Drive (no, not that one) is the best 1990s action movie you have never seen
John Wick Chapter 3 is wonderful for many reasons
But one that stands out, in particular, is the casting of martial arts star and straight-to-video icon Mark Dacascos as the lead villain, and potentially giving him the comeback he deserves.
Real-life karate and kung fu champion Dacascos was one of those 'almost guys' that Hollywood history is littered with. A brilliant martial artist, blessed with good looks, charisma and good-enough acting talent, there is no reason why he couldn't have been a star. Instead, he mostly languished in low-budget fair, played the bad guy in Jet Li's Cradle 2 The Grave, and became most famous for playing the titular Iron Chef in the US reality cooking show of the same name.
1997's Drive should have been his big breakout movie - instead, it ended up going straight-to-video. It is, however, one of the most fun and ridiculous action movies of the 1990s, and any martial arts fans who haven't seen it need to check it out. And with it recently being added to the Amazon Prime library, you now have the perfect chance to.
Drive (sharing its name with the 2011 languid Ryan Gosling art-crime classic has only helped it get lost to time) is not necessarily a remarkable movie in terms of plot and setting. Dacascos plays a mysterious martial artist who arrives in America, on the run from gangsters from Hong Kong. It turns out he has a special implant inside him that gives him superhuman fighting powers, and is worth a lot to various nefarious interests. He ends up teaming up with a deadbeat loser (sitcom star Kadeem Hardison) in a race to LA to avoid those after him and meet a buyer for the implant.
On paper, Drive is a pretty standard buddy-chase movie, with a little sci-fi twist. In practice though, the movie is basically just 'LOOK HOW FUCKNG SICK MARK DACASCOS IS'. In the opening scene, he makes an effortlessly cool dramatic entrance standing on a crate suspended on a shipping crane. He then escapes a cadre of hoodlums by spectacularly backflipping off the crane, and then takes them all out in a bar by hanging upside down from a ceiling fan and shooting them all with a machine gun as the fan rotates.
Dacascos does some ridiculous stuff in the film. There is an extended fight scene in the middle of the film that takes places in a cramped motel room, that sees Dacascos flipping over and under multiple bad guys with electric batons, improvising with the scenery like Jackie Chan at his best. Remember, this was 1997 - the first Rush Hour was still a year away, and the plodding choreography of Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris where still the acceptable standard of American martial arts cinema.
If the movie was just a showcase for Dacascos, it would be worth watching. But it is also a film filled with weird, unexpected touches. It's directed by Steve Wang, a Taiwanese-American make-up artist and filmmaker best known for The Guyver, a series of glorious silly manga adaptations where stuntmen in rubber monster costumes do battle with each other. And his playfulness shines through.
Through the film, characters watch a surreal TV show called 'Walter The Einstein Frog', about, well a giant rugger frog that cures the President's son of cancer and also goes into space. The finale of the movie also takes place in a giant dayglo space-themed karoke bar, complete with arcade machine and a fake rocket that explodes at the end.
There is also an incredible bit where a bad guy with a machine gun gets his arm sliced off with a chainsaw, and as his arm flys off the bullets take out another load of henchmen.
It also features the late, great Brittany Murphy. Hollywood seemed to pigeon-hole her as a typical blonde starlet, but Murphy also had an unpredictable quality which she brought to films like Eight Mile, Sin City and Clueless. In Drive, she plays the unhinged proprietor of the motel Dacascos and Hardison hide out at, and she brings far more wit, energy and weirdness than the role of 'token girl in a cheap action movie' ever needed.
Drive is rough around the edges, and incredibly 90s (prepare yourself for lots of cheesy techno and double-breasted suits with massive shoulders and high waistbands). But as a condensed shot of turn-of-the-century martial arts adrenaline, it is up there with the best.