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.