What seems like forever ago, Nicolas Cage was an up-and-coming star. Sure, his uncle is the incomparable Francis Ford Coppola (“The Godfather,” for those that need reminding), and yes, there may have been nepotism involved — but due to (or in spite of) Cage’s presence, his films have clawed their way to an impressive 24 Oscar nominations. He won one of those naked golden statues for his performance in “Leaving Las Vegas” and earned another nomination for “Adaptation.”

Drive Angry 3D

At Quality 16 and Rave

Today, however, he’s a punchline associated with hack work like “The Wicker Man.” We may never know where it all went wrong — it could’ve been the dozens of properties he foreclosed on, his tax problems or the fact that he loves dropping money he doesn’t have on things he can’t afford. Still, to audiences, the fact remains that Cage’s latest films are phoned-in paycheck jobs, which he takes to keep the IRS happy and himself out of prison. “Drive Angry 3D” is the latest stopgap between him and the slammer, and it certainly fits the profile. Utterly devoid of originality, plausibility and technical competence, the movie is quite possibly a career low for Cage, which, considering his recent filmography, is an accomplishment in and of itself.

Then again, while it’s Cage’s fault that the movie exists, it’s not really his fault that the movie sucks. Blame for that lies at the feet of writer-director Patrick Lussier (“My Bloody Valentine”) and co-screenwriter Todd Farmer (“The Messengers”), whose screenplay seems like the work of a disturbed middle school student.

Cage’s character, dubbed Milton in a lazy reference to “Paradise Lost,” escapes from Hell with a muscle car and a trunk full of guns. He plans on rescuing an infant from the clutches of a Satanic cult led by Jonah King (Billy Burke, “Twilight”), but first, he gets drunk, shoots some cops and bangs a cocktail waitress, while Piper, another sexy waitress (Amber Heard, “Never Back Down”) — who Milton rescues from an abusive domestic relationship — listens in. Meanwhile, the Accountant (William Fichtner, “Black Hawk Down”), Hell’s snarky bounty hunter, stays hot on Milton’s trail.

Actually, the premise sounds entertaining — unabashedly trashy and charmingly over-the-top, it could’ve been a Robert Rodriguez-style exploitation film, full of sex, explosions and car chases. Instead, it’s a horrendously shot mess of a movie, lacking any trace of cinematic vision. The line delivery is corny and unconvincing, grating against the ear. The car chases hinted at by the title are simply wide shots of cars moving — no cuts, no style, no anger. And with the exception of the occasional piece of debris hurled toward the audience in slo-mo, the 3-D is nowhere to be seen.

Submerged for the movie’s gruelingly long 104 minute runtime in this septic tank of mediocrity, audiences’ minds will wander toward the script, which can’t stand up to the scrutiny. The Satanic story isn’t just fantastically stupid, it’s full of holes, which it tries to plug, unsuccessfully, by throwing surprise twist after unbelievable surprise twist at the audience. When it runs out of these, it takes old plot points and spins them as new information. We see Milton escaping from Hell in the film’s opening minutes, but halfway through, this is suddenly something new for the audience to gawk at.

The film’s one bright spot is Fichtner’s disappointingly short turn as the Accountant. He fits the mold of carefree badass much more comfortably than Cage. Impeccably dressed in a suit and tie, he slams knives through skulls with an emotionless half-smile, tortures the mortally wounded in a steady deadpan and, in one of the movie’s funniest scenes, crashes a tanker full of hydrogen fuel into a police barricade while humming “That’s the Way (I Like It)” by KC and the Sunshine Band. Sadly, his appearances are too few and far between to counteract the tepid nature of the rest of the movie, or the downward gravitational pull of Cage’s sinking career.

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