An action film with authenticity

Drive brings thought into the car


Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn

Starring Ryan Gosling Carey Mulligan and Albert Brooks

Most action films offer plenty of that and little of anything else. Stuff blows up and people get shot but plot acting and style are generally afterthoughts if they’re even considered at all.

Stacked up against the best of all recent films Drive isn’t exceptional. But it’s fairer to compare it to its action counterparts and here it stands out. While not exactly deep Drive illustrates that a film featuring strong performances genuine suspense and gritty but rarely gratuitous violence can still supply the usual thrills and spills — a feat that’s all too rare.

Ryan Gosling — who’s credited simply as “Driver” — is Drive ’s biggest asset. Although he has numerous solid scenes his first is perhaps his best. Manning a getaway car on the streets of Los Angeles Gosling says nothing while he tries to shake the police off his tail but his face speaks volumes. It switches rapidly between hints of anxiety smugness and determination making it hard to tell exactly what he’s feeling but impossible to look anywhere else. The result is a rare car chase where the driver’s just as compelling as the um drive.

The film’s plot while not radically original doesn’t feel hackneyed either. Driver who’s a stunt driver and mechanic when not serving as a wheelman falls for Irene (Carey Mulligan) a pretty blond who lives with son Benicio (Kaden Leos) opposite his apartment. Although the feeling’s clearly mutual Irene’s improbably named husband Standard’s release from jail complicates matters. Standard (Oscar Isaac) senses Driver’s designs on his wife and subtly suggests he back off. But when Driver finds him bloody and bruised one day he confesses some thugs are extorting him and have threatened his wife and son if he doesn’t pay up.

It’s no surprise when Driver subsequently agrees to help Standard rob a pawnshop nor when the heist doesn’t quite go according to plan. But while it’s obvious there will be blood in most of the scenes where it’s shed none of them unfold predictably creating a palpable sense of dread. With a few exceptions the violence also feels authentic and is featured judiciously enough it’s sometimes truly shocking.

Even more impressive however is the film’s superb cast. Gosling’s “hitman with a heart of a gold” is a bit of a cliché but his riveting portrayal of both charming tenderness and savage brutality is thus all the more impressive. Were it not for Gosling though Albert Brooks would steal his every scene as Bernie Rose a gangster who becomes Driver’s foe in a vicious conflict following the robbery. There’s a certain campiness to Brooks’s performance — which features a jolly roar reminiscent of his turn as Simpsons supervillain Hank Scorpio — but the evil his outward joviality masks is genuinely chilling. And in smaller roles Isaac showcases Bryan Cranston as a down-on-his-luck auto shop owner and Christina Hendricks plays a doomed moll all resonate.

Drive doesn’t completely avoid its genre’s pitfalls. Mulligan while competent has fairly little to do something sadly common for female love interests. The dialogue has more than a few clunkers with lines meant to sound menacing — “I’ll knock your teeth down your throat” — often seeming silly instead. And the frequent shots of Driver’s scorpion jacket make for rather heavy-handed symbolism.

The strengths here though far outweigh the shortcomings. But what’s really exciting isn’t just the film itself but its potential to appeal to both high- and low-brow audiences. If Drive succeeds critically and commercially and it certainly deserves to do both it could portend more action films that show evidence of thought as well.