The makers of Drive Angry apparently don’t think much of an automobile’s cruise control option. Moving at a breathless pace and entirely shot in 3D, the latest entry in Nicolas Cage’s befuddling career detour throws as much at the audience as is technically possible within 100 minutes. Fingers pop off and whiz toward viewers’ plastic glasses, weapons jump off the screen, and naked women are beaten and screwed in three salacious dimensions. Drive Angry never takes itself too seriously, which is a good thing, since the sight of Cage—as vengeful reject from Hell John Milton—sporting another unbefitting coiffure and swigging whiskey while banging chicks is inherently amusing. With so many tricks in hand, co-writers Patrick Lussier (also the director—read our interview with him here) and Todd Farmer neglect one key element: any semblance of story. Not that a film of this breed requires a Shakespearean conflict, but it’s never a good thing when a movie’s own characters acknowledge the unimportance of their shared existence. After Milton gets shot in the eye, his fellow road warrior, Piper (an especially hot Amber Heard) asks, “How are you still alive?” Presumably like those watching, she's requesting even the slightest piece of exposition. His response: “We don’t have time for this.” And that’s Drive Angry in a nutshell.

drive angry heard insertIt’s not that Lussier doesn’t have a narrative in mind. Amidst the countless shootouts and car chases, the film’s characters remind us with random flashbacks and throwaway expository dialogue why Milton is back from the dead and hellbent (excuse the pun) on catching satanic cult leader Jonah King (Billy Burke). After Milton abandoned his daughter, she turned to King and his band of Devil-worshipping nutjobs. When she tried separating herself from the pack, King murdered her and took Milton’s granddaughter for an eventual human sacrifice. On his mission to dispose of King and retrieve the baby, Milton befriends Piper, right before she quits her dead-end waitress job and catches her fiance cheating with a chesty brunette.

With those chips in place before the 15-minute mark, Drive Angry quickly settles into a frenzy. Lussier and Farmer’s previous collaboration, the 2009 slasher remake My Bloody Valentine 3D, showed that the duo knows how to have a good time; like Valentine, Drive Angry uses its energy to stage ridiculous setpieces and ring all of the filth out of the 3D format. The movie’s piece de resistance, if you will, is a slow-motion gunfight right out of Zack Snyder’s playbook. As a fully nude blonde rides him like Seabiscuit, Cage empties pistol rounds into a dozen or so of King’s cult members with one hand and swigs a bottle of Jack Daniels with the other. Underscored with low, echoing rock music, the sequence is by far the best part of Drive Angry, hitting the right balance of silliness and hardcore brutality.

Too bad there’s no other sequence like it in the movie. Though it’s clear that Lussier and Farmer conceived Drive Angry more as fans of ’70s vigilante pics than serious auteurs, the final product rarely feels like it’s going all out. It’s a shame, because Lussier handles three-dimsensions better than most of his peers; Drive Angry is one of the few 3D movies that justifies the technology’s employment. At a certain point, though, Lussier begins relying upon slowed-down bullets and bodies going air-born from shotgun blasts, save for the occasional skull fragments. It’s as if the writers expected the film’s superficial throwback presentation and self-aware exploitation traits to be enough on a surface level.

drive angry fichtner insertJust as disappointing is the choice to drain all of the humor out of Milton. In a movie as goofy as Drive Angry, Cage should be encouraged to channel some of his Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans lunacy, yet he plays Milton way too straight. It’s a rather dull performance, something that’s not usually said about Cage as of late; tear apart his recent movies all you want, but they’re nothing if not shamefully entertaining. Surprisingly, Drive Angry is saved by Cage’s game supporting cast. Overlooking her obvious sex appeal (which Drive Angry flaunts in abundance), Heard totally sells Piper’s fight skills and tough girl verve. She’s clearly enjoying herself, much like great character actor William Fichtner, landing some of the movie’s best lines as one of Satan’s wranglers assigned to bring Milton back down under. Cage might blunder, but at least the rest of the players stay on track.

Buying a ticket for a movie like Drive Angry implies recognition of, as well as the desire for, widespread absurdity. And in that frame of mind, the film should give knowing movie watchers their money’s worth. Unavoidably, though, there’s a dominating post-screening wonderment of “What could’ve been?”

Related: Q&A With Director Patrick Lussier