If someone offered to pay your way to the Gold Coast of Queensland, Australia for two and a half weeks, you’d go, wouldn’t you? So let’s not judge John Cusack and Thomas Jane too harshly for their participation in Drive Hard, an ultra-low-budget Ozzie buddy/chase flick that delivers exactly the quantity of inspiration, thrills, and laughs its amalgamated title promises. Though it intermittently aspires to be an action-comedy-with-a-heart in the mold of Martin Brest’s wonderful 1988 film Midnight Run, this movie is so colorless, odorless, and (especially) tasteless, so devoid of mass or substance, that it’s easy to forget even while it’s still playing. And yet Drive Hard raises at least one provocative question: When did John Cusack go from being the razor-sharp co-writer/star of Grosse Point Blank and High Fidelity to the guy who takes roles Jean-Claude Van Damme has turned down?
Jane’s presence is less surprising, but the star of Deep Blue Sea and The Punisher is probably too good for this movie, too. He stars as Peter Roberts, a former auto racer whose wife Tessa (Yesse Spence) made him give up this dangerous but apparently lucrative profession when they had a child. (“Women! Amirite?” is a, how you say, leitmotif in Drive Hard.) An expository quarrel reveals that their marriage is on the rocks because her lawyer salary alone won’t cover the mortgage—they do appear to live in a large house with a pool—and Peter just isn’t bringing home his share of the bacon now that he’s reduced to working as a driving instructor.
There’s something adorable in the movie’s boneheaded line-of-sight reductionism about how Peter earns his living. What could a former race-car driver possibly do but give driving lessons? Would the same four writers (!) who burned the midnight motor oil on Drive Hard bring the same level of brio to their script about a disgraced former astronaut who now works as at a janitor at a planetarium? Or a PTSD-afflicted ex-Navy SEAL who teaches children to swim? (There’s at least a 40 percent chance that Vin Diesel’s agent is on the phone trying to make that film happen right now.)
Anyway, after that morning quarrel, Peter finds a new student waiting for him at work. This would be Cusack’s Simon Keller, a fast-talking weirdo dressed all in black, including his ball cap and gloves. (His sunglasses and ever-present vaporizer make him look like Hunter S. Thompson.) Simon knows all about Peter’s illustrious racing record, and has little trouble persuading him to open up about his marital troubles, too. “She doesn’t respect you, man!” he tells Peter. “She doesn’t even fuck me any more,” Peter concurs. Peter is still reeling from this emasculating realization when Simon robs a bank, drafting Peter into service as his wheel-man. Peter sensibly tries to run away, but those famously trigger-happy Australian cops open fire even though he’s unarmed, forcing him to window-vault back into his car with Simon for cover. Cautious, low-speed car chases ensue.
“We had to make it the most exciting car-chase movie we could without damaging any of the vehicles,” co-writer/director Brian Trenchard-Smith explained in a recent interview. Not to worry; there’s still plenty of intellectual property damage in the massive pile-up of clichés. That was no ordinary bank Simon robbed; it was a mob bank! Hey, those aren’t cops coming after us, they’re hitmen! Within Queensland’s law-enforcement echelons, the feds and the locals argue over who has jurisdiction in the case!
Once Peter’s involvement in the heist makes the TV news, reporters surround the house he and Tessa can’t afford. The time in seclusion helps her appreciate what a castrating bitch she’s been by encouraging him to get a real job. She should really be more supportive of his desire to do something within his skill-set, like driving a limousine, or driving a tractor, or even driving a school bus. He could drive literally anything he wants to drive in life. He just needs to apply himself.
This Bergman-esque investigation into the insoluble riddles of love and fidelity is only one facet of Drive Hard. The film also operates on less-sophisticated levels, such as the wacky interlude wherein an elderly woman recognizes Simon and Peter—the Biblical names suggest yet another layer of meaning to puzzle out upon subsequent viewings—as fugitives from the news, and shoots at them with a giant revolver whose recoil knocks her off her feet. She keeps coming, though, until at last Peter punches that old biddy in the gut, while a surf-metal score assures the audience that this is all hilarious. A scene wherein a gas-station cashier blows his own face off with a shotgun while attempting a citizen’s arrest is treated as comic relief, too. Trenchard-Smith has directed more than 40 features, and was apparently a key influence on Quentin Tarantino, but these episodes feel like a novice’s clumsy attempt to emulate the sudden, destabilizing violence that punctuates Tarantino’s work.
In this new career as a runner-up Van Damme, Cusack proves himself every bit Bruce Willis’ equal when it comes to headlining a movie wherein it’s unclear whether he’s even fully awake. Perhaps it isn’t too late to get the Muscles from Brussels back in time for Drive Hard With A Vengeance. They could be a little nicer to women in that one, and maybe even find the money to smash a car or two.