Australians, more than anyone, know about car chases. As Quentin Tarantino joked in “Not Quite Hollywood,” the terrific documentary on Australian genre cinema, there could be an Australian movie about young girls coming of age and it would probably have a totally kick-ass car chase. The almost cultural responsibility for truly outstanding car chases (as evidenced in everything from “Mad Max” to this year’s “Wolf Creek 2“) makes “Drive Hard,” a dopey, Aussie-set action comedy that stars, for reasons that are never sufficiently articulated, Thomas Jane and John Cusack, even more of a crushing disappointment. This one is all out of gas.
In “Drive Hard,” Jane plays Peter Roberts, a former racecar driver who, after knocking up his girlfriend, decides to get married and settle down (in Australia, of course). His glory days of spills, chills, and finishing line champagne showers are behind him. Now he teaches driving lessons in a car so small that it’s barely visible to the human eye. One day he shows up to work and has Cusack’s Simon Keller character as his student. Eventually this man, dressed mostly in black (including a black baseball cap and large sunglasses), hijacks the driving instructor car, forcing Roberts to become the wheelman for an ambitious theft.
If the plot sounds thin, that’s because it is. There seems to be the suggestion of a screenplay, rather than an actual written document with words and stage direction. This really comes across during endless sequences of dialogue where it seems like Jane and Cusack aren’t just improvising, but creating scenes out of whole cloth. They not only riff on the ludicrousness of the heist or their characters’ motivations, but they shape large sections of the movie through their goofy fumbling. Jane and Cusack are both talented performers and both can handle this kind of loose, free-form environment, but even the most gifted comedians have some guidelines when it comes to improvisation. It feels like these two were just put in a car and told to “go at it.”
Again, this would be all well and good if the action sequences actually brought an appropriate amount of excitement to the movie. Sadly, they do not. For the first part of the movie, Jane drives that rinky dink smart car, which makes the movie come across less like a major motion picture and more like some tourist’s footage of the Light, Motor, Action stunt show from their last vacation at Walt Disney World. (Seriously, the car might as well be a wind-up.) But even when the characters’ upgrade their getaway wheels halfway through the movie, the tempo doesn’t change. It’s the same bland car chase, over and over again. They all look like they take place in the same anonymous industrial park/boat yard/parking lot, with little variety in terms of staging or camerawork. These might be the least lively car chases in the history of Australian cinema.
What makes this even more depressing is that “Drive Hard” was directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith, an affable, wacky Australian filmmaker who, in his heyday, was responsible for low-budget, high-impact genre fare like “Dead End Drive-In,” “Turkey Shoot” (which was remade recently), and “BMX Bandits” (a film that starred a young, blank-faced Nicole Kidman). Trenchard-Smith knows how to do this shit. Or at least knew how to do this shit. At some point, however (maybe it was around the time he made back-to-back “Leprechaun” installments), the filmmaker lost his mojo, and even when given the blank canvas to play with something like “Drive Hard,” he’s not able to turn it into anything even remotely special.
You can tell that nobody was very invested in making “Drive Hard.” Beyond the limp car chases, the fact that Cusack is so fully concealed, with his hat and glasses covering most of his face, shows you that he had no interest in anyone being able to read his emotions (something that is quite relevant when acting). Jane, for his part, is just a frantic weirdo, with his hair a long, stringy tangle. This movie is made up of so few moving parts that it’s hard to pick out what’s good and bad about it. Instead, it’s just a bore, barely registering as a movie (visually, it looks more like an USA cable series), which is a shame, because with the oddball cast and somewhat notable director, it could have been fun and trashy. Instead, it’s just forgettable. [D]