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Drive Hard Poster

Among old and reliable action movie tropes, there are few that are older and more reliable than mismatched “odd couple” duos. From 48 Hrs. (1982) to Midnight Run (1988)…from Turner & Hooch (1989) to Tango & Cash (1989)…from Rush Hour (1998) to the Lethal Weapon franchise, you know the drill: put a straight-laced, by-the-book square with a lone-wolf, loose-cannon hothead and let the sparks fly! When the formula works, it’s an almost bullet-proof set-up: there’s a good reason why films like Lethal Weapon and Die Hard (1988) are still influencing modern action films almost 30 years after they left the multiplexes.

The success of said formula, however, winds up being pretty dependent on a very important part of the equation: if the mismatched partners don’t gel, if their chemistry lies somewhere between “uncomfortably awkward” and “dead on arrival,” well…let’s just say that your odds of getting a decent film aren’t great. In the case of classic “Ozsploitation” filmmaker Brian Trenchard-Smith’s newest film, Drive Hard (2014), we get enough of the elements in their proper places to insure a fun, fast and fairly breezy good time: would we expect anything less from the twisted genius behind Dead End Drive-In (1986)?

The “square” in this particular equation is Peter Roberts (Thomas Jane, sporting a ridiculously fluffy hair-do that would make a ’70s-era catalog model jealous), a former American race car driver who now toils in obscurity as an Australian driving instructor. He’s got a wife and young daughter, dreams of opening his own racing school and just enough spare cash to insure that he’ll probably be teaching yahoos what a stick-shift is for the next 90 years. Peter’s the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back and spend the rest of the day complaining about being cold.

The “wild one” in this equation is Simon Keller (John Cusack), another American ex-pat. Simon (who pronounces his name in a way that sounded suspiciously like “Killer” to me) hires Peter to teach him to drive, even though he seems to be surprisingly adept around said vehicle for a complete novice. Keller’s a sophisticated smartass with a propensity for droll observations and a rather unsettling interest in Peter’s former occupation.

As luck would have it, Keller doesn’t want a driving instructor: he wants a get-away driver. Things get more complicated when Keller reveals that they’ve just ripped off Mario Rossi (Christopher Morris), a hot-headed mob boss who previously stiffed Simon on a job: this is payback and poor Peter is just the schmuck who’s found himself stuck in the middle. Except, of course, that good ol’ Peter eventually starts to, you know…kinda dig all this action. After all, he gets to race again: what’s that thing they say about the gift horse? He also gets out of the house at a time when things are particularly rough between him and his wife, Tessa (Yesse Spence), thereby avoiding any and all difficult conversations about sticky subjects like “responsibility” and the “future.”

While the fugitives burn rubber, their own relationship begins to thaw, allowing for the kind of uneasy détente that’s necessary for this sort of film: Keller is revealed to be more than just a criminal mastermind, while Peter gets to finally assert himself and start to loosen up. It’s not all Summer vacation in the Hamptons, however, as our intrepid travelers are pursued by a pair of extremely earnest Special Agents (Zoe Ventoura and Jason Wilder), along with Rossi and Chief Inspector Smith (Damien Garvey), a lawman so used to sitting in the mobster’s pocket that he may as well be a young kangaroo. As the forces continue to mass and the odds get slimmer, Peter and Simon will learn one important thing: if you want to have a fighting chance, you have to drive…and you better drive hard.

Like the vast majority of Trenchard-Smith’s extensive output, Drive Hard is massively entertaining: a silly, lightning-paced buddy film, Drive Hard never takes itself seriously, although it also manages to avoid (albeit just barely) slipping into full-blown parody territory. The Australian action auteur is a deft hand with this type of material, however, melding purely goofy comedy beats with genuinely thrilling action and racing sequences. While the film is the furthest thing from a “dark” crime saga, the stakes feel real enough to plant it squarely in the area code of films like Snatch (2000) and In Bruges (2008).

Key to the film’s success, of course, is that aforementioned chemistry between our odd couple, Peter and Simon.  The two leads play off each other with a playful sense of camaraderie that makes the film an easy, breezy experience from first to last. While Jane does an admirable job playing against type as the nerdy, clueless and slightly whiny Peter, Cusack handily steals the show as the riveting, obnoxious and thoroughly badass Simon Keller. Keller is the kind of antihero that practically demands his own franchise (I was constantly put in mind of Tim Dorsey’s amazing creation, Serge Storms) and it’s endlessly fun watching him work his machinations against the mob, corrupt cops, a biker gang and pretty much anyone who has the misfortune of crossing his path. Of late, Cusack seems to be gravitating towards these kind of “antihero” roles (see his similarly stellar turn as the villain in the thoroughly spectacular Grand Piano (2014) for another good example) and they really do fit him like a glove: he appears to be morphing into James Spader before our very eyes and I, for one, applaud this wholeheartedly.

While the supporting cast does fine work, the only one who really stands out is Zoe Ventoura’s ridiculously driven Agent Walker: there’s an intensity to her performance that ends up being much more magnetic than Christopher Morris’ mob boss, despite the constant fever pitch of his performance. Ventoura’s Agent Walker is also the only female character who gets much to do, with Francesca Bianchi’s Stacy being stuck in perpetual man-eater mode and Yesse Spence’s Tessa spending the majority of the film stuck somewhere in the background off-camera. For better or worse, this is the kind of action film that seems to strictly revolve around the male characters and their various relationships with one another. Call it a “bromance” if you like, but there’s certainly no shortage of testosterone to go around, here.

Despite being less than taken with Drive Hard’s look (the film is constantly blown-out and, to be honest, rather ugly), it’s hard to find fault with any of its key components. The driving scenes are thrilling and kinetic, while the various fights are well-staged and find a decent balance between chaos and order. The underlying sense of dark humor also works in the film’s favor, leading to suitably outrageous gags like the shop clerk accidentally blowing his own head off or Peter’s ludicrous brawl with an elderly lady that’s one slim pratfall away from a Happy Gilmore (1996) outtake. Holding everything together is that all-important central odd couple relationship between Jane and Cusack, the kind of partnership that actually makes sequels seem like good ideas.

Ultimately, Drive Hard is just what it should be: a goofy, fun, silly and effortless throwback to the days when everything blew up, any argument could be solved with a fistfight and a cutting quip could be just as deadly as a cutting blade. While Trenchard-Smith’s latest isn’t quite the modest masterpiece that Dead End Drive-In was (tonally, it’s just a little too all-over-the-map), there’s more than enough good stuff here to keep fans of ’80s and ’90s action films happy. Drive Hard tries hard and, at the end of the day, that’s a lot more than most.

 

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