The villain in “Drive” admits he used to produce movies — sexy ’80s action pics, to be exact. “One critic called them ‘European,'” the sleazeball brags. Now he’s starring in one: a sleek, retro-styled B-movie that benefits immensely from the aloof, virtually nihilistic edge Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (“Bronson”) brings to the party. Starring Ryan Gosling as a Hollywood stuntman/getaway driver, “Drive” takes the tired heist-gone-bad genre out for a spin, delivering fresh guilty-pleasure thrills in the process. Serious-actor cast, plus pic’s selection in competition at Cannes, should lend prestige to the Sept. 16 domestic release.
After serving up a pair of intense, emotionally draining perfs in “Blue Valentine” and “All Good Things,” Gosling swings to the other extreme with “Drive,” channeling Alain Delon’s cipher-like hitman from “Le Samourai” — a cool-as-ice model that conveniently allows screenwriters to forgo the requisite backstory when creating compassionate-criminal types. The key to such one-dimensional characters is that they live by a rigorous code of conduct, and Gosling’s unnamed Driver is no exception.
By sticking to his own set of rules, Driver excels at his job, which amounts to evading cops by night, only to play one the following day on set. Gosling is chillingly stoic in either context, hardly breaking a sweat in the film’s buckle-up beginning scene. In fact, thesp betrays no emotion until the third time his character encounters pretty next-door neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son, Benicio (Kaden Leos). Only then does Driver crack a smile, offering the pair a high-speed tour along the Los Angeles River’s cement culverts.
Romantic as their outing proves, Irene isn’t exactly single. Benicio’s dad, Standard (Oscar Isaac), comes home from jail a week later, enlisting Driver in a ploy that involves stealing a million dollars for mostly honorable reasons. Things go bad, blood and brains are splattered about with sickening glee, and Driver finds his chivalrous intentions put to the test as those behind the botched heist threaten to harm Irene and Benicio, whose protection evidently matters enough to Driver that he’s willing to risk his life.
Adapted by Hossein Amini (best known for “The Wings of the Dove” and other highbrow literary fare) from James Sallis’ Los Angeles-set novel, “Drive” doesn’t quite know how to handle the character vacuum at its core, but compensates by surrounding its protag with a colorful supporting ensemble. There’s Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”) as the surrogate father who supplies Driver his wheels; Ron Perlman as a ruthless big shot running schemes from his strip-mall pizza joint; and Albert Brooks, cast deliciously against type, as the aforementioned producer-turned-crime-boss. On the female front, vampy “Mad Men” redhead Christina Hendricks makes an all-too-brief appearance, while Mulligan, though undeniably sweet, seems too wholesome for what would typically be the pic’s femme-fatale role.
Like Quentin Tarantino, Refn is an exploitation-movie junkie, so his cinematic references mirror ’70s and ’80s cult faves like “To Live and Die in L.A.” more than the spare, unforgiving noir novels and films Sallis had in mind. Such questionable influences can be felt from the neon-bright opening credits to Refn’s retro music choices — a mix of tension-ratcheting synthesizer tones and catchy club anthems — that collectively give the film its consistent tone.
Whereas most muscle-car action pics are visually and narratively flat, however, “Drive” displays stunning style. With its spare storytelling economy, this is the sort of film that would launch a career, if only it were Refn’s debut, rather than his eighth feature. Still, it does mark Refn’s first for-hire Hollywood production, giving him the chance to work with the likes of Steven Soderbergh’s go-to composer, Cliff Martinez, and Bryan Singer’s trusted d.p., Newton Thomas Sigel, whose high-contrast widescreen framing puts a harsh new edge on east L.A. locations.
Among a host of impressive setpieces, the most remarkable is a white-knuckle car chase that once again reminds how scarce fancy driving has gotten onscreen, deservedly earning a round of enthusiastic applause from the Cannes crowd. (Though dozens of drivers are credited, Gosling did a number of his own stunts.)
Still, it’s surprising that a film called “Drive” doesn’t feature more driving. Amini’s script barely explores Driver’s status as a stuntman, offering only a thin connection between his high-stakes day job and equally dangerous private life (in the form of a prosthetic mask he dons in the film’s brutal score-settling finale). What the character lacks in psychology, he compensates for through action and iconic costuming. Come Halloween, don’t be surprised to see fans dressed as Driver, wearing a white satin racing jacket with a giant gold scorpion on the back. “Drive” is fetishistic like that, reveling in such details as the growl of a GTO engine or the creak of Gosling’s gloves, and should go a long way to boost the profiles of both its director and star.