Drive (Winding Refn, 2011)

Drive is a B-movie, and a nasty one at that. I think it’s important to make that clear from the start, as many reviews I’ve been reading seem to emphasize the film’s sense of cool, and while it has style in abundance, it also has a surplus of really graphic violence, and while I was expecting a tense crime thriller when entering the cinema, I didn’t expect a scene that echoed the fire-extinguisher moment from Irreversible. Personally, I think it works great, but it jars with the image the film’s marketing has cultivated of laid-back cool and turns the film – for the better, I think – into a very different beast.

In fact, the violence appears as breath of queasy air just as Drive threatens to disappear into generic 80s pastiche. Our protagonist is a driver – he works in a garage, drives stunts for movies, and he’ll be your getaway driver if you have the cash and can get in and out in five minutes. He’s played with aplomb by Ryan Gosling as an enigmatic, quiet type with a lot going on under surface until Carey Mulligan’s lonely waitress – with a kid at home and a boyfriend in prison – brings him out of his shell. It’s when said boyfriend (Oscar Isaac) comes out of prison and enlists the driver’s help to take care of some unfinished gangland business before he can come good that things go awry, and Gosling is forced to protect Mulligan and her kid with increasing force.

So far, so generic, right? Sure, but every member of the cast and crew do their best to tell this story as well as they possibly can, none moreso than director Nicolas Winding Refn. I haven’t seen many of his previous films, only Valhalla Rising (which I thought would have made a great metal music video but was basically balls as a film), but he turns it out here, knowing exactly how to shoot each moment for maximum tension and style. The whole thing is just so damn cool it’s hard to not spend hundreds of words just listing the awesome moments, but I’ll limit it to just two: the opening, tense game of cat and mouse the driver plays with a cop car on the streets of LA, and one final, spoileriffic shot of a beach towards the end. These scenes are a couple of the best looking things that’ll be committed to celluloid this year. In addition to the stellar direction, the cast has absolutely no weak link in it. Everyone – Gosling, Mulligan, Isaac, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Albert Brooks, Ron Pearlman – delivers their role with the perfect blend of realism and B-movie hyperrealism.

Sadly, though, all it’s fantastic parts don’t add up to much of a whole. It’s not that it’s not a great film, it’s just that underneath it’s shimmering surface, there’s not a whole lot there. Winding Refn is clearly indebted to Michael Mann, Walter Hill, and other similar directors of the 80s, but he doesn’t have Hill or Mann’s talent for instilling their action films with incisive commentary. What we’re left with is a movie that’s as thrilling and cool as an 80s exploitation flick, but not much more. It even abandons in it’s second half the emotional core that it spends the first forty minutes building up, meaning it’s hard to even care about the characters that much. Instead, you just ride the film from moment to moment.

Which is absolutely fine. The moment is where Drive thrives, and it’s one of the better films of the year purely because it does what it wants to do so well. I only wish it wanted to do more. Ryan Gosling and Nicolas Winding Refn’s next collaboration is a remake of the sci-fi classic Logan’s Run, which sounds perfect, because if they can marry their abundant style with the content of the 70s original, then they’ll be onto a winner. Until then, we’ll have to make do with this appealing, exciting, tense, violent, eye candy.


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