The Magazine

High-end Dross

The art of slumming, Hollywood style.

Mar 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 25 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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Drive Angry 3D

High-end Dross

Nicolas Cage

Ron Batzdorf / Summit Entertainment

Directed by Patrick Lussier

There’s an outrageously entertaining documentary you can watch, right now, if you have Netflix on your computer and you can stomach its gleeful and shameless presentations of cheap gore, exploitative nudity, and extremely bad taste. It’s called Not Quite Hollywood, and it tells the story of the birth of the Australian film industry in the 1970s.

The movies whose creation Not Quite Hollywood chronicles were almost uniformly terrible, despite the hopped-up praise for them offered throughout the documentary by Quentin Tarantino. Indeed, they’re so lousy that even listing their titles is pointless because you won’t have heard of any of them (unless you spent some time hanging around the movie theaters in the Loop or Times Square in the 1970s as I did).

But what they showed, as Not Quite Hollywood reveals, was terrific, devil-may-care, do-it-yourself ingenuity. The filmmakers had little money and even less experience, but they saw an opening in the worldwide explosion of violent and dirty exploitation pictures following the collapse in social and moral standards in the 1960s, and they seized it. Not Quite Hollywood is a story of capitalism at its most sophomoric, with all that the word “sophomoric” evokes.

The movies were cheap, they had no airs, they were designed to be disposable, and something surprisingly good arose from their creation—an industry far from the epicenter of world cinema that, from this remarkably unpromising standing start, would end up minting an extraordinary number of good directors, wonderful actors, and brilliant technicians. That fact, and the passage of nearly four decades, drains these films, or at least the clips shown in Not Quite Hollywood, of their capacity to offend.

The same can’t be said of present-day Hollywood’s fascination for making expensive movies in the mold of the no-budget films from the heyday of what Not Quite Hollywood dubs “Ozploitation.” It’s one thing to show decapitations and skewerings and naked women firing guns in a movie that cost 11 cents and was intended for a somewhat furtive and embarrassed audience. It’s quite another when a Hollywood studio uses investment capital raised from a hedge fund to spend tens of millions of dollars producing exactly the same kind of fare in hopes of generating a massive mainstream audience here and abroad, later to be followed by teenage boys snapping it up on DVD at Best Buy if they’re not smart enough to figure out how to download it illegally from BitTorrent.

Take Drive Angry, released at the end of February and starring Nicolas Cage, who remains one of the world’s highest-paid actors because he is willing to appear in incredibly low-rent material that scores well at the international box office. Given Cage’s paycheck of around $10 million, it’s a fair guess that Drive Angry, which was made in 3D, cost somewhere around $50 million.

Drive Angry plays like a cross between Patrick Swayze’s Road House (you know, the one about a heroic bouncer that’s shown every three days on TNT) and the cancelled television show Reaper (about the kid whose parents sold his soul to the devil and must chase down demons who’ve fled from Hell). It’s set in a world exclusively populated by poor white trash. Cage is a blond-headed Hell escapee motoring around the Southwest in pursuit of, and being pursued by, a Satan-worshipping cult and an actual emissary from Satan himself.

I suppose it’s all supposed to be in good fun, all the slaughtering and cursing and nudity so amazingly gratuitous it would probably trigger an enthusiastic Tweet from Charlie Sheen. But there’s something curdled and gross about such displays in a movie as lavishly appointed as this one. It tries to get a charge out of being so shocking, so out there, so beyond the bounds. 

But how can a movie be transgressive when it’s being released in 2,300 theaters and advertised on network television? The answer is it can’t; it’s just trying to trick stupid kids into thinking it is. All exploitation movies are tricks that promise more than they deliver; that’s the nature of the beast. Low-rent productions like the Ozploitation movies are three-card monte games, small-time cons. Movies like Drive Angry are Bernie Madoff in comparison.

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.

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