Drive Angry: I can’t recommend this film, though I enjoyed (most of) it

Combining guns, property damage, and a Satanic cult that kidnaps babies isn’t likely to get you a good movie, but if you do it right, it can be a lot of fun. The people who made Drive Angry set out to make something very specific, and they succeeded. If you want to see Nicolas Cage shoot people while driving a flaming car that’s flying through the air, this film will 100% meet your needs. The DVD is out today.

I would caution you, though, to armor up if you’re annoyed by the use of naked women as plot gags.

Surprisingly given the film’s promo poster, leading lady Piper (Amber Heard) is NOT the naked woman in question. As you can see in the poster, Piper is the Action Movie Babe. She’s white, skinny, conventionally pretty, wears short shorts, blah blah blah. Piper’s character, though, is treated pretty well in the film. When it begins, she’s stuck in a dead-end job and a dead-end relationship. She’s prone to assaulting people who piss her off, which didn’t impress me, even though the film was telling me that her victims deserved it. (I prefer my entertainment violence meted out to bad people who are an imminent threat, not just because you’re mad they cheated on you.) Overall, Piper just doesn’t seem to have much of a life.

Then she meets Cage’s John Milton, a damned soul escaped from hell on a mission to save his infant granddaughter from being sacrificed to Satan (yes, really). At first, Piper is unwittingly drawn into Milton’s pursuit of cult leader Jonah King (Billy Burke), and she’s mad as hell that Milton has screwed up her life. What she finds, though, is a purpose, albeit a short-term one, and a way to harness all that fight for something bigger than herself. This is a solid origin story for a female heroine. I ended up liking Piper quite a lot, because she was never afraid to pick up a weapon and get into it when the bad guys needed a beatdown. She grew and changed as the film went on, and she kicked some major ass for great justice.

Really, how can you not like anyone who hears “I’m going to kill you and send you to hell” and responds with “Between now and then, I’m going to fuck you up!”

What I can’t abide is how many big moments of the film involve other women being badly disrespected. From Piper’s attack on the woman involved in her fiancee’s affair to the ludicrous gunfight/sex scene with Milton and waitress Candy, even down to the female cult members dancing naked before their eagerly anticipated apocalypse, the humor centered around women in this film is overwhelmingly about disrobing them. I was going to write a whole big thing arguing why this isn’t okay, but I’m just too tired to include a 101 right now.

I am convinced that there is a way to make a trashy, cheesy, ridiculous action movie without doing this to women. I don’t think that degrading women in sexualized ways is inherent to the subgenre, just as I didn’t believe it was inevitable for women to be treated so badly in Machete. But unless the people who are making these films go into them with an anti-sexist sensibility, even if they create a character like Piper, there’s going to be fail everywhere else.

Given that, I’m somewhat glad that there wasn’t more diversity in the film. It probably saved us from whatever tropes we would have fallen into with more people of color involved. Sometimes lack of representation can be a blessing, if the creators involved aren’t both concerned and skillful enough to create appropriate characters. (Hat tips to both Womanist Musings and Digital Femme for this idea, though I can’t immediately lay hands on their specific posts that got me thinking about this scenario.) There were a couple of African-American men who played police officers, and one Hispanic man who played a bartender, and they all died before I noticed anything terribly offensive about the way their characters were handled.

The best I can say is that if you like this kind of film, and you’re not having a bad day, you might like this film. I had fun, myself, but I like Nic Cage when he isn’t doing random shit like The Sorceror’s Apprentice (wtf?). I also have huge love for William Fitchner, so getting to see him for so much screen time as The Accountant was a real treat. His mix of cold calculation, brutality, and whimsy gave me chills. Why doesn’t he get more work?

I can’t give it more than one star, though, because it really is so damn typical on Heroine Content criteria. Ah well.

This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.