Drive plays out like it was filmed in the wrong decade. It is a love letter of sorts to a genre of yesteryear echoing earlier films of McQueen and Eastwood. Even the opening credits scrawl flashes by in 80s-esque hot pink that transport you back to a time that relied on practical effects, coherent plots with an emphasis on performance over disorienting cuts meant to muddle the action. Essentially, Drive is the anti-Michael Bay movie, a giant middle finger to the lazy and generic directorial style (McG and Shawn Levy, I’m looking at you) that routinely flood the multiplexes with the same triteness each weekend.
The film opens with a cool-as-ice Ryan Gosling (playing the nameless Driver) sitting in his idle 1973 Chevy Malibu alternating between an NBA game and a police scanner. Driver, we learn a bit later, is actually a mechanic/Hollywood stunt driver by day and moonlights as a getaway driver. The film opens midway through one such getaway job, as Driver escorts a couple of thieves to safety, eluding authorities, all while still switching between the NBA game and intercepting logistics from the police scanner. The brilliance on display isn’t the fact that Driver pushes it to past 100mph but rather that he bides his time, speeding when he has to and slowing down (even parking!) and slipping past when he can. Yes, Driver thinks ahead, rather than barrel down the highway with countless police cruisers in tow. He is outdriving not outrunning.
At first, I thought Driver to be a gambler, just like Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant, who also constantly listened to MLB game on the radio, looking for a quick buck to get out of debt. But that isn’t the case with Driver, culminating the end of the NBA game with the end of the chase in a beautifully orchestrated fashion.
Following the exciting opening chase scene, Drive goes in an almost entirely different direction. If anything the first ten minutes of Drive may actually do the rest of the film a disservice; the bar is simply set too high from that point. Instead what we get is a familiar but well executed mob-revenge story. Though there isn’t a weak link in the acting or casting, I couldn’t help but walk away slightly disappointed at the familiar beats of the story. It can best be summarized like this: Driver works for Shannon (a hobbling Bryan Cranston—who knew former dentist Tim Whatley was so versatile?), who works for ruthless gangster Bernie (Albert Brooks) who is partners with equally brutal Nino (Ron Perlman). Driver meets girl Irene (Carey Mulligan) and is smitten with her and her son, meanwhile Bernie and Nino get into some trouble with out of town players, and must eliminate any potential witnesses, which include Driver, Shannon and Irene.
That’s it in a nutshell, and I appreciated both its utter simplicity and Euro-style of filmmaking (reminiscent of the original Transporter). The film owes quite a bit to Danish-born Nicolas Winding-Refn, whose pitch-perfect Pusher trilogy put him on the map at a young age. In fact Drive is only his 9th directorial feature, closely following the recent somewhat overrated Bronson and the abstract Viking epic Valhalla Rising. In Drive, Winding-Refn again begins approaching the searing intensity of the Pusher films, but doesn’t quite achieve it. A point of contention for me was that though the film is called Drive, Driver doesn’t do a terrible lot of it after the opening, save for a quick chase in the middle.
We get to see Driver pull out all the violent stops in meting out justice with his hands (and feet in one nasty stomping scene), and while the action isn’t constant, it is bloody, brutal and unflinching when it is on display. No attempt here to water down to a pitiful PG-13 here. The great thing about Ryan Gosling regarding the way he plays Driver is that in most scenes he is quiet and composed, not very animated at all, but there’s a constant blur of thought in his eyes. We don’t know much about him (not even his name), and we certainly don’t know what he’s capable of until it’s happening. If the rumors about re-making Taxi Driver are true, Gosling is the only guy on the list to pull it off in my mind.
As for the other actors, Ron Pearlman doesn’t exactly break new ground with Nino (as he’s played many tough guys before), but plays him with an edge of humor and desperation that works. Even better here though is Albert Brooks, who is probably best known for his comedic portrayals of neurosis in virtually everything he’s appeared in before. But as Bernie, you can scarcely believe this guy once voiced Nemo’s dad; he attacks the screen with an almost Joe Pesci-like intensity in a fearsome performance that will be remembered.
While as an action fan, I can appreciate all the bloody knifings and shootings, one cardinal sin committed here is that there is not nearly enough actual driving, you know, like the promising opening and title would otherwise indicate. What we are left with is a somewhat familiar tale of revenge along with the familial crime elements of loyalty and betrayal that just barely misses perfection and will have to instead settle for mere greatness, a minor shame considering all the fantastic elements in play.
Final Grade: A-
TRR Movie Revue by Jacob Aquino