POSTED ON MARCH 2, 2011:
Tacky and Sleazy
Drive Angry 3D is nonsensical and not-to-be-missed. Casino Jack is good, if less of a gamble.
Eleven months before Avatar heralded the point of no return on the current 3D bandwagon, there was My Bloody Valentine 3D. The re-make of the '80s, Canadian slasher film was the first I'd seen utilizing the new 3D technology that left the multi-colored, paper glasses behind in lieu those novelty-sized Ray Bans that make seeing films in 3D slightly more effective while only marginally less annoying and dumb looking.
The flick was definitely wallowing in both of its gimmicks (re-make and 3D) while being merely passable as a whole; though its heart was in the right place with some gratuitous nudity, decent gore and the casting of Tom Atkins (Night of the Creeps) as a small town sheriff on the trail of a pick axe wielding, cranium puncturing Valentine's Day-hating psycho. Director Patrick Lussier and writer Todd Farmer had an obvious affection for the source. Though, in retrospect, the results were underwhelming, the tangible sense of respect and fun that the film generated return as the fuel that propels their latest, Drive Angry 3D, to far loftier heights of batshit mayhem.
Lussier and Farmer re-team here and the mission statement of pulpy, over the top, exploitation revelry is apparent in the first five minutes of Drive Angry, which find John Milton (Nicolas Cage) methodically hunting down three goons in his cherry Dodge Charger and dealing out shotgun justice with the efficiency of a Terminator sporting hair extensions. Milton is on the trail of a coven of redneck Satanists led by their charismatic, Southern fried, high-priest, Jonah King (Billy Burke), who were responsible for the death of his daughter and currently hold hostage his granddaughter as a sacrificial offering for the Dark One.
Milton hitches a ride with a sexy, tough, ex-waitress named Piper (Amber Heard, giving new life to the extra dimension) who winds up along for the ride permanently after she catches her husband, Frank (writer Todd Farmer in his obligatory nude cameo) getting cow-girled by another woman. Frank's problems don't end with Milton beating his ass into a hat, since soon after, he gets a visit from The Accountant (new personal favorite William Fitchner) a mysterious, supernatural entity dressed in standard issue Men in Black, who pursues Milton with animalistic tenacity. Dodging the law, The Accountant and a monsoon of bullets, Milton will stop at nothing to extract his granddaughter from King's Satanic clutches and claim bloody vengeance for his daughter.
High Speed. Drive Angry 3D ups the ante over My Bloody Valentine on most levels, but the most satisfying element was that it wasnít a re-make. Director Patrick Lussier shoots the carnage with assurance, even with the added layer of 3D, rendering some fast paced action where need be and pulling a few neat visual tricks while throwing boobs, blood and bone fragments at the screen with gleeful regularity.
If this sounds appealing to you then we are of like mind. Drive Angry 3D ups the ante over My Bloody Valentine on most levels, but the most satisfying element was that it wasn't a re-make. Lussier and Farmer cooked up the most goofily gratuitous ideas they could and let them loose on screen with a sense of sleazy fun that recalled last year's trashy pinnacle, Piranha 3D. Limbs fly, gore splatters, Cage has sex with a barmaid while blasting swarms of armed attackers (getting tasered and inducing the barmaid to a 50,000-volt O-Face). And there are car chases. Plenty of car chases.
Lussier shoots the carnage with assurance, even with the added layer of 3D, rendering some fast paced action where need be and pulling a few neat visual tricks while throwing boobs, blood and bone fragments at the screen with gleeful regularity. Most of it works. Some of it doesn't, due to a couple of instances of cheesy FX work.
It doesn't totally work conceptually, either. There's a streak of sentimentality that somewhat usurps the shamelessness of the proceedings, but it's still a blast for the most part; and again the sense of respect Lussier and Farmer have for the audience that loves this kind of exploitive, unapologetic genre worship is apparent. Little shout outs abound, be it the aforementioned coital gun battle -- a hat tip to a similar scene between Clive Owen and Monica Bellucci in the otherwise awful Shoot 'Em Up -- or a brief shot where Cage checks his gruesomely damaged eye and decides to cover up with some oversized shades, ala Arnie in the first Terminator film. Drive Angry 3D knows who it's directed at and does its best to please that audience of sick little puppies.
Cage plays Milton as a noble badass, and he's fine, while Heard fills out the daisy dukes to great effect as the brassy Piper. They have a good chemistry and are easy to root for. Tom Atkins is back again as a small town lawman, which is good, though his Oklahoma accent isn't.
But it's William Fitchner as The Accountant and his un-winking performance in a role with some decidedly funny quirks that really liven up the proceedings whenever Drive Angry threatens to lose its velocity. Doesn't happen very often, but when it does, Fitchner tucks the film neatly under his arm and brings it back on course.
Drive Angry 3D doesn't completely capitalize on the nuttiness at its core -- for such a nihilistically violent flick it still has a happy ending of sorts. The American WTF bar set by the Taylor's Crank films remains safely unbroken (as it will for a long time). But Drive Angry's commitment to unabashed tackiness, pulpy convention and prurient thrills is still a good recipe for serious guilty pleasure.
Director George Hickenlooper made some fine documentaries in his short life (he died last year at 47), the chief of which, to my mind, was his amazing, behind the scenes look at the tumultuous production of Apocalypse Now, titled Hearts of Darkness.
Given that the story of Jack Abramoff was covered last year in the excellent Alex Gibney doc Casino Jack and the United States of Money perhaps Hickenlooper's final film, Casino Jack, was bound to have a veneer of biopic artifice. It's too bad, because as good as Gibney's film was, the world could have used Hickenlooper's non-fictional take on one of the balder examples of the corruption of the American political hierarchy. But Casino Jack is possessed of a movie-of-the-week quality--albeit an attractive one--that subverts the gravity of Abramoff's amazing story and, in some ways, subtly glorifies it.
Kevin Spacey portrays Abramoff as Kevin Spacey (not really a gripe, I still like the guy enough to not care if he reinvents himself, right down to his movie star mimicry), a former College Republican who rises in politics as a super-lobbyist after a failed career as a Hollywood film producer--his claim to fame being the Dolph Lundgren starring bullet-fest, Red Scorpion.
Casino Games. Casino Jack employs the overused template of the flashback and likewise the narrative structure reeks of a ripped-from-the-headlines TV movie vibe. Kevin Spacey is as reliably watchable as ever, but heís essentially Spacey. John Lovitz is enjoyable as shady business partner Adam Kidan, though his presence takes one out of the character. Itís Lovitz. He just canít shake his Lovitzness even if itís a slightly sleazier, more self-assured version of him.
Abramoff and his best friend, Mike Scanlon (Barry Pepper) sell Washington-style influence to Indian casinos, playing them against each other for exorbitant fees which they take a cut from under the table. Abramoff, a pious Jew with a serious case of self-delusion concerning the ethics of his business partners (sweat shop owners in the Marinas Islands, Greek off-shore gamblers, and a good chunk of Congress) is the kind of alpha-capitalist who, along with longtime buddies Ralph Reed (Christian Campell) and Grover Nordquist (Jeffery R. Smith), hypnotizes Washington power brokers and soon he finds himself pulling the strings of Ohio congressman Bob Ney (Jeff Pustil) and becoming the right hand man to then-Senate majority leader, pre-Dancing with the Stars contestant, Tom DeLay (Spencer Garrett). He was even on a middle initial basis with Dubya (something the Little Bush would forget soon after the shit hit the fan).
Of course, for those who were paying attention a few years ago, it's no spoiler to reveal that the deadly web Abramoff wove unraveled with alarming speed resulting in ruined lives, shattered careers and at least one corpse. Abramoff's gaming of the system made him one of the most dangerous men in Washington; the danger being the unearthing of political graft for all to see.
Casino Jack employs the overused template of the flashback (the film begins with Spacey busted, and reveals how he got there) and likewise the narrative structure reeks of a ripped-from-the-headlines TV movie vibe (though, again, a well shot one with an R-rating). Given writer Norman Snider's most recent credit -- Call Me: the Rise and Fall of Heidi Fleiss -- it makes a bit of sense that the film's lack of cinematic heft probably derives from the script; a hodgepodge of true events mixed with dramatic conventions that range from soliloquy to lazy narration to a damning indictment of hypocrisy as Spacey has a climactic quasi-Mr. Smith Goes to Washington moment that never happened anywhere except in his head (or perhaps just Snider's). It's the kind of rote dramatics that really contrasts the compelling immediacy of this very same story's documentary incarnation.
The performances are fine for the most part, though the way Hickenlooper captures them is sometimes clumsy and at worst, perfunctory. Spacey is as reliably watchable as ever, but he's essentially Spacey. Barry Pepper is fine but plays Scanlon with as little depth as that mans soul requires, while John Lovitz is enjoyable as shady business partner Adam Kidan, though his presence, as much as Spacey's, takes one out of the character. It's Lovitz. He just can't shake his Lovitzness even if it's a slightly sleazier, more self-assured version of him.
Despite the importance of reminding everyone that the political system in America and its politics are nearly broken under the weight of self-serving graft, corruption and class warfare, Casino Jack spins itself into a nearly light-hearted parable of an Icarus-like gamesman, with an underlying sense of admiration that Jack Abramoff might deserve if he were a myth. Sadly, men like him are all too real.
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