What happened on the set of Con Air in 1997? Judging by recent evidence, stars John Cusack and Nicolas Cage were so surprised and delighted to find their quirky selves co-starring in a mainstream action picture they vowed to appear in any future genre pictures that would have them, even if it meant doing movies that look like tax scams for release in unspecified foreign markets. If that’s the case, everything’s going great for all parties. Maybe they happily compared notes on the set of the seamy, barely released thriller The Frozen Ground, and maybe they’re equally delighted to have two more low-budget thrillers out on the same day: Cage’s Left Behind reboot and Cusack’s Drive Hard, which even manages to sound like a knockoff of the disreputable Cage vehicle Drive Angry.
The same year as Con Air’s release, Cusack had great success playing a hitman in Grosse Pointe Blank; maybe that also explains why he’s taken such a wealth of recent parts as hitmen, creeps, and Richard Nixon. Simon Keller, the blasé thief he plays in Drive Hard, tries for a little of that Grosse Pointe wry detachment, but the script gives him nothing particularly Cusackian to say—just weird bits of motormouthed repetition. He’s introduced in the movie as a potential student for driving instructor Peter Roberts (Thomas Jane, looking more than ever like a gone-to-seed Aaron Eckhart), who used to race professionally but has since decamped for Australia (presumably after hearing about their generous tax incentives for film productions). Once in Roberts’ car, Keller proceeds with a confusingly circuitous series of deceptions that culminate with Roberts unwittingly serving as his getaway driver during a bank robbery.
Roberts tries to resist, but Keller won’t take no for an answer—more in the style of a needling salesman than a ruthless criminal. As such, their relationship quickly downshifts from fear and intimidation to sitcom-banter testiness. That a bored husband and father might acquiesce to a criminal adventure is a mild comic notion the movie smothers with a loud, yammering odd-couple routine full of vamping that’s supposed to sound pithy and offbeat but actually just involves talking in circles (“You cannot trust criminals, they’re untrustworthy in every way”). Roberts and Keller bluster their way through faked hostage phone calls, shoot-outs with gun-toting locals, and encounters with the crooked businessmen who represent the real villains of the piece.
Director Brian Trenchard-Smith establishes several go-to visual moves: close-ups of Jane turning the steering wheel dramatically, close-ups of Cusack yelling and shooting guns out a car window, and close-ups of a Converse sneaker-clad foot hitting the gas. Indeed, the movie’s car action may represent the least impressive-looking driving ever tax-incentivized in Australia. In one would-be stunt, a souped-up muscle car harnesses all of its powers to barely outrun a group of mid-speed motorcyclists as Cusack yells and shoots his gun out a window.
Drive Hard is, at least, more eclectic than necessary; it could have just been a terrible, unexciting car-based action movie like Getaway, but it throws in generous helpings of unfunny buddy comedy, too. The experience is like watching an unprepared teenager fake his way through different classes at once: briefly fascinating, mostly idiotic. There was a time when the very presence of someone like John Cusack could enliven otherwise normal movies, and lift worthier ones onto a higher plane. But films like Drive Hard are too slapdash to even allow for coherent performances, let alone movie-saving heroics. Apparently it’s hard to act convincingly in a tax shelter.