Unless you count an IMDb listing for an unreleased movie called SIRENS OF THE DEEP (2000), the final (so far) feature film directed by Steve Wang is the 1997 under-the-radar Mark Dacascos action romp DRIVE. Dacascos (ONLY THE STRONG) plays Toby Wong (a RESERVOIR DOGS reference?), reformed Chinese assassin on the run from a corporation trying to reclaim the advanced strength-and-acrobatics-enhancing implant they put in him. Attacked in a bar, he commandeers lonely divorcee Malik (Kadeem Hardison, DEF BY TEMPTATION) and his car, and the two end up becoming buddies, driving around the L.A. area trying to avoid a team of mercenaries led by redneck Vic Madison (John Pyper-Ferguson, who’s also in the Nicolas Winding-Refn movie called DRIVE) and his personal Bob the Goon, Hedgehog (Tracey Walter, CYBORG 2), who when not shooting at them hang out in a mobile home like Justified villains. Vic has long hair, wears a bolo tie and sunglasses seems too proud of his rock ‘n roll cowboy look. I was so relieved when he switched to pony tail and tactical gear.
There are many fans of DRIVE who have encouraged me to review it over the years. I’ve seen it 2 or 3 times and always enjoyed it, but these days I think it seems better than it used to. It’s full of such energetic action, but with a likable dorkiness to it. In contrast to Dacascos’s good guy assassin in CRYING FREEMAN, Toby doesn’t allow his tragic motivation to turn him completely morose. He has an innocent, almost boyish vibe. In many scenes he stays quiet and we can watch him listen to the others, interested in what they’ll say. One of the most dramatic moments – the unexpected arrival of a more powerful super-fighter (Masaya Kato, BROTHER, GOZU) – interrupts him doing karaoke, but the scene isn’t there just as set up. They give him plenty of time to dance around like a goof and have fun. I think we’re supposed to lose ourselves like he does, not be nervous the whole time.
I’ve seen many people point out that it came before RUSH HOUR, and I’ve probly even said it myself. In truth the dynamic of this interracial buddy duo is very different. There aren’t “ha ha, your culture is different from mine” jokes. There’s a scene where they both groove to hip hop in the car (“Where’s the Party At” by Intellect), but there’s no disagreement preceding it, it’s not a surprise that they can both enjoy it.
One time race does come up is when Vic pulls out a whip to fight Malik with. He doesn’t say anything to verify that he gets the slavemaster connotations, but Malik does.
A more light-hearted part of the movie is the stretch where they hide out at a hotel occupied only by the owner’s teenage daughter Deliverance (Brittany Murphy, who had already been in CLUELESS). It’s kind of an ultimate Brittany Murphy role, spacy and giggly and adorable, flirting and making non-stop sex eyes at Malik, making him stammer.
And instead of going the “innocent person gets killed to show that fun time is over and these guys mean business” route they go the “she turns out to be good with a machine gun and enjoys it a little too much” one.
The bad news for her: the bad guys blow up her entire hotel. There are some good miniature models in this one. Given the cartoonish nature of how well she handles herself, and Malik’s similar lack of previous combat experience, it seems a little paternalistic when he won’t let her go with them to fight the bad guys at Apollo 14, the Pizza Planet of karaoke bars. But it is the correct responsible adult decision, so I can support it.
The action is the most important part. Like GUYVER: DARK HERO, the choreographer is Power Rangers veteran Koichi Sakamoto, and he brings his kinetic style and super hero poses into more of a Hong Kong action style. Martial arts mix with heightened gunplay. In an early fight, Toby leaps from a pool table to hang upside from a light fixture, spinning and firing. I wonder if that inspired the same move in PUNISHER: WAR ZONE?
There’s a big set piece with the two handcuffed together, chased around a construction site, climbing scaffolding, sliding down a zipline, etc. Great sequence, but my favorite is what’s gotta be one of the great small hotel room fights. They find so many cool things to do with that limited location. He leaps backwards onto the bed while firing, kicks a chair across the room, throws a lamp, lifts the mattress to block the door, bounces on the bed, steps off the wall. The curtains get ripped down, the phone gets shot.
When he gets into a bordering room with a kitchenette he throws pans at them. He’s getting swarmed by four guys with electrified clubs, so with a knife he slashes at a guy’s boots so he can pull them off, cover his hands with them and summon them, old school kung fu movie style.
Meanwhile Malik is in a garage sneaking around trying to hit guys over the head with a wrench. Sure, there’s that problem of the two characters with uneven fighting skills both having to get some action time. They make up for that by giving Malik one all-timer. He’s crawling behind some shelves and finds a chainsaw. You don’t necessarily expect him to use it as well as he does: he saws off a guys arm as he’s firing a machine gun and the arm flips through the air and shoots its owner.
Of course when Toby shows up he’s knocking over racks, throwing and kicking tires, slamming car doors, doing windmills on top of a car. Carts are sliding around being used as battering rams and shields, Jackie Chan fight team type stuff. (By the way, this might be the only American film that name drops Sammo Hung. (Dacascos later appeared with him on Martial Law.) But I bet even as he stays out of it Malik is pretty fuckin proud of that chainsaw move.
Shit gets even crazier for the climax. They’re gonna fight this super badass and then suddenly a bunch of dudes on motorcycles crash through the windows into the place and start zooming around in circles and shooting things with their machine guns and doing wheelies and shit. But the thing is, these guys are wearing professional dirtbiker type gear with logos and everything. I don’t know about you, but I intend to boycott Auto Sport, MSR, Scott, Axo and System 6 until they stop sponsoring riders who take side gigs as hired gunmen.
Important note: the trucker singing karaoke is R.A. Mihailoff, who played Leatherface in LEATHERFACE: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III. Also, screenwriter Scott Phillips later wrote and directed a movie called GIMME SKELTER that starred Gunnar Hansen.
Of course I love fights to be peppered with little details and grace notes. One of the ones I like here is when Toby takes some swipes at his “Advanced Model” opponent and steps away and then after a beat the guy’s sunglasses split apart. It’s like when two samurai pass each other and don’t realize at first that a hand or a head or something got sliced and is about to fall off.
The chemistry between Dacascos and Hardison is pretty good. I like the bit where Toby sees Malik’s ex (Sanaa Lathan, right before BLADE!) watching out the window as they leave, and he smiles. He knows she still loves him, but doesn’t say anything until later.
Hardison is obviously there to riff and wisecrack, which can be an issue in some movies. While I don’t find him hilarious like, say, Chris Tucker, he’s more amusing and likable than annoying and forced. To me, though, he’s the supporting player for the biggest laugh in the movie: I love the suppressed embarrassment on Toby’s face after Malik questions his choice of pre-detonating-explosion one-liner.
“‘Time to blow’!?”
It’s such a great vehicle for Dacascos, who gets to do four or five times as much action as the standard American action film of the time (or now). He’s got complex choreography, uses some spinning weapons, lots of acrobatic moves, and generous amount of cool poses. And these abilities contrast with a character who seems more soft and vulnerable than the standard action hero. He’s a total badass, but he’s not proud of it. It’s not important to him for everybody to know.
Notably, this is the only Wang movie without a bunch of monsters in it. The closest thing is a frog puppet on a TV show that various characters keep watching. But maybe without all that to take care of Wang was able to put more focus on the execution of the fights. He really knows how to present them and build to them with alot of cool dramatic shit-is-about-to-go-down zooms in to faces.
But like almost all of Wang’s movies, DRIVE got taken away from him, cut into a version he doesn’t like, and not given the intended theatrical release. The villains of this review are the producers, Overseas Filmgroup, which became First Look Studios, whose assets were eventually acquired by Millennium Entertainment. This time I watched a Code 2 import DVD of the director’s cut. The one available in the U.S. is 20 minutes shorter and re-scored with techno music. I can’t remember if the replacement music is terrible, but I do like the original score by Walter Werzowa (ERASER, TAKING LIVES).
I have no idea how a theatrically released DRIVE might’ve been received. Things had changed rapidly in the several years since Dacascos’s movies AMERICAN SAMURAI and ONLY THE STRONG played theaters. CRYING FREEMAN wasn’t even released on video in the U.S. Most people, if they knew him, probly knew him from the widely hated DOUBLE DRAGON. And 1997 was a year of big, expensive studio action with non-action stars: CON AIR, AIR FORCE ONE, SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL, G.I. JANE, METRO.
On the other hand, Seagal had FIRE DOWN BELOW, there were a few mid-level movies like MOST WANTED, and both MORTAL KOMBAT: ANNIHILATION and MEAN GUNS managed to play theaters. Maybe more relevant, it was a year when Hollywood’s fascination with Hong Kong cinema was strong. John Woo had his best Hollywood film, FACE/OFF, Michelle Yeoh was in TOMORROW NEVER DIES, Tsui Hark was somehow allowed to make DOUBLE TEAM, and the Sammo Hung directed Jackie Chan movie MR. NICE GUY was given a wide release by New Line Cinema. Maybe DRIVE’s vibe would’ve gone over well.
EXHIBIT: Two screen grabs to show this was made in the inspired-by-Hong-Kong-action era
Barring advances in time travel technology we’ll never know if in an alternate scenario where DRIVE is treated with respect it could be a hit and launch Dacascos and Wang into making more movies like it. That would’ve been great, though. Screenwriter Phillips said in an interview that he wrote a treatment for a sequel “with a super-squad of kung fu cyborgs chasing our heroes,” but he blames Overseas for screwing it up.
Before DRIVE, Wang was set to direct a sequel to FIST OF THE NORTH STAR that got delayed (and I guess cancelled) because of weather. After DRIVE, he and Phillips wrote an “action drama” for Steven Seagal called BLOOD ON THE MOON. As mentioned above, Seagal had just done FIRE DOWN BELOW, so he still had some life left in him. It would’ve been interesting to see how Wang would apply his energetic fight style to the big guy. Instead, Seagal started his journey into DTV with the virtually action-free THE PATRIOT.
Wang said “the project got shelved for reasons that were not made clear to me.” According to Seagal’s former producing partner Julius Nasso in a 2002 lawsuit (as reported by Variety), the reason was that Seagal “came under the influence of Mukara, a spiritual adviser associated with a clandestine and unorthodox Tibetan sect” who “convinced Seagal that he would not attain the level of a reincarnated lama, or Buddhist monk, unless he dissociated himself from Nasso, his movie production companies and his own children.” Seagal also walked away from three other pre-sold films: GENGHIS KHAN, SMASH AND GRAB and PRINCE OF CENTRAL PARK (a drama later made starring Nasso’s son and Harvey Keitel, and reviewed in the back of Seagalogy).
Nasso didn’t just settle for a lawsuit. He also had members of the Gambino crime family extort Seagal. Federal agents recorded numerous conversations about it, and Nasso did 10 months. I think he still denies it, and does a good job of keeping the whole episode scrubbed from his Wikipedia page.
Whatever happened, BLOOD ON THE MOON shows that Wang was on track to continue as a director of martial arts movies after DRIVE, so Seagal’s change of heart may be what truly stopped his momentum. Wang continued to do makeup work, complaining that low budget movies had become harder to get off the ground, and studios only wanted to hire music video directors. He worked for Cinovation Studios, Spectral Motion, Inc., Patrick Tatopoulos Designs, Cannom Creations, Captive Audience Productions and Amalgamated Dynamics. He channeled his gill-man expertise into the design of Abe Sapien for HELLBOY. He put his KUNG FU RASCALS experience to use as second unit director of KUNG POW: ENTER THE FIST.
Fittingly, his directorial career eventually led him back to the Japanese TV shows that inspired so much of his work. In 1999 he directed “The Rescue Mission,” an episode of Power Rangers Lost Galaxy that he describes as an ALIENS rip-off. It’s obviously a natural fit for his skills, but seemed politically unlikely, as he had previously backed out of directing MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS: THE MOVIE after 3 months of feeling he “was treated like garbage by people who knew nothing about Power Rangers or cared to” and that he “seemed to be the only one who wanted to make a good film.” Having seen the finished film I feel his story checks out, and I can imagine his version being much more fun.
In 2008, Wang and his brother Michael developed Kamen Rider: Dragon Knight for the CW Network. An update of the famous tokusatsu show about a bug-masked hero on a motorcycle, it lasted for 40 episodes and won a Daytime Emmy for outstanding stunt coordination. Dacascos appeared in ten episodes as “Eubulon,” creator of the Kamen Riders. Wang is credited as co-executive producer, he provided the story for six episodes, and directed sixteen.
Dacascos will be seen soon as a (the?) villain in JOHN WICK CHAPTER 3: PARABELLUM.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.