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DRIVE
(****)
Reviewer:  Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Director:  Nicholas Winding Refn
Writers:
Hossein Amini, based on the book by James Sallis
Starring:
Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks
Length:  100 minutes
Released:  091611
Rating:
R for strong brutal bloody violence, language and some nudity
"...a terrific piece of film making, one of the very best of the year." 

The action-thriller "Drive," came to town on an avalanche of hype that had been building since it debuted to enormous acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival last spring. It's a potent piece of pure pop cinema that is so stylish and startling in equal measures that most viewers will spend half their time watching it dreading the all-but-inevitable moment when it should stumble in a way that breaks the spell and the other half in a state of near-joy when they realize that it isn't going to step wrong after all.

Ryan Gosling stars as a mysterious young man who is referred to throughout only as Driver. By day, he works as a Hollywood stuntman who does astonishing and potentially dangerous things behind the wheel of a car for anyone who possesses the cash necessary to acquire his services and the intelligence to realize that he is the best at what he does. By night, he does more or less the same thing, only under somewhat shadier circumstances--he hires himself out as a freelance getaway driver for people who need to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible and with no questions asked. Driver is so confident of his abilities that he guarantees his clients that within a certain time frame, he will get them to where they need to go and essentially offers his own life as security for his promise. This may sound reckless and insane but as we see him during the getaway chase that opens the film, he is so at ease behind the wheel and able to anticipate every possible scenario that he hardly seems to break a sweat despite the risks that he seems to be taking. From his cool and efficient manner, we immediately intuit that he doesn't even do it for the money; he does it purely for the thrill of the game or, as a wise man once put it in another paean to a skilled motorist, to shut em up and shut em down.

Inevitably, Driver's carefully structured existence begins to fall apart and perhaps just as inevitably, it is due in part to the influence of a pretty woman. She is Irene (Carey Mulligan), a sweet young lass who lives in Driver's building with her young son. A friendship begins to develop and just as it seems to be heading towards a tentative romance, Irene drops the bomb that she is married and that her absent husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac) is retiring home after doing a stretch in prison. Driver is content to live and let live and concentrate on an auto racing concern that his sad sack friend, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), is attempting to put together with him behind the wheel and Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), a one-time film producer who has become a mid-level crime boss (a lateral move at best, some might argue), providing the financing, much to the consternation of thuggish right-fist man Nino (Ron Perlman). However, when thugs beat up Standard and threaten to do worse to his wife and kid unless he participates in the robbery of a local pawnshop, Driver agrees to take part as the wheelman with the assurances that Standard and his family will be left alone for good afterwards. Needless to say, things go gruesomely wrong and through a chain of circumstance best left for you to discover, Driver finds himself going up against Nino and Bernie, a man whose distaste for loose ends lead to some shocking behavior, in a final effort to protect Irene even after she discovers Driver's involvement in what happened to her husband.

Working from a novel from author James Sallis, director Nicolas Winding Refn, the Dutch director of such art-house favorites as "Bronson" and "Valhalla Rising" making his Hollywood debut, has made a film that will strike moviegoers with longer memories as an homage to a certain strain of American action movies from the late Seventies-early Eighties that attempted to bring a certain level of style and artistry to the genre while still providing the requisite thrills and excitement. In particular, Refn is clearly taking cues from the works of Walter Hill, whose films (including the 1978 classic "The Driver," which was also about an enigmatic getaway driver) told spare stories in which such familiar elements as back stories and motivation were divulged, if at all, entirely through the actions of the characters and not through long expository speeches, and Michael Mann, who practically reinvented the genre by applying a quasi-European sheen (which becomes the subject of one of the funniest bits of dialogue in "Drive") to the proceedings in which the visuals were as important in moving the narrative along as the screenplay.

Over the course of his previous films, Refn has demonstrated himself to be a gifted director but with "Drive," he takes his game up to a whole new level. As a storyteller, he handles the narrative with a deft hand that keeps the narrative humming along at a rapid clip without ever bogging down into the cliches that one might expect from a story of this type. (Obviously, credit is also due in this respect to screenwriter Hossein Amini as well.) As a visual storyteller, he is also aces in the way that he and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, editor Matthew Newman and composer Cliff Martinez have come together to pull off the seemingly impossible task of making a car-heavy action film set in Los Angeles look and feel fresh and exciting, the kind of thing that you sometimes get from a filmmaker working in a foreign country for the first time and seeing everything through new eyes. And in terms of depicting on-screen action and violence, Refn does things here that will shock and stun even the more jaded moviegoers. The driving scenes shake off the torpor that lingers over too many car chases of the past and provide viewers with white-knuckle thrills without stumbling into "Smokey and the Bandit"-style excess--these are the kind of chases that you can imagine witnessing in real life. As for the violence, the film is not wall-to-wall brutality but when Refn does deploy it, he does so in ways that are genuinely startling and intriguing to watch. What is especially fascinating is how the bloodshed seems to recede as the film goes on--while early deaths literally paint the walls red at one point, they become more stylized and elliptical instead up upping the gore to cartoonish levels and create tableaus that are far more interesting and haunting than the mayhem that we have come to expect in such films.

The other aspect of "Drive" that allows it to stand head and shoulders above most contemporary action films (or most films in general) is the high quality of the performances. Gosling conveys more about what drives Driver with a simple soulful look than he could have with any number of speeches. Similarly, Carey Mulligan takes what is usually the least-interesting role in this type of film--the girlfriend that is the only female presence of note in an otherwise male-dominated narrative--and brings it to full and vibrant life as well with her low-key and touching turn. There are plenty of juicy supporting bits from the likes of Cranston and Perlman but the film is completely stolen with the stunning and unexpectedly convincing performance from Albert Brooks as the crime boss who winds up at odds with Driver. At first, the character comes across like a bit of a goof--imagine a gone-to-seed version of the megalomaniacal movie producer he played in "I'll Do Anything"--and Brooks takes to these scenes like a duck to water and scores a lot of big laughs. However, when his business is threatened, his character will do anything to survive and Brooks taps into that darkness with an almost frightening degree of believability--the scene in which he dispatches an incompetent underling while in a Chinese restaurant is so brutally efficient that it single-handedly ups the stakes involved. Arguably America's best comedic filmmaker (and an expert Tweeter to boot), he demonstrates a darker and more serious side that may well supercharge his career.

"Drive" is a terrific piece of film making, one of the very best of the year. If you are a fan of action films, "Drive" is going to seem like a dream come true that will remind you of why you fell in love with the genre in the first place. If you aren't a particular fan of the genre per se but admire the sight of a gifted filmmaker working at the top of his game regardless of what kind of film it might be, you may wind up liking "Drive" even more.
 

DRIVE 2011 Universal Studios
All Rights Reserved

Review 2011 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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