(USA, 2011, 100 minutes)
Written by: Hossein Amini, based on the novel by James Sallis
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman, Christina Hendricks
The influence of Michael Mann’s now-iconic Reagan-era thrillers "Thief" and "Manhunter" are evident from the fuel-injected get-go in Nicolas Winding Frefn's pulse-pounding ode "Drive", from the day-glo title font and throbbing synth soundtrack to the main character's MTV-issue scorpion jacket. But it’s much more than a fanboy's nostalgic clone—(it equally acknowledges Walter Hill's 1977 classic "The Driver" in title and theme--a nameless getaway driver burning rubber through a curiously underpopulated Los Angeles--as well as the existential French thrillers of Jean-Pierre Melville that were as much about redemption as they were about gunplay)--"Drive" has a distinctive look and vibe of its own, and hopefully will become a standard by which all subsequent crime melodramas are measured.
The Driver (Gosling) is officially employed as a Hollywood stunt driver but when we first meet him, he's engaged in his "other" trade: a getaway driver for hire. His terms of employment are simple: he works anonymously, never for the same client twice, and allows them only five minutes to carry out their (illegal) business. He confidently, expertly evades the police during a dizzying night time pursuit through the streets of Los Angeles, dropping off his thieving temp employers and their loot before vanishing into the exiting crowd at the Staples Centre.
The Driver home base is the auto repair shop run by Shannon (Cranston), who also sets up his young partner with wheelman jobs. Shannon longs to go legit, though, and use the youngster's talent to conquer the racing circuit. Borrowing $300,000 from mobster Bernie Rose (Brooks), he buys a stock car. Bernie is impressed with the Driver's skills and agrees to further back the venture, with only one wrinkle: Bernie's partner is the surly Nino (Perlman), who once ordered Shannon's pelvis broken when he found out he was overcharged.
The Driver lives in a run-down tenement and becomes friends with neighbour Irene (Mulligan), and her son Benicio. Irene's husband Standard (Isaac) is released from prison but he still owes "protection money" to a ruthless gangster. To settle his outstanding account, Standard agrees to rob a pawn shop. The Driver agrees to help Standard if it means Irene and Benicio will be free of any threats, but the heist goes horribly wrong, with Standard shot dead. The Driver learns from Cook's moll Blanche (Hendricks) that the plan was to double cross Standard and take the money, before assassins attack and she, too, is killed.
The Driver confronts Cook at his strip club and finds out that Nino and Bernie were behind the heist, and that the money lifted from the pawn shop is in fact that of the East Coast mafia. Bernie kills Cook and Standard, and orders Nino to take care of The Driver...
My introduction to the considerable skills of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn was his notorious "Bronson" (I've yet to catch up his "Pusher" trilogy or acclaimed Viking adventure "Valhalla Rising"), the searing, hyper-stylized faux-biopic of one of the U.K.'s most colourful criminals. Originally announced as a vehicle for Hugh Jackman and director Neil Marshall, Sallis' lean/mean novella found its worthy visionary when star Gosling had the good taste to offer it to Frefn himself.
I thought Gosling might be too mild-mannered to play a character who is basically an unhinged, anti-social misfit, but his easy-going demeanor and boyish smile work nicely to make his fits of ferocious, merciless violence all the more shocking.
Albert Brooks is a revelation as Bernie, transforming his usual persona of a defeated, world-weary schlub into an equally-weary sociopath. His key scene with Cranston is one of the year's most powerful screen moments--portraying Bernie as a ruthless killer, but not one without regret and some fatigue with the path he has chosen.
Carey Mulligan, whose character was Latino in the book, works well against type as the diminutive, exhausted Irene. The always-reliable Perlman exudes his usual slow-burn menace as foul-mouthed Nino. And Cranston, who is proving himself to be one of current cinema's most versatile character actors, embodies Shannon's broken spirit with a grand loping gait that never plays as excessively theatrical, actor-ly indulgence.
While not particularly action-heavy for a crime yarn, "Drive"s violence is an extreme counterpoint to the main character's serene countenance and the calming, ambient soundtrack–the aforementioned elevator assault, and the gruesome fate of Christina Hendricks (in little more than an extended cameo as a second gun during the pawn shop heist).
And despite the title, there's not a lot of driving, either, but the handful of sequences that do showcase the character doing his thing are spectacularly staged and shot (by DOP Newton Thomas Sigel) and edited (by Mat Newman ) and will leave even the most cynical action devotee breathless--they've got that strap-you-to-the-car-hood/analog vibe that fueled "Bullitt", "The French Connection", and the original "Mad Max".
"Drive" speeds into first-run release a mere week after its TIFF premiere--don't miss it, as it's sure to polarize critics and viewers and demands big-screen viewing...
©2011 Robert J. Lewis