“Grindhouse” became a buzzword in cult movie circles after Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino released the film of the same name a few years back.  Unfortunately, the trend it could have sparked seemed dead on arrival: Grindhouse tanked at the box office and industry mavens took a conspicuous amount of delight in kicking it around.  Certain films along the nuevo-grindhouse line – Machete, Piranha 3D – have had some success but not enough to give the concept staying power.  Drive Angry looks like another victim of this negative trending – and it’s a damn shame because it’s easily the best of the post-Grindhouse modern exploitation efforts.

The plot is equal parts car chase movie and devil-themed horror flick: Milton (Nicholas Cage) is the central character, a drifter with vengeance on his mind.  He is after Jonah King (Billy Burke), the leader of an apocalyptic devil cult that murdered his daughter and kidnapped her baby.  Milton wants his grandchild back but there are few things in his way.  For starters, Jonah plans to sacrifice the infant so he can unleash the forces of hell in the mortal world.  Milton also has to dodge The Accountant (William Fichtner), a mysterious type with supernatural abilities who wants to capture Milton for reasons unspecified.  The only one willing to help Milton in his quest is Piper (Amber Heard), a hard-luck waitress who needs adventure to counteract her dull, depressing life.

The end result has drawn a mixed response from b-movie buffs… and that’s a mystery to Your Humble Reviewer because Drive Angry is basically a song of praise to everything they like.  It’s got car stunts, Satanic panic, gratuitous naked women, punch-ups, shootouts and gratuitous naked women getting into punch-ups and shootouts.  It never misses a chance to deliver the goods and is frequently innovative in how it serves them up (the finale involves naked female devil cultists shooting at Nicholas Cage and men on fire getting hit by cars).  If you’re the kind of the viewer who rates films by the quantity of exploitable content they deliver then Drive Angry is your film.

However, there’s more to Drive Angry than just thrills, spills and boobs.  One of the nicest surprises about the film is that it is made with care.  Writer Todd Farmer and co-writer/director Patrick Lussier fully indulge the storyline’s potential for excess but they also put together a compelling storyline and some interesting characters to keep it afloat.  The revealing of the plot twists gets a little overcomplicated in places but the script is well-constructed overall.  The situations may be gleefully over-the-top but they are played straight, with no forced jokiness or winking to the camera.  When humor pops up – usually through the character of The Accountant – it is presented in a sly, amusingly dark manner.  Lussier and Farmer are also quite fond of their heroes, allowing them to have a few effective emotional moments at the end.

Even better, the film is skillfully directed by Lussier: since he made in 3-D, he’s careful to stage and edit his action sequences in a way that allows the viewer to see it unfold before the camera with a minimum of quick cuts.  Highlights include a scene where Nicholas Cage fights off a gang of attackers while having cowboy-position sex with a woman and great car-vs.-R.V. chase scene that pays tribute to Race With The Devil.  A lot of filmmakers doing the nuevo-grindhouse thing use it as an excuse to be sloppy so it’s nice to see a film in this style where the director works so hard to be precise.

Finally, the acting is much better than you’d expect it to be.  Cage might be the current poster child for hammy acting but he actually reins it here, playing his brooding character in an understated way that the fits the film’s needs.  Heard, young but already a veteran of a lot of horror/thriller schlock, brings a genuine emotional commitment to her character that keeps her from being another second-banana.  She’s also not afraid to get her hands dirty in the action scenes, throwing herself into the fights with abandon.  Burke clearly enjoys getting to take a break from the Twilight movies and has plenty of fun as the villain, hamming it up in a Jim Jones/David Koresh kind of way.  Also, keep your eyes peeled for genre icon Tom Atkins in a fun cameo role as senior police officer.

That said, the film’s best performance comes from Fichtner as The Accountant.  This veteran character actor has been doing great work for years, contributing memorable bits to films as diverse as Go and The Dark Knight, but this role offers a chance to strut his stuff and he takes full advantage.  He’s kind of like an evil Chevy Chase, deadpanning his one-liners and insults with effortless charm as he impales people against walls and drives a tanker through a cop-car barricade.  Despite the dry delivery, his work throughout is informed with an impish sense of delight that allows him to steal each of his scenes.

Simply put, Drive Angry is a love letter to the interests of a b-movie buff and is made with a “real movie” sense of polish that eludes most of the other nuevo-grindhouse retreads.  It knows exactly what it is – grindhouse material that benefits from modern techniques – and it works hard to deliver the best possible version of those thrills.  Your Humble Reviewer hopes more people catch up with it on video because it deserves the appreciation.