Drive Review

In the great tradition of action/crime movies, Drive starts off with a single, successful job. Ryan Gosling's unnamed driver waits outside a heist in a souped-up but nondescript Chevy Impala, radio tuned to a Clippers game, watch fastened to the wheel ticking away the seconds. A police scanner tells him where the cops are. The alarm sounds, the criminals pile into the backseat, and then it's his turn. When he hits the gas it's only him and his knowledge of the hundred thousands streets of Los Angeles keeping him and his passengers from death or prison. Unlike every other crime movie though, there isn't a lot of squealing tires and hairpin turns and frantic weaving in and out of traffic. The nameless driver of Drive is always calm and collected. He relies on quietly blending in and out-thinking the cops more than out-running them. The first twenty minutes of this movie are genius, a whole new style of low-key, intelligent, atmospheric action.

So what happened with the rest of the movie? Drive takes the great promise of its opening scene, forces it to the ground, and stomps its face into a bloody pulp. By the final third the movie has become baffling and boring and (most unforgivably) barely has any driving in it at all.

Gosling is an unnamed stunt driver who moonlights as a wheelman for hire with his boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad), who has it in with some Jewish gangsters, Bernie (Albert Brooks, hilarious) and Nino (Ron Perlman, even more hilarious). But that isn't much of a problem. The problem is his new neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan, woefully miscast), a young mother with an adorable toddler and a husband soon to be out of prison. Gosling and Mulligan, being two of the hottest stars out there, can't help but stare longingly and silently at each other for minutes on end, and eventually Gosling decides to do a job to help get her husband out of trouble. Predictably it all goes to hell.

It's a classic action/crime movie plot, and if director Nicolas Winding Refn had been content to making a simple genre movie it would have been another fine if derivative crime film. The main influence here is Michael Mann, in particular the seminal James Caan heist movie Thief, with its long swaths of quiet, atmospheric professionalism. But over that is a distinct patina of David Lynch, which the distinctly Badalamenti-esque score hammers home. Like in a Lynch movie, things can turn dark in a milisecond, and Gosling's boyish smile is also the mask of a brutal killer.

Refn is known for surreal, almost deconstructionist takes on male aggression in films like Bronson and Valhalla Rising. It's clear he isn't interested at all in driving, or the love story, or even the eventual fate of his main character. He pares down everything: only two real car chase sequences, minimal dialogue between the romantic leads, a main character with no qualities. On paper it seems like it could work beautifully. And yet, nothing really gels in this movie. All the parts seem just that: parts, not a cohesive whole. Gosling seems to be trying to channel Clint Eastwood's strong silent hero, but his Ken-doll features and squeaky voice make him sound much more like a shy man-child with homicidal tendencies. You might feel sorry for him, but you certainly don't identify with him or cheer for him.

I think much of the problem is the believability of this main character. We know from very early on that Gosling is an excellent driver, and we believe in his abilities as a driver. But then he starts easily taking down much larger men armed with shotguns, using only his hands and (most grotesquely) his boot. Then, later on he can barely protect himself from a tubby middle-aged man with a knife. If this is a driving movie then how is he a brawler? And if it's a brawling movie then how is he so bad at knives? And if it's a realistic, Lynchean psychological thriller, like the last third would have us believe, then why did it start off as an action movie?

Is Gosling a driver, a fighter, a lover, a killer? The genre he's in fluctuates uncomfortably, leaving him without any center to hold onto. And so he, and the movie, is ultimately disappointing.

Many people have called Drive a triumph of style over substance, but one of the hallmarks of good style is consistency, which this movie sorely lacks. But what is good about Drive is very, very good, which makes what is so bad about it all the more aggravating. But hopefully the success of this movie will allow Refn free rein to do the sort of movies he really wants to make.

Or maybe they will rope him into making Drive 2: Electric Boogaloo.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

There are a number of short, five minute featurettes, including a look "Under the Hood" at the cast, a "Cut to the Chase" look at the stunt work, and "I Drive" which focuses more on the writing and directing. The biggest featurette is "Drive without a Driver" a talk with Nocolas Winding Refn (who is very, very Danish) on what he was trying to accomplish in Drive. There's also an UltraViolet digital copy of the film.

"Drive" is on sale January 31, 2012 and is rated . Action, Crime, Thriller. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Written by Hossein Amíni, James Sallis. Starring Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, Carey Mulligan, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman, Ryan Gosling.

David M. DeLeon • Staff Writer

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