haven't seen yet. The only other things he was truly good in? 'Leaving Las Vegas,' 'Moonstruck,' 'Face Off' and 'Con Air.' And even in each of those films, it's the surrounding actors that are far more memorable.

Anonymous said...

Good/Interesting Nic Cage Performances from the last ten years:

Kick-Ass (best part of the movie, by far)
World Trade Center
Weather Man
Lord of War
Matchstick Men
Drive-Angry 3D

Great (Oscar worthy) Cage Performance:

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

That's not too bad. Better than whomever the opinioness might champion, I'd wager.